Perfumes, Jitterbugs, and Jitterbug Perfume Perfumes
by, 9th July 2010 at 11:22 PM (17921 Views)
What goes with great literature? Fishing lures and a lazy afternoon? Perfume? How about a perfume that fits the story like a dandy's scented glove...?
Standing alone in front of the wrong class, our little team-teaching experiment now seemed like a huge mistake. With the AP English and chemistry classes being essentially the same roster of brilliant little minds, we had decided to tackle Tom Robbins' wonderful novel, Jitterbug Perfume, from the twin perspectives of the arts and the sciences. My literary cohort would handle the literature, and I would handle the perfumery. I had thought that aromchemicals might offer a new way to spice up organic chemistry - thereby avoiding the chem-porn structures of psychoactive drugs.
There was only one problem. Influenza. My prior exposure to the strain du jour was forcing me to pick up both ends of our agreement. Faced with a roomful of overly literate teenagers who already possessed vastly more raw ability and book-time than I could gain in the remainder of my life, I was clearly out of my league.
My sneaky solution - let the class teach itself. The real teacher assured me that this would work. All I had to do was keep the discussion from descending into vampires and werewolves. Easy.
I decided to ignite discussion by tapping into the students' somewhat competitive natures. The only student who would not fall for this ploy was, presumably, the sleeping girl in the back of the class.
"Can somebody describe this novel in one…"
"Jitterbug Perfume is a brilliant faux epic touching on religion, human mortality, and East-meets-West issues, as well as a lamentation on the loss of classic cultural dimensions in Western civilization – being a heck of a lot more fun to read than Nietzsche, I might add – along with a few good English-major-type fucks - all wrapped up in, like, these amazing similes and metaphors, awesome prose, delicious run-ons, hilarious phrasings, and iconic characters – and also set in a fascinating and accurate but deviously thin story which pierces right into the heart of the perfume industry as well as the history of perfumery – all in all, a piece of Southern lit that beats the hell out of Faulkner in my opinion, but maybe that's just because I, like, lived in 'Nawlins."
I will swear by the god Pan, who figures prominently in the novel, that the girl who said this never took her eyes off the copy of Marie Claire she was reading so intently. Nor did she pull her hand from her purse, in which she was texting rather furiously.
As I stood there in disbelief, a boy who was looking at her rather scandalously grinned.
"We're not supposed to say 'fuck'."
"Well fuck that."
Throwing myself the lifesaver of chemistry - I changed the topic to the formula of a perfume which was central to the plot of the novel. A scent which we had, more or less, duplicated in the lab, both naturally and synthetically. I got a couple more students to speak up, if a bit too eagerly.
"OK - let's talk about the heroine, Kudra. Can somebody tell me the name of the formula of..."
"Very good. That's Kudra's scent. Can somebody…"
"Citron top note. Jasmine heart. And a mystery basenote which is…"
The girl in the back of the class, who appeared to be the source of the exclamation, made no effort to sit up straight, but did raise her head from her pillow of folded arms, as she continued.
"K23 is NOT Kudra's scent. It's only the BULLSHIT Western scent that Kudra and Alobar made for other reasons. It represents their love - and some other things. It's beautiful, but it is NOT Kudra's scent. Kudra made her OWN scent. She used NATIVE materials from her travels throughout India. Travels which broadened HER mind. Which brought out HER own nose and HER own skills. Alobar couldn't even HANDLE it."
I gulped. She was quite right. There are three scents which figure prominently in the story. One is K23. The other is the natural, musky odor of Pan himself. The third, and perhaps most mysterious and significant, is the self-made scent of Kudra. And it was quite true - Alobar, the intelligent, vagabond, barbarian king, schooled by Buddhist monks, who bedded two or three wives every night in his regal youth, actually went weak in the….
Well, let's just say that he couldn't handle Kudra's scent, and had to ask her to wash it off. It took years - centuries, actually - for him to journey from a lover of barbaric crotch-skank to appreciating the full extent of more civilized perfumery.
I would have loved to have recreated Kudra's exotic scent in the lab, but there is little or nothing in the story in the way of a formula. There is only a single, precious, olfactory description, at the end, which embodies one of the juiciest secrets of the novel. But how might that description be interpreted? Just another of the delicious mysteries of the novel.
The Queen of Text, sensing the opportunity for Goth blood, responded.
"So. What's the formula?"
After a bit of silence, the girl in the back unfolded her arms, sat up, stretched, and leaned back in her chair. Her smile was keeping the class ready for a juicy comeback. She held one wrist forward and pointed it toward the class.
The Queen of Text, sensing a trap, lit up a strawman and backed away.
"You mean you MADE Kudra's scent? Yeah, right."
"Anya made it."
The Queen of Text rolled her eyes at the admiring boy, but restrained herself from silently mocking the words "Anya made it." She would wait for a better opening.
Several girls got out of their chairs to smell the Goth girl's wrist.
"Wow! It really is her scent!"
"It's India! Totally!"
"It's called Kewdra - K-E-W-D-R-A. It contains the Kewda flower."
The boy in front of her looked around and felt that his moment had arrived. Separated by multiple athletic, academic, and social castes from the girl sitting behind him, he could only fantasize secretly about a different world. He sensed an odd chance to change this one - by grabbing her hand now, and sniffing her wrist.
"Let me see…"
She was already reapplying the perfume to her other wrist. His scheme now encompassed holding her hand long enough to get to the heartnotes.
"Hmmm. Wow! It's like some exotic wood. REALLY GOOD. Yeah. India. Definitely."
Text-Girl grinned with devious satisfaction at the multiple levels of her attack.
"No. Not curry. Something else…."
Somebody suggested sandalwood, but he shook his head as he kept sniffing. S-L-O-W-L-Y….
"Now it's flowers. But spicy. It's like flowers floating above wood. God, this is good. It makes me hungry for something." Text-Girl bit her tongue. WAY too easy.
Somebody asked if it was "gourmand". Foody, in perfume-talk they had just learned.
"Kind of like food, but lighter. That's it! That's why it's so novel. It's lighter."
The girl who spoke looked right at the boy sniffing her wrist. He grinned back, verifying that they shared the secret password of the book.
He kept his eyes locked with hers for all he was worth.
There was a strange electric sensation that everybody felt as they watched the pair. Time seemed to pause on the very meaning of the mysterious word. A word which embodies the essence of the novel, if not the joie de vivre of perfume itself. For a moment, the story, the pair, and the scent were one.
Text-Girl decided to go with the flow. The best way to come out a winner was to come out on the winning side. Maybe she could even be first in line. She pointed to Formerly Sleeping Beauty's other wrist.
"How about the drydown? Other wrist." She glanced at the girl with a look that said "Go for it!"
The girl held forward her other wrist, and smiled. The boy switched wrists, this time using both hands to sniff. Outwardly, he tried to channel the character of the French perfumer Marcel, while hiding as best as possible the parts of him that were going Alobar.
"Sandalwood! Very nice. Not very musky - I think the musk got a lot of lift in the beginning, but now it's soft and mixed nicely with the remnants of the spicy aspects. Wait…."
A few giggles went up as his blatant ploy to keep holding her hand kept working. He closed his eyes and sniffed. He could feel the girl's pulse in the tips of his fingers. He restrained the urge to let his lips brush against her wrist. Determined to sense the basenotes, he gave in to it. He wasn't sure he could manage another sniff without suddenly and involuntarily filling his lungs.
"It's great. It's just like the novel. No - I take that back. It's WORTHY of the novel. It understands the novel – the secret of Kudra’s scent. Plus, it really does justice to the characters. All of them. I could see Alobar really wanting to smell this. He might not realize it at first, but after a while he would want to smell it. Definitely."
Text-Girl winked at the boy.
The other girl was now blushing. The class geek decided to join in the fun.
The entire class moaned. I tried to save the oddly smitten couple from momentary embarrassment, but Text-Girl beat me to it. She jiggled and bounced in her seat, issuing her pronouncement in the ditziest voice she could muster.
"Like, DUH! Of course forever. Everybody knows Kudra's a vampire!"
As the classroom fell apart laughing, launching into a discussion of vampirism and vampire neo-lit, the couple smiled at each other, letting go but touching just a bit too long. Text-Girl sat forward in her seat and grinned in satisfaction. She winked at her admirer and thought to herself…
Erleichda. You don' say, honey-chil'. I do believe I'm gonna git me some o' that myse’f.
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