Perfume in the Library : Danilo Kis and De Profundis

There are two reasons for me to bring Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead into my scented library. First of all, his short stories were recommended by a Bois de Jasmin reader, Maja. Second, Kiš (pronounced as Kish) is a master at describing the intangible and the evanescent. Born in Subotica, Danube Banovina, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Kiš (1935–1989) came from a family that he described as “an ethnographic rarity,” an artifact of the disappearing world–his father was of Hungarian Jewish origin, while his mother came from Montenegro. The lack of precision and neatly defined categories that mark the countries on the crossroads, the borderlands, are sometimes seen as problematic. But Kiš’s work, with its complex panoply of inspirations and traditions, shows that nebulous boundaries can produce many riches.


The Encyclopedia of the Dead, written in 1983, contains 9 stories. Kiš insisted that he was writing neither science fiction nor fantasy, placing himself in the magical realism tradition of Jorge Luis Borges. There are references to many different writers such as James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, but inspiration from Borges is the main leitmotif. Some stories answer Borges’s puzzles, others take up Borges’s challenges–“let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it…” (Borges, “Averroës’ Search”).

This is what Kiš does in “The Legend of the Sleepers,” my favorite story in the collection. It talks about the miraculous awakening of three Roman converts to Christianity, who were immured in a cave on the orders of the pagan emperor, Decius. The world they awaken into, of the Christian emperor Theodosius, is described through the vivid, jolting impressions of men who have been sleeping for two centuries.

“Or was this, too, a dream, the new earthy scent penetrating his nostrils long dulled by sleep and repose, the warm scent of the earth, the scent of grass, of vegetation, the blessed breath of light and life which after the musty air of the cave was as sweet as an apple?” (p. 71)

The title story about an encyclopedia “containing the biography of every ordinary life lived since 1789,” is one of the finest examples of magical realism with its surreal, absurd and sublime elements. The other story that stayed with me was “The Book of Kings and Fools”, Kiš’s retelling of the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic fabrication. In the story he explores how fiction can shape reality and how easily demagogues can play upon the anxieties and fears of the gullible public who is not looking for truth but for an echo chamber of its opinions.

Like literature, perfumery in its artistic expression is about a message. If there is a creator who can match Kiš’s brand of magical realism, it would be Serge Lutens, and especially his brilliant De Profundis, a fragrance that smells of bitter chrysanthemums, damp earth and incense ashes. In “Last Respects” Kiš describes the funeral of a prostitute named Mariette–“she was unique, inimitable; she was a harbor whore.” To pay her last respects, Bandura, “a Ukrainian sailor and revolutionary,” and others who loved Mariette, massacred the aristocratic gardens of Hamburg for their flowers.

“Mariette’s grave was covered with armfuls of roses, white and red, freshly cut pine branches, chrysanthemums and tuberoses, sky-blue hydrangeas, decadent art-nouveau irises, the flower of lust, hyacinths and expensive black tulips, the flowers of night, waxen mortuary lilies, the flower of virginity and First Communion, violet lilacs reeking of decay, low-born rhododendrons, and monstrous gladioluses (which were in the majority)…” (p. 23)

I have long struggled with the message of De Profundis. A refined floral accord transposed onto a fleshy base of musk intrigued and puzzled me. Elegant in form but whispering obscenities. Dark but transparent. Hinting of church incense but not remotely ecclesiastical. In the context of “Last Respects,” however, it feels harmonious.

P.S. Several days after I had written this article, I glanced through the press release for De Profundis. What did I find? “Mortality accord: chrysanthemum, incense, dahlia, gladioli.”

Enciklopedija mrtvih, 1983 (short stories); translated as The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Michael Henry Heim. The edition cited here is that of Penguin Random House, 1989. A word of advice if you choose to read this version, skip the introduction until you’ve read the book. It’s a fine prologue, but it describes each story in such detail that it reveals the secret before you can savor the mystery. This is fine after you’ve wandered through Kiš’s universe, but before the journey, it dulls the experience.

As always, I’d love to hear what you’re reading or what you’ve been wanting to read.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin




  • Karen A: Well I definitely want to read this! The past several weeks I was dealing with hives, so no perfume for me – it was quite depressing in all honesty. However, my sense of smell (and other senses) were on hyperdrive, I felt a bit like a dog in that smells were quite intense!

    Last week I allowed one brief smell of a perfume to see what, if any, the reaction would be. All was fine, but did not wear any. Yesterday, after a night of rain, I was walking up our driveway past pine trees, the hay was cut several weeks ago, but a few bales and stray cut grasses were in the field. It was this incredible combination of pine/damp earth, vetiver-like grasses/dead leaves. Just incredible.

    Once home, I smelled Lutens’ Fille en Aiguilles and realized that it perfectly captured my walk. September 28, 2016 at 8:11am Reply

    • Karen A: And only reading lately has been old weaving magazines and cookbooks. Meant to write that I allowed myself to smell one perfume per day, oh-so-quickly! September 28, 2016 at 8:14am Reply

      • Victoria: Which cookbooks? 🙂 September 28, 2016 at 11:07am Reply

        • Karen A: My favorite new purchase (older book, just new to me) is The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert. Something about just reading recipes that take a while calms me down. And I also really like reading Once Upon a Tart – I’ve had great success with their recipes. September 28, 2016 at 8:06pm Reply

          • Victoria: One of my favorites too! October 12, 2016 at 3:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Please feel better! On the other hand, sometimes such periods are good to notice scents around you, and there are so many at this time of year when leaves start to change. But does merely smelling make your condition worse?

      It’s been warm and dry here, so the autumnal scents are delayed. Still, at the market there are mushrooms and dahlias! September 28, 2016 at 11:07am Reply

      • Karen A: All better now, so hooray! I was just being super duper cautious as our opera gala was Saturday night and I wanted to be sure I was 100% for that – I was involved with the set-up, etc. My goal was just to eliminate any possible triggers, so I just gave up lots of things.

        Once we had some rain to wash away some of the pollens, it was much easier. September 28, 2016 at 8:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m very happy to hear this! October 12, 2016 at 3:44am Reply

    • Hamamelis: So sorry to read it Karen! I’m somewhat in the same territory with a unusually big cold sore. When they are this size I always feel ill and I haven’t been wearing perfume either. I have been reading the latest Gamache, and it isn’t literature but it is very good, her best so far. She is outstanding with her insight in the human condition. As Gamache smells of sandalwood and roses I would wear Santal Majuscule. September 28, 2016 at 12:04pm Reply

      • Victoria: I’m sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well, Hamamelis. Is it related to the earlier troubles you had? I hope that you get well soon. Keeping fingers crossed. September 28, 2016 at 12:42pm Reply

      • Karen A: Oh no!! Poor you!! I hope you are soon on the mend. It’s just such a drag when you don’t feel well. Rest, drink lots of tea and enjoy your book.

        Not wearing any perfume for such a long time was no fun, but it did make me appreciate them when I had to content myself with one really quick smell. I gave a Lot of thought to what I would smell for that day. September 28, 2016 at 8:00pm Reply

  • Andy: Mortality accord? Dahlia? I was thinking just the other day about how much I’d like a perfume made with a dahlia accord, because I think these plants have the best smelling leaves and stems around: peppery-green, but with a bright “citrus milk” aspect. And the smell that comes off the cut stems has great diffusion and lasting power too.

    I don’t smell this in De Profundis, but I do think it’s a marvelous perfume from all angles. September 28, 2016 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: I smelled dahlias in Estee Lauder Dazzling Silver, which is an intense green, metallic rose. But in De Profundis, no, I don’t notice the same effect. Perhaps, it’s too blended into the general bitter green and floral accord. I used to help my great grandmother prune dahlias, so I remember their milky, green, metallic smell really well. September 28, 2016 at 11:08am Reply

      • Andy: Oh interesting, haven’t smelled Dazzling Silver but metallic is a good way to describe the scent of dahlias. September 28, 2016 at 12:30pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m not sure if it’s around, because I smelled for the first time at a discounter store in NYC and had to have it. It was like the smell of a dahlia bouquet bottled. September 28, 2016 at 12:49pm Reply

          • Andy: I’m sure I can find at least a sample someplace. Now you’ve got me curious! September 28, 2016 at 12:50pm Reply

            • Victoria: I need to check if it’s still made.

              Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you do try it. September 28, 2016 at 12:54pm Reply

              • spe: I love Dazzling Silver – it’s still made. You know what reminds me of it? (You all are going to think I’m nuts): Amouage Lyric Man. September 29, 2016 at 2:24pm Reply

                • Victoria: Not at all! I can see why. Lyric Man is a silly name, and not only because the perfume might as easily be called Lyric for Her. September 29, 2016 at 3:57pm Reply

  • looloolooweez: I love this series you’re doing, pairing perfumes with books. You’re so eloquent and you make me want to run out and buy both the book and the perfume just for the chance to savor them together. September 28, 2016 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Very glad that you like it. It’s interesting to examine how authors describe scents and senses and how they use them to convey the plot, characters and moods. And how perfumers convey ideas with something as intangible as aromas. September 28, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

  • Tijana: Dear Victoria,

    So excited you are familiar with Kiš! He is from my hometown (I am also from Subotica) and I have grown up reading his books. My grandmother was also great friends with him.

    Great writer and I am fascinated by your your connection between his writing and De Profundis – just amazing ability to do this and now I am even more tempted to try De Profundis (do not have access to it in Toronto, but will try on one of my next trips to US).

    Great article, thanks so much!

    <3 September 28, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, that brings Kiš even closer. Is he remembered in Subotica (I know that he left for Paris in the 70s and the last years of his stay in Yugoslavia weren’t positive)? Either way, discovering him was one of the recent highlights. I also have Ivo Andric and Faruk Sehic on my shelf right now.

      De Profundis is a beautiful fragrance, but it’s difficult. Still, if you have a chance to try it, it’s worth it. September 28, 2016 at 11:21am Reply

      • Tijana: He is very fondly remembered and read, especially by us locals! There is even a statue of his right downtown – not sure if you can open this link:

        All of the writers you listed previously are my favourites: Miroslav Krleza, Ivo Andric, and of course also non-ex-Yu writers like Nabokov and Joyce. I am not as familiar with Faruk, but I would also recommend Mesa Selimovic (Meša Selimović) as one of the great writers from these regions. September 28, 2016 at 11:53am Reply

        • Victoria: They’ve captured him well! And his lion mane hair. 🙂

          Thank you very much. I found Meša Selimović in English and lots more in French. What would you recommend starting with? In English, for instance, I found The Fortress and Death and The Dervish. September 28, 2016 at 11:59am Reply

          • Tijana: Yes they did! 🙂

            So, in English, I think only those two got translated, if one believes Wikipedia. Death and The Dervish is definitely considered to be his masterpiece and those two novels you listed would be a great start.

            I also read Krug (The Circle) and would recommend that as well – it was actually published after his death and is very philosophical in nature focused on personal freedoms and uprising against ideologies. But, I would start with The Dervish and The Fortress first. September 28, 2016 at 12:16pm Reply

            • Victoria: Ok, I got both the Fortress and Death and the Dervish. The summary alone was enough to make me want to read them. Thank you very much for your recommendations, perfumes, books, and more. September 28, 2016 at 12:43pm Reply

              • Tijana: And to YOU Victoria, for everything! You are such an inspiration and I hope we get a chance to eventually meet in person, too!

                PS: I have been debating for almost a full month what to do about Le Labo’s Gaiac 10. I feel in love with it when I first smelled it, tested gazillion times in the last month, but was so indecisive because of the high price tag… Given all exclusives will be gone in 3 days for another year, I decided to splurge. I don’t recall when was the last time I fell in love with a fragrance so much, especially with a woodsy musk. Anyhow, now I am on a fragrance buying hiatus for a while! But I will still sniff… 😉 September 28, 2016 at 2:14pm Reply

                • Victoria: I hope so too!

                  If you love something enough and it fits into your budget, then why not? It’s also true that this perfume won’t be about permanently, and it’s a beautiful thing. September 28, 2016 at 3:13pm Reply

                  • maja: I’d go for the Fortress first. It’s absolutely beautiful and one of my favourite “Yugoslav” books. September 28, 2016 at 3:47pm Reply

                    • maja: ps. Derviš i smrt has one of the most beautiful openings. September 28, 2016 at 3:52pm

                    • Victoria: Thank you! The more I read the Balkan writers, the more I want to discover more. Complicated history can make for outstanding literature. September 29, 2016 at 5:54am

                    • Victoria: It’s on the way! September 29, 2016 at 5:53am

  • Tati: Hi Victoria,

    Just returned from England. The whole time there I kept thinking of the great writers that lived there, and then the great writers who left, especially the adventurers. I was especially taken up by the photography of Wilfred Thesiger, specifically his pictures of deserts, which parallels a project I’m working on now. Could anything fit better than L’air du desert Marocain? Or Chergui?

    Chanel 19 was the only possibility in the countryside, grasses and stone streets, university libraries and the staleness of the Ashmolean. London was a mixing of cultures, the new superimposed on the old, and I was fortunate enough to make it to Jayne Ormond boutique, and came away with a bottle of Rose Ta’if. We had a lovely hour talking perfume, and the chic French saleswoman mentioned reading Bois de Jasmin in the conversation! September 28, 2016 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: You reminded me how I came to London for the first time and walked around the city looking for the traces of my favorite literature characters.

      I also would have picked L’air du desert Marocain and Chergui. Or maybe, Lutens’s Bois Oriental, because it has a hot and dry nuance. Lutens and Sheldrake have definitely paid homage to a desert well.

      All in all, it sounds like you had a great trip, with many discoveries. Congratulations on Ta’if, one of my favorites, next to Champaca and Frangipani. September 28, 2016 at 11:38am Reply

  • Tati: I almost forgot to mention one of my recent literary “finds” in England, The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim, which I just started on the plane trip home. He is considered one of the best contemporary Arabic writers, with elements of the fantastic and surreal, a la Borges and Kafka. Perhaps an interesting parallel with a writer like Kis? I will definitely find his book. September 28, 2016 at 12:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was looking at Madmen of the Freedom Square (if I recall the title correctly), and I also got that sense. But I haven’t read them yet, just browsed through a book at our local English-language store. But it definitely caught my attention! September 28, 2016 at 12:46pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: These Kis stories sound amazing. I’m going to find a copy of the translation. I love De Profundis. I had a bottle, then decided it was depressing and I sold it. Now, guess what, I want it back! It is a memento mori of the best kind, celebrating life. September 28, 2016 at 12:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, a memento mori. Or perhaps, a vivere memento. I was tempted to give up my bottle at one point, and my mom, who bought it on the spot, had the same experience. Still, both of us kept it, and we return to it time and again. It’s just too fascinating! September 28, 2016 at 12:48pm Reply

  • Jane: This was so lovely to read, Victoria! I’ve been delicately flirting (which is not the right word, now that I really think about it) with de Profundis for a long while being simultaneously drawn and then repelled by it. The floral draws me in but then I feel like the scent turns and catches in my throat, almost with a sensation I would have when seeing something half decayed.
    Sadly my literary tastes have become lightweight, but your description of Kis is very tempting indeed. Makes me want to make my head and heart work a bit for a good story. September 28, 2016 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve described it well. That fleshy, ripe note is so unexpected and odd. But interestingly enough, it draws lots of compliments. Perhaps, because it’s noticeable?

      What are you reading? I like all sorts of genres. September 28, 2016 at 3:08pm Reply

      • Jane: 🙁 Terribly boring business management books. September 29, 2016 at 10:49am Reply

        • Victoria: Some light, entertaining reading is in order after this! 🙂 September 29, 2016 at 12:03pm Reply

  • limegreen: I wore De Profundis in observation of the autumnal equinox last week. The Chinese also associate chrysanthemums with the season of autumn and death so it’s an interesting parallel.
    (I always worry that the purple juice will stain! But it’s a gorgeous perfume in fragrance and in hue.) September 28, 2016 at 1:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: An intriguing connection, for sure! In the old Japan, women used to drench gauze in the dew on the chrysanthemum flowers and then use it as a facial toner in a belief that it prolongs youth.

      I haven’t paid attention, but I will experiment on a piece of white fabric. September 28, 2016 at 3:10pm Reply

  • Surbhi: Another perfume goes on my too smell list. I can’t smell much right now so I am just making a list for future).

    I am reading about brains these days:

    1) The Interpretations of dreams
    2) Idiot Brain: What your head is really upto
    3) Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Throry and Practice September 28, 2016 at 2:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a cool reading list! 🙂 I read Nicolas Carr’s book on the plasticity of brain and the effect on it by the fragmentary information (and Internet), and that was an interesting topic. And disconcerting. September 28, 2016 at 3:15pm Reply

  • maja: Dear Victoria, I am so glad you liked (this) Danilo Kiš. His way with words and the subjects of his writing are wonderful. And The Sleepers is my favourite story, too! So powerful.
    Another of his books, Garden, Ashes has somehow created one of my best fragrant memories. He describes, in one of the scenes, morning smells in his family’s home and while I was reading it as a teenager I remember saying: These are the exact smells of my grandma’s home – except for the cinnamon! (I could smell them in the air, I swear, while reading) Now every time I think of my grandma I think of her grinding beans in her manual coffee mill, fresh cow’s milk, she’d buy from a farmer on the suburbs of the small town she lived in, on a wooden stove and the smell of honey from my grandpa’s bees. And I remember Garden, Ashes.

    I’ve been sad and feeling sick these past days so haven’t worn any perfume but tomorrow I might take out my De Profundis decant and smell it.

    Reading about brains, too, at the moment. Oliver Sacks, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. September 28, 2016 at 4:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Garden, Ashes will be my next Kiš. If only there were more time to read it all. But I shall do my best.

      What I enjoy especially about his work is that it’s entertaining and witty, and that kind of combination with his imaginative and erudite style is irresistible. September 29, 2016 at 5:56am Reply

      • maja: Yes, probably our best writer in that period. You should see how amazing his translations from French are! Another great book is his collection of literary essays and musings called Homo Poeticus but I don’t believe it has been translated into English. September 29, 2016 at 3:40pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you. I will see if I can find Homo Poeticus in French. We have a great French language bookstore near Grand Place, and they specialize in literature from all over the world. September 29, 2016 at 3:56pm Reply

        • Victoria: Ok, I found it in French, Italian and German, so there is some choice. September 29, 2016 at 4:00pm Reply

  • Bela: I’ve never seen the word ‘gladioluses’ before (or heard it said) and I don’t want to ever see it again. What’s wrong with ‘gladioli’? LOL! September 28, 2016 at 6:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m told by my English professor friend that it’s an acceptable plural form. But I personally prefer “gladioli.” September 29, 2016 at 5:19am Reply

      • Bela: Oh, I know it’s acceptable, but trust me, V, in 36 years in the UK I have never read it or heard it said before. *No one* uses that plural. It’s difficult to pronounce and once you’ve managed it it sounds awful. September 29, 2016 at 10:31am Reply

        • Bela: And, even though I don’t have a garden, I’ve never missed an episode of Gardeners’ Question Time. September 29, 2016 at 10:34am Reply

          • Victoria: Oh, I remember it! Is it still running? September 29, 2016 at 10:42am Reply

            • Bela: Oops, didn’t realise you’d asked me a question. Didn’t mean to ignore you, V.

              Yes, GQT is still running. I think it’s like those ravens at the Tower: the day it disappears, the kingdom will collapse. October 10, 2016 at 6:26pm Reply

              • Victoria: Phew! It’s such an institution, and I used to love listening to it, even though I had no garden. October 12, 2016 at 3:46am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it’s more common in the US, but funny enough, our florist here in Brussels (she’s originally from the UK) says “gladioluses.” September 29, 2016 at 10:41am Reply

          • Bela: How strange. October 10, 2016 at 6:26pm Reply

  • Alicia: A very beautiful essay, Victoria. I haven’t read Danilo Kis, and find De Profundis an extraordinary perfume. Talking of authors and scents, you might like to know that Borges’s beloved smell was that of jasmines. In a sonnet he mentions his favorite things, among them “el oro sepulcral de la memoria, y en la sombra el olor de los jazmines.” (The sepulchral gold of memory, and in the shade the scent of jasmines). I know why: in the older houses of Buenos Aires, particularly in Borges’s neighborhood, Palermo, there were always patios where the jasmines grew and filled the night air. I have been in several of those patios with their pervading fragrance. That is what Borges smelled since his childhood, and what he remembered as an old man, far away in Geneva, the nostalgia of a sunny patio with the jasmine he could no longer smell in Geneva, and the blue sky he was unable to see. De Profundis might perfume my own evanescent recollections of this complex man, so intelligent, so playful, so tender, and ultimately, in his own words, so sad. September 28, 2016 at 7:45pm Reply

    • Tara C: Beautiful post, thank you. September 28, 2016 at 9:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Beautiful! Thank you very much. You help me add more traits to Borges’s image. Do you remember ” the first jasmine of November” from this poem?

      When sorrow lays us low
      for a second we are saved
      by humble windfalls
      of the mindfulness or memory:
      the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
      that face given back to us by a dream,
      the first jasmine of November,
      the endless yearning of the compass,
      a book we thought was lost,
      the throb of a hexameter,
      the slight key that opens a house to us,
      the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
      the former name of a street,
      the colors of a map,
      an unforeseen etymology,
      the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
      the date we were looking for,
      the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
      a sudden physical pain.
      Eight million Shinto deities
      travel secretly throughout the earth.
      Those modest gods touch us–
      touch us and move on. September 29, 2016 at 10:04am Reply

      • Alicia: Thank you very much, Tara C. and Victoria My quotation is from another poem, a sonnet, titled EL Triste (The sad one). I don’t find a good translation in the internet. September 29, 2016 at 11:01am Reply

        • Victoria: I’m not that familiar with Borges’s poetry, only a handful, so it’s a treat. September 29, 2016 at 12:04pm Reply

          • Alicia: Stories are much easier to translate, Victoria. He was a very great poet. When he became blind, and could no longer write, he composed the poems in his mind, and in order to remember them returned to meter and rhyme, and thus wrote many sonnets. September 29, 2016 at 12:23pm Reply

            • Victoria: A memory palace of poems, as it were! September 29, 2016 at 3:58pm Reply

              • Alicia: Perfectly put, Victoria. To add to your little collection, I am sending you two superb sonnets written while thinking of a philosopher Birges admired profoundly: Spinoza. He made his living carving optical crystals, while writing extraordinary things like the geometric demonstration of the existence of God. Here is the first: “Spinoza” (original and translation)

                Las traslúcidas manos del judío
                Labran en la penumbra los cristales
                Y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
                (Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
                Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
                Que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
                Casi no existen para el hombre quieto
                Que está soñando un claro laberinto.
                No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
                De sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
                Ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
                Libre de la metáfora y del mito
                Labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
                Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus estrellas.

                [Translated into English by Willis Barnstone]

                Here in the twilight the translucent hands
                Of the Jew polishing the crystal glass.
                The dying afternoon is cold with bands
                Of fear. Each day the afternoons all pass
                The same. The hands and space of hyacinth
                Paling in the confines of the ghetto walls
                Barely exists for the quiet man who stalls
                There, dreaming up a brilliant labyrinth.
                Fame doesn’t trouble him (that reflection of
                Dreams in the dream of another mirror), nor love,
                The timid love maidens. Gone the bars,
                He’s free, from metaphor and myth, to sit
                Polishing a stubborn lens: the infinite
                Map of the One who now is all His stars. September 29, 2016 at 4:44pm Reply

                • Alicia: Here is the second one. The mention to the disease aludes to the fact that Spinoza breathed the powder of the crystals he carved,which killed him.

                  “Baruch Spinoza”

                  Bruma de oro, el occidente alumbra
                  La ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
                  Aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
                  Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.
                  Un hombre engendra a Dios. Es un judío
                  De tristes ojos y de piel cetrina;
                  Lo lleva el tiempo como lleva el río
                  Una hoja en el agua que declina.
                  No importa. El hechicero insiste y labra
                  A Dios con geometría delicada;
                  Desde su enfermedad, desde su nada,
                  Sigue erigiendo a Dios con la palabra.
                  El más pródigo amor le fue otorgado,
                  El amor que no espera ser amado.

                  [Translated into English by Willis Barnstone]

                  A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
                  The window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
                  Is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
                  Someone is building God in a dark cup.
                  A man engenders God. He is a Jew
                  With saddened eyes and lemon-colored skin;
                  Time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
                  A river, is borne off by waters to
                  Its end. No matter. The magician moved
                  Carves out his God with fine geometry;
                  From his disease, from nothing, he’s begun
                  To construct God, using the word. No one
                  Is granted such prodigious love as he:
                  The love that has no hope of being loved.

                  Since I also admire Spinoza, and these sonnets are two verbal gems, I have taught them, loved them, and now joyfully offer them to you. September 29, 2016 at 5:01pm Reply

                  • Victoria: Both of these sonnets are as beautiful as they are poignant. Thank you for sharing them with me. September 30, 2016 at 7:33am Reply

                    • CC: Somehow I always felt sure that “The jeweler”, a haunting song by The Cocteau Twins, was about Spinoza, although I can’t imagine this has any fundament…. It’s beautiful and autumnal enough to sit near Borges’ words. October 9, 2016 at 4:21am

                • Victoria: Thank you very much! September 30, 2016 at 7:32am Reply

    • Alicia: Victoria, November is late spring in Argentina, and the jasmines would be in flower. September 29, 2016 at 11:04am Reply

      • Victoria: I didn’t think about it, but somehow it made sense to me in the magical world of Borges. September 29, 2016 at 12:02pm Reply

    • CC: Such sad, beautiful words. I once experienced the same in Marrakech, where I was directed to a private house in the Medina with the instructions to follow the heady smell of jasmine in the dusk. It was overwhelmingly beautiful, and despite the high walled patio it would have been impossible to miss the house I was looking for. I did secretly hope to stumble upon Serge Lutens at every turn 🙂 October 9, 2016 at 4:25am Reply

      • Victoria: I can just imagine it! October 10, 2016 at 8:47am Reply

  • Aurora: I was ignorant of both Kis and De Profundis so thank you very much Victoria. Recently (while waiting at the dentist) I read an article on the photographer Inge Morath by Justine Picardie (I enjoy her writing but never buy Harper’s Bazaar), I knew little of this great photographer. I immediately thought of you re photos. It was the UK edition of HB, Sept. issue. September 29, 2016 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I will definitely take a look! Thank you very much.

      Kiš lived in Paris since 1979, so you might find even more French translations of his work. And De Profundis is one of the most beguiling Lutens’s creations. September 29, 2016 at 10:06am Reply

  • Mark T: Victoria, thank you for this delightful response to The Encyclopedia of the Dead. I will seek out De Profundis. You are quite right that readers should leave the introduction until last. And I can only apologise for ‘gladioluses’; I can’t think why I let it past. Mark T. October 2, 2016 at 11:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Mark. You paid a fine tribute to Kiš.

      I was wondering about Kiš’s comment that the story “Red Stamps with Lenin’s Head” is pure fiction. It might well be that this story explaining the loss of Mendel Osipovich’s letters and correcting the meaning of his poems was nothing but Kiš’s fancy. But there is an essay by Marina Tsvetaeva explaining Osip Mandelshtam’s poems and their relationship (in response to a magazine article, which according to her, got the whole thing wrong). Some parallels are intriguing, even if–especially if–the two pieces have no inspiration in common. October 2, 2016 at 4:21pm Reply

      • Mark T: Thank you, Victoria. I don’t know if Kis knew Tsvetaeva’s essay; quite possibly he did; he translated some of her poems, and also Mandelshtam’s. He loved that generation of Russian writers, and “Red Stamps…” is, among other things, a tribute to their greatness and suffering.

        By the way, Kis’s personal library included a book called “Odeurs et parfums” (1949), by Jacques Le Magnen. I think he read it when he was writing “Garden, Ashes” (1965), a novel filled with scents and also colours. (Unfortunately the English translation is very poor.) October 3, 2016 at 6:38am Reply

        • Victoria: Tsvetaeva’s essay is called “A History of One Dedication” and it was written in 1931, in response to Georgii Ivanov’s memoirs, which were published in Paris in 1930. I took a look at it again last night. It’s a triptych about Tsvetaeva’s intense–but brief and volatile–relationship with Mandelshtam. The first part is called “Destruction of Treasures,” and it’s about burning letters and reflecting on the past. The second part is about meeting Mandelshtam in 1916, and the third is an answer to Ivanov. She was especially incensed that Ivanov claimed that “Not believing in the miracle of resurrection, We strolled in the cemetery,” a poem Mandelshtam dedicated to Tsvetaeva, was written “by an enamored poet” to “a pretty, somewhat vulgar brunette, a doctor by trade.” Tsvetaeva’s prose is as inventive and powerful as her poetry.

          It’s been years since I’ve read “Odeurs et Parfums,” but you’ve inspired me to pick it up again. I’ll take your advice and skip the English translation of “Garden, Ashes” and will look for it in French. October 3, 2016 at 9:02am Reply

  • Liz: I’m a new reader to your blog and I’m absolutely enamored with it. And this pairing of books and fragrance is wonderful. I have somewhat recently renewed an interest in perfume and can’t wait to test more with time. I’m a bit isolated in rural Kansas with little access to any decent perfume shops, but I’ve been getting some samples here and there. In fact, I just ordered two samples from Dame Perfumery because of comments on another post here!

    Magic realism is my favorite literary genre; ever since I studied Spanish in college. I just recently read “Love in the Time of Cholera” and can’t believe I hadn’t read it before. I’m not sure if he technically falls into that genre, but Tom Robbins is my favorite author. His book Jitterbug Perfume is one of my favorites and he is always describing scents. He can be quite profane, but powerful.

    At the moment I’m reading Eco-colour by India Flint since I’m newly obsessed with dyeing and printing on fabric using plants and plant dyes. My house has smelled of eucalyptus and flowers a LOT lately. October 10, 2016 at 10:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Liz! If I or others can help with anything, don’t hesitate to ask. Information on perfume can be hard to find at the stores, since most staff aren’t trained enough to make a personal recommendation.

      I also liked Jitterbug Perfume. Such a quirky melange of magical and absurd! October 12, 2016 at 3:49am Reply

  • Marianne: Hello, I’ve been exploring the Bois de Jasmin site, discovering treasure upon treasure. It’s beautiful. Thanks for the invitation to share a book. I’d like to offer a favourite that I reread over the years, often with a sense of new discoveries, Kurban Said’s ‘Ali and Nino’ It’s set in Azerbaijan around the turbulent 1920s, a love story and so much more, describing life on the periphery of Russia and the East with fascinating, intimate detail. The author’s identity is now known, he died in Paris in 1942. I’ll say no more so as not to risk some of the mystery of this tale. August 31, 2021 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marianne! Have you read Tom Reiss’s book The Orientalist about Lev Nussimbaum, the author of Ali and Nino? If not, I highly recommend it. September 2, 2021 at 4:59am Reply

      • Marianne: Oh thank you Victoria, I’m delighted to have this recommendation and will order The Orienalist. I’ve so loved Ali and Nino that I’ve gifted it several times over the years and now look forward to discovering more about its author. September 2, 2021 at 5:23am Reply

  • Muzo: I’m sorry about Serge Lutens but proliferation of creation cheapens the production.I did not try De Profundis.But many of his perfumes are not as i expected.They smell like eau de cologne made by artificial ingredients.
    I liked Danilo Kis reading Contes D’Hiver.J’ai envie de lire ses autres livres. January 19, 2023 at 9:53am Reply

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