Suzanne's Perfume Journal

About ten years ago, when my nieces were young girls (relatively the same age I was when I fell in love with this book), I bought a copy of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I thought that they too might fall for this rather sophisticated children’s novel that has become an American classic since it was first published in 1967, because what’s not to love? An 11-year-old girl decides she wants to run away from home—in part to teach her parents a lesson, in part because there is some monotony in being a good girl and straight-A student (anyone who has ever been compliant and always done exactly what is expected can understand that). Because she is a girl who craves comfort and beauty, she chooses to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—and because she needs both money and a companion in this adventure, she chooses her allowance-saving, card-sharking, 9-year-old brother to go with her. So Claudia and James Kincaid run off from Connecticut and hide out in the Met for several days, the details of which are fascinating enough, but it’s the unexpected mystery they encounter once there that captures both their hearts and the reader’s. A new statue has just been purchased by the museum—a small marble statue of an angel that quite possibly might be the work of Michelangelo—and when Claudia falls in love with that statue, she and Jamie focus all their attention on solving its secret. Their quest will eventually lead them to the mixed-up files of a wily old woman, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who once owned the statue and who sold it at auction for an oddly small sum, all of which deepens the mystery.

Surprisingly, my nieces never took to this book, while my own affection for it has grown over the years, so perhaps it’s good it stayed on my shelf. When I read it as a girl, I was in love with all things Michelangelo, and even though I knew this novel was fictional (no such statue was ever purchased by the Met), it felt so real to me; I was every bit as smitten with Angel as Claudia was. Only after re-reading it as an adult did I come to love the novel for something else: the insightfulness of its author in writing a book for young people that, at its heart, establishes that there is value and even the opportunity for deep reward in running away from what you know and running to something else—taking a number of risks along the way. Smart risks, calculated risks (the Kincaid children are careful planners) but risks all the same. Of course, I could be wrong in magnifying this aspect of the book, since the author concludes her story with the observation that what Claudia craves is not so much an adventure as a secret—because secrets are “safer” than adventures for comfort-loving people like Claudia: a statement I would quibble with if I didn’t believe it was written out of a sense of responsibility for the safety of impressionable readers. Because Konigsburg writes so beautifully of the importance of secrets in general, I still consider this one of the most impressively “adult” novels ever written for children.

I’ve been thinking about this book because I’ve been wearing the incense perfume Calling All Angels, by April Aromatics (a line of organic perfumes from Berlin-based perfumer Tanja Bochnig). I’m not sure if a more saturated incense perfume has ever been made; it has a density that reminds me of oatmeal cookies, and a smell that makes me think, not of churches, but of how I imagine certain artifacts would smell in the Egyptian wing of the Met, if one was allowed to get up close and personal with them. Myrrh, incense and tobacco, sandwiched between the folds of a honeycomb, is how this perfume smells when it first hits my skin and for a long time thereafter—and though this next statement probably sounds more weird than attractive, I’m going to throw it out anyway: When I smell Calling All Angels, I think about the food, wine, oils and perfumes that were placed in the sarcophagi of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. It smells like what I’d like to imagine provisions for the afterlife would smell like: rich and sustaining, with a dramatic darkness that is both reminder and symbol of life’s melodramas … a promise of the entertainments that await the pharaoh on “the other side.”

Balsamic, resinous, smoky, winey and sweet in the way that an English plum pudding is sweet, Calling All Angels is not for the faint of heart. It’s the kind of scent you’d suspect would be attractive to people who already have the life-force flowing in them strongly … the kind of people you think of as being either adventurous or curious enough to go out on a limb to claim the kind of life they want for themselves. Considering that most days I am neither of those things (much as I would like to say I aspire to them), you would think this scent would scare the pants off of me or that I’d feel unqualified to wear it, and yet it very much appeals to me. This is not a perfume I could wear everyday—it’s that bracing—but I think that’s the whole point of it. It’s a perfume created with the intent of opening up its wearer to feeling a sense of supernatural support.

As it dries down, there is a period in which the scent has spicy nuances of clove (I should note that some of the things I smell in this perfume aren’t accounted for in its list of notes—they are what my nose smells, not what the perfume is comprised of). After some hours of wear, the myrrh and frankincense fade away and what is left behind in the final mellow stage of this perfume is a scent that smells like a combination of light amber and a tobacco-like vanilla, lightly resinous and weathered smelling. It, too, can be enjoyed for a humming long period of time and is quite rewarding.

I would like to think that if there was a grown-up Claudia Kincaid flitting about in the world, she would be wearing a scent like this, even though the fictional Claudia preferred clean and sweet-smelling things. The museum wasn’t the elegant hide-out she had hoped for; the museum bed she dreamed of sleeping in was musty and uncomfortable. Yet she was determined to have an adventure, and when she did, a mysterious angel appeared that suddenly made these and all other discomforts seem unimportant. It has been fun to wear this perfume and think about her again … to be reminded of how true her story seemed to me once upon a time, and how much I would like to believe in it today.


Wearing April Aromatics Calling All Angels  . . .
and Recalling One I Met in a Book

April Aromatics Calling All Angels eau de parfum is composed of incense, labdanum, tonka bean, vanilla accord, benzoin, elemi accord, precious woods accord, oppoponax, and rose otto. Calling All Angels was a winner in the Artisan category at the 2013 Art and Olfaction Awards. It can be purchased from LuckyScent.com, where a 30-ml bottle is $190. One of the most beautiful reviews I’ve ever read is my blogging friend Jasia’s review of this scent at Ca Fleure Bon. My own review is based on a sample provided to me by the perfumer.

Photo of Michelangelo's angel from the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, Italy, is from www.bluffton.edu.


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January 7, 2013: