Perfumed Pages: Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi”

“…there was a smell of rain, clouds and air, a smell of limitless space. A smell of the sea.”

A few weeks ago, a literary acquaintance of mine wrote me an email recommending Piranesi, the second novel by English author Susanna Clarke. I’ve somehow never read Clarke’s best-selling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but the suggestion intrigued me, especially when she told me that the book contained several references to scent.

So I purchased a copy (from Little City Books, my excellent local bookstore), saved it as a reward to myself for meeting a deadline, then opened the cover (it’s beautifully designed, by the way) and started reading. A few pages in, I already knew that I was going to read as slowly as I could in order to savor the story and make it last as long as possible.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Dark prison with a courtyard for the punishment of criminals (Carcere oscura con Antenna pel suplizio dè malfatori), ca. 1750, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 37.45.3(5)

I don’t want to spoil Piranesi for anyone who’s going to read it, so you might want to stop here. Yes, the protagonist’s name is a reference to the Italian artist famous for his depictions of ancient ruins and imaginary prisons; otherwise, I’ll try to keep my remarks somewhat vague.

After finishing the book and mulling over it for a day or two, I looked for interviews with Clarke and came across this comment about her writing process:

“Piranesi is interested in perfumes and describes them in his precise way. So at one point I sat down and worked out what perfume all the characters wear. . . . I have a list. Some of the perfumes are real and some I made up. At the time this seemed like the Most Important Thing To Know. Which seems a bit insane now.”

“Susanna Clarke on the Art of Writing,” September 15, 2020

To me, that doesn’t seem insane at all. When Now Smell This recently encouraged us to share our latest winter reading and choose a fragrance to match it, I suggested Profumi di Forte’s Tirrenico for Piranesi. Then I decided to go back to the book and choose fragrances for the main characters, based on Clarke’s descriptions.

Frederick H. Evans, “A Sea of Steps”: Wells Cathedral, 1903. Museum of Modern Art 457.1966

One character, who is known as “16” for most of the novel, makes their first appearance only as an olfactory trace. Piranesi records this unexpected sensation from one of his customary walks through his “House”:

“I took a couple of steps back into the Doorway and breathed in. There it was again! A scent. A perfume of lemons, geranium leaves, hyacinths and narcissi. It was quite strong in this one spot.

Someone — a person wearing a beautiful perfume — had stood for a while in the Doorway…”

I did some cross-checking of notes and I’m choosing Mary Greenwell’s Lemon (2013) for this character. It fits the profile of the smell that catches Piranesi’s attention; it’s a brand that would be available to this character in their own place and time (London in the 2010s); it fits their casual and neat style of dress (including a green sweater); and, perhaps a bit “too on the nose,” but this section of the book is titled “Lemon.”

Then we have a character whom Piranesi describes “tall and slender,” dark-haired and olive-skinned, with a small beard and “an ascetic-looking head with high cheekbones and forehead.” This is the Other, a man always sharply attired in crisp shirts and well-cut suits in various neutral tones and fragranced with “a spicy scent of coriander, rose and sandalwood.”

These notes led me to Chanel’s Égoïste, a men’s fragrance created by Jacques Polge and launched in 1990. It’s an upscale contemporary classic that would pair well with the Other’s style of dress and grooming. If this fragrance is indeed what Clarke had in mind, its name could be a wink at the character’s personality, too.

Lastly, I’m thinking of the character known as the Prophet. He’s an elderly man with dark eyes under “magnificently hooded eyelids and arched eyebrows,” wearing a well-aged suit in a Prince of Wales check. Piranesi describes his overall odor this way:

“He smelt of paper and ink, of a finely balanced perfume of violet and aniseed, and beneath these scents, a faint but unmistakeable trace of something unclean, almost faecal.”

The violet and anise make me think of one of my favorite classics: Guerlain’s Après l’ondée (Jacques Guerlain, 1906). It’s a feminine fragrance, but the Prophet is a boundary-crosser by nature.

Later in the novel, Piranesi elaborates that the Prophet’s fragrance has violet as “the dominant note, with hints of cloves, blackcurrant and rose.” Après l’ondée’s carnation note could read as rose and some gentle cloves, but maybe not? The blackcurrant note, in particular, leads to some other possibilities…

As with all these scent descriptions, Susanna Clarke may have been dreaming up the appropriate perfume for each character.

Just the same, I think it would be wonderful if the Prophet were wearing a little splash of Serge Lutens Bois de Violette (1992, Christopher Sheldrake), with its plummy-spicy take on violet. Plus, the Prophet leads a somewhat louche personal life and the Lutens aesthetic might appeal to him.

If you’ve read Piranesi and you have your own thoughts on its character’s possible scents, please feel free to add them in the comments! And if you haven’t read this novel, do consider checking it out of the library or buying a copy from an independent bookstore.

With many thanks to Marta!

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