Even if you’ve never read Proust’s famously weighty “Remembrance of Things Past”, you will have heard about the famous scene with the madeleine. Never read it? Eh. This is not one of those cultural gaps I’d be rushing to fill if I were you. I suffered through the first volume (IN FRENCH) when I was fifteen and it was a temps perdu indeed. But anyway, here’s what you need to know.
Proust is sitting there, minding his own business, when he absentmindedly sips a teaspoon of lime blossom tea, into which he has crumbled a bit of his afternoon teacake – a madeleine. Suddenly, the flavor and scent of it hurtles Proust back through the corridors of time to when he was a child, going up to bid his aunt good morning, with her lime blossom tea scenting the air. It was a long time ago, and Proust is an old man now.
„But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.“
You know what? I think Proust was one of us – a fumehead. The man may not have been able to end a sentence to save his life, but he was right on the money about smell being the ne-plus-ultra of time machines.
One such time machine, for me, is Chanel’s Cuir de Russie (Exclusifs EDT version). I grew up riding horses, and one sniff of this was enough to jerk me back through the corridors of time to the simple pleasure of resting my face against the neck of a sweaty horse. We grew up in a family with lots of kids and very little money, so I begged, borrowed, or stole horses to ride on whenever I could. I did hard labor on a farm in exchange for rides on a fat, bad-tempered pony, and when I outgrew him, my dad drove me to the nearest racing stables and volunteered my services.
Now, looking back, it might not have been the safest or wisest of things to glibly offer your thirteen year old daughter to a working racehorse stables in Ireland. Those places are rough and the horses are dangerous. I would sit precariously perched, knees up near my ears, on over a thousand pounds of fast moving horseflesh as they galloped 35 miles per hour around a muddy track or down the beach.
But then again, my dad taught all four of us kids to swim by picking us up and throwing us into the Irish Sea and yelling “Now SWIM, you little feckers!” so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.
Anyway, there was this wonderful, quiet moment every morning that I would cherish – after racing the horses on the beach, we would take their saddles off, throw the reins over their heads and lead them into the sea to cool their legs down. There, I would sometimes lean in and rest my face against the flank of the horse, dark and wet with sweat. Often, the sweat would lie in creamy rings looping around the flesh where the English saddle had been, so your nose would be taking in the smell of leather and sweat at once. I loved that moment, and now I wish I could get that simple sort of peace again – the sort of exhausted peace that exists between two animals who have taken exercise together. At home, I would often have no time to get ready for school, so I would just wash my arms, neck and face with Imperial Leather soap, and head off to school.
Cuir de Russie smells like me and this moment in time – horsey, vaguely dirty/sweaty in a clean sort of way, creamy soap, warm horse flank, and the underside of English leather saddles freshly lifted off a horse who has run five kilometres up and down a beach in County Wexford, Ireland. No more, no less. I can’t identify or dissect any of the notes in this beyond the soapy aldehydes and the soft, vaguely floral leather, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how you go about reconstructing a horse in such 3D glory using the simple list of notes I see on Basenotes and Fragrantica. In fact, I would rather remain in ignorance for fear of breaking the power it has to conjure up that memory, just like I imagine Proust didn’t bother asking his housemaid what type of butter and what type of flour went into making his Madeleine. I am simply glad that this exists in the world.
Smell memories are not always pleasant ones, of course. I will always associate the smell of Burberry Weekend with starting my first job – it smells like fear and insecurity to me. And I am pretty sure those aren’t listed in the scent notes.
What about you? Do you have any scents that whoosh you back to the past, for better or worse? Have you ever had to stop wearing a scent because it brought back bad memories?