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I have read that Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue is a melancholic perfume. Its creator Jacques Guerlain said he was influenced by twilight in Paris, by a kind of blue he saw in the sky on his walks by the Seine. Introduced in 1912, the perfume is considered a great classic and is still being sold. The Paris of those years no longer exists. At least not fully. But even in its modern formulation, L’Heure Bleue holds a memory of the lost city. Just like the paintings from that period. Or the writer Jean Rhys, in her fiction, even though she writes a little later, in the 1930s. It is magical when a work holds some moment of distant time.

The film director Andrei Tarkovsky talked about an “image” that could be “an entire world reflected as in a drop of water”. He said a “chronicle” was the ultimate cinema – it would be a “way of reconstructing, of recreating life”. I am no Tarkovsky, but I love a book or a painting – or a perfume – if it holds some fragment of life and time.

The perfume. At first sniff, it is diffident, almost unearthly. It does not want to be liked or recognised. Does this really come, untouched, from 1910 or 1920? Maybe. It is not sweet or Hermès-ish, like so many moderns. It is briefly animalic. There is a wave of hygiene that owes something to violet. Then a note or accord (a harmony of notes) that suggests a great French brasserie. I was thinking liqueur, almond and vanilla. And then the images came flooding in: night, furs, a carriage, darkened wood, old reflections, Kees van Dongen’s society portraits, the white-faced doll he painted as his daughter, the great hotels of Paris, Le Meurice and the “hotel de charme”, aka Hotel Napoleon; narcoleptic lights and dark mirrors. It is a perfume of expensive city and exclusive night. It makes you feel spoiled, cosseted and warmed. It was a grand bourgeois warmed on pastis and coke – wrapped in money and evening dress.

Or you can know what it’s like to have lived in 1930s Paris with no money. This is described in Jean Rhys’s book Good Morning, Midnight, published in 1939. She has no work. There are days when she can’t afford to eat. Days when she suffers from morning sickness and waits to see if her husband, who will abandon her, can borrow or blag some money.

“I hadn’t bargained for this,” she writes. “I didn’t think it would be like this – shabby clothes, worn-out shoes, circles under your eyes, your hair getting straight and lanky, the way people look at you… I didn’t think it would be like this.”

Good Morning, Midnight was favourably reviewed in its time, although author Rebecca West said if you weren’t thinking of suicide by the time you started the book you would view the option favourably by the finish. The book is autobiographical and describes the life of a woman who loses her job in a fashion house, lives in a shabby rented room and wanders the city, either picking up men or visiting bars and cafés. She drinks heavily and her mind breaks into fragments, drifting into the past. She writes like a painter; there is a basic outline in black and white – she orders pernod in a bar, considers her chambre, visits a small boutique to buy a hat – then applies emotions and reflections in layers of colour and feeling. Her tones are like Modigliani’s: nicotine yellow and crimson. Her voice is despairing but poetic. Un-put-down-able…

“I no longer wish to be loved, beautiful, happy or successful. I’ve had enough of those streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night. I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry, vermouth, wine… drink , drink, drink… As soon I sober up I start again. I have to force it down sometimes. You’d think I’d get delirium tremens or something.”

Who was Jean Rhys? She was a writer. Although she never wanted to be one. She started writing when she was broken, when her life was in pieces. She was born into a fading colonial family in Dominica. She went to drama school in London and loved Soho’s bohemian nightclubs. She had affairs with older, wealthy men. One of them paid for her first abortion and paid her rent. L’Heure Bleue was her favourite perfume. One of her biographers says that she liked it because it was a sad perfume. But I think she liked it because it smells of security and money. It was the perfume of what she did not have. Poverty was the baseline of Rhys’s life and, in most instances, her work. In Good Morning, Midnight she lies in a bath and watches the cockroaches on the walls. She knows how mean houses look when you walk the streets at night and you are half-smashed on the edge of homelessness. You don’t appreciate the architecture.

“Frowning and leering and sneering,” she notes, of lovely Paris, “the houses, one after another. Tall cubes of darkness, with two lighted eyes at the top to sneer. And they know who to frown at.”

Anyone who has been poor will know the selfish look of other people’s houses. And I have seen those “cubes of darkness” in George Grosz’s paintings of the 1930s that show demented cities and hostile bricks. Rhys knows how alienated you can feel when you have nothing. Or just how alienated you can feel. Again from Good Morning, Midnight…

“… you’ve never lived like that, plunged in a dream, when all the faces are masks and only the trees are alive and you can almost see the strings that are pulling the puppets. Close-up of human nature – isn’t it worth something?”

Or my favourite. I hope it’s heartless to love a wretched line. “And my dress,” she writes, “extinguishes me.”

Guerlain has not made a perfume that speaks of mental distress. L’Heure Bleue is a delicate dream of refinement. Towards its heart the edges are cleaned. It may be the last of the violet or a first taste of its closing vanilla, but there are notes that say the night is clearing. And rising from the depths a rose, or a rose made from carnation, ylang ylang, tuberose and Bulgarian rose. Guerlain once said he was influenced by the Impressionists. Rhys comes a little later (in years) and is more in tune with the Surrealists – Grosz, Breton, Dalí – and a darker, more psychotic Europe. Are there flowers in Good Morning Midnight? Yes, but they are mad for nightmares.

“There is a wind, and the flowers on the windowsill, and their shadows on the curtains, are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water… Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness.”

While I am transfixed by Rhys’s inner states, I also love Good Morning, Midnight because the book records 1930s Paris; the manners of a waiter, a girl’s tight skirt, snatches of conversation, a Russian painter who dances in his studio wearing an African mask. And bohemian friends like Paulette, who steals stocks from her aristocrat lover to give to her impoverished friends. Paulette is beautiful, with long, blond hair. She keeps a bowl of violets in her room…

“When she looks at herself in the glass, naked, she’s as proud as Lucifer.”

There are sexual notes in L’Heure Bleue but they are fast. You glimpse them for a moment – a feral body moving through shadows. Rhys, as you might expect, has a different approach. An older man gets her drunk and rests his hand on her knee. And alone in her room, after the gigolo has tried to force her legs apart…

“When he has gone I turn over on my side and huddle up, making myself as small as possible, my knees almost touching my chin. I cry in the way that hurts right down, that hurts your heart and your stomach.”

You don’t get that in perfume. It might exist but I’ve never found it. L’Heure Bleue ends in a floating garden or a clean bedroom at dawn. The perfume closes with sparkles, sleepy powder and a flower that glows softly like city lights (or traffic lights) in the mist. Like a dream image. And because time is not linear in perfume, multiple facets of the perfume, elements of its earlier notes and phases, flash in the depths. L’Heure Bleue is not wholly comprehensible any more than Good Morning, Midnight is wholly miserable. She relishes her season in hell and feeds on its secrets. Public toilets, even.

“That cosy little Paris lavabo, where the attendant peddled drugs – something to heal a wounded heart.”

Guerlain and Rhys make a good pair: the Impressionist and the Surrealist. Both are inspired by Paris, and both hold their city in a maze of sentences, image and mists. They work together, Jean and Jacques, who never met. She wore his perfume and perhaps he knew her gigolos and émigrés, her rooms and flesh, his light. And her hallucination moves like his scent – misty images floating in time. The writer Ian Penman was considering Rhys when he found a clue in one of her letters. It was a guide to her method, but it describes this perfume.

“The big idea – well, I’m blowed if I can be sure what it is. Something to do with time being an illusion, I think. I mean that the past exists – side by side with the present, not behind it; that what was – is.”

Correct. Forever in dreams and nightmares, and lingering for such a very long time, you will find them both.

Above image: L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain. Photography by Rikki Ward. Taken from 10 Men Magazine Issue 59 UK.