Friday 25 January 2013

Mysterious perfume

   By August we were sleeping with all the windows thrown open. That was why, when I became aware of the scent, I assumed it had come from outside.
It was a voluptuous scent: vanilla with rose and the heart of ripe melons, held up by something sterner, a leather maybe, with a hint of wood smoke. The first time it stole into my consciousness I was half-wakeful in the early hours, in the act of coming around from one dream before settling into another.
    Gradually it faded, and I must have gone back to sleep. In the morning I examined every possible source but nothing came close to replicating that fragrance. I decided it must all have been a highly charged dream. (…)
   After an absence of about a week it returned, and continued to do so, though with no discernable pattern to its reappearance, and with slight variations on the ingredients of the scent. At times it carried essence of vanilla, sometimes a robust note of chocolate and cherries. It might linger only for a few minutes, but strongly, or less distinctly for up to an hour. Some nights it was carried off by a whisper of wind in the courtyard trees, an ethereal smoky lavender.

                                                                                From The Lantern

Following my last post about perfume and holy spirits, here's an extract about fragrance from my novel. A scent is at the heart of The Lantern, with its roots in the herbs and flowers that grow wild on the hillside, and the lavender fields beyond. Even when there is no spiritual dimension, aroma releases memories and opens a powerful sensory path between the past and the present.

The perfume in my book is a mysterious concoction that comes and goes with no obvious source. So I was more than intrigued by Strange Invisible Perfumes, a botanical perfumery based in California that uses only organic, wild-crafted, biodynamic, and hydro-distilled essences.

Using a strictly botanical library of scents, perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis creates enchanting fragrances with no synthetic approximations of essences that cannot be extracted, like gardenia and violet. Looking closer into her library of perfumes, I found one that is very much in the spirit of the imaginary one that I mixed, using only words on the page, for my novel: Essence of Ix – a “brambly, stirring, floral” with white sage, roses, blackcurrant, Californian lavender, wild honey, and French oak.

I've been asked many times whether the Lavande de Nuit scent I wrote about in The Lantern is available to buy anywhere. Sadly, this perfume exists only in my imagination, but I can offer the inspirations.

Obviously there are lots of lavender scents, but my favourite is from L'Occitane de Provence. It's rich and sweet, and authentically redolent of the region. I've also discovered the well-loved Catalan cologne Agua Lavanda by Puig that has the requisite sense of history, created in the early twentieth century in a modest local distillery.

The closest complex lavender perfume to Lavande de Nuit I've yet found is Absinthe Verte which is one of several scents in a range called A Taste of Heaven by Kilian. It's an unfolding blend of lavender and vanilla and thyme, with oak moss and a hint of patchouli and spices. Very lovely, very very expensive. But I happen to know there are samples at Saks 5th Ave in New York!

And then there's that fabulous old-timer, Jicky by Guerlain. Launched in 1889, it mixes lavender with a zesty sprinkle of citrus which dries into an alluring creme brulee note, but then after a while the vanilla hunkers down into smoky leather with a sexy animal note of civet. Dangerous stuff and a true inspiration for the fictional Lavande de Nuit.

Along with lavender, there's is a perfume called L'Eau d'Hiver in the Frederic Malle range: this has the white scents of almond, heliotrope and spring flowers. The woodsmoke and vanilla comes from Serge Lutens' Un Bois Vanille. It is possible to mix either of these with the lavender (spraying in layers on the skin) - quite fun to experiment with the quantities of each, but if you do, go easy as the last two are both strong and distinct and easily overpower anything in their way!

The online magazine The Good Life France has posted an interview with me today, in which the question about whether certain aspects of my novel are true, including the mysterious can read it here.

P.S. If you're a loyal reader and feel this post has a ring of familiarity, you're right; it's a re-edit and combination of several earlier posts that I thought worth putting out again to link with the interview. 

Friday 18 January 2013

Perfume and holy apparitions

When I was wandering around the village of Risoul in the French Alps a few weeks ago, I picked up a clutch of leaflets from the Church of Sainte Lucie. One of these was for the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame du Laus and it proved an unexpectedly fascinating read. Here, as promised, is the story it told.

Benoîte Rencurel was born into a family of modest means in 1647 at St-Etienne d’Avanҫon during the reign of King Louis the fourteenth, an era of political, social and religious tensions. At the age of seven, her childhood cut short after the death of her father, Benoîte began work as a shepherdess. Before leaving to lead her flock of sheep up into the mountains for the summer, she asked her mother for a rosary. Unable to read or write, Benoîte spent the lonely days in the high pastures praying and living a contemplative life.

Ten years later in May 1664, she told the priest in her village that she had the most profound desire to meet Mary, mother of Jesus. A short while after, St Maurice appeared to her and told her her wish would be granted. The very next day she made the acquaintance of a gentlewoman who told her that she would take an interest in her spiritual education. For the following four months, this kind woman arrived every day at Vallon des Fours, close to St-Etienne, to answer Benoîte’s questions and teach her how to conduct herself.

On August 29, the woman revealed her true identity: she was Mary herself. After that a month went by during which Mary did not return. Then, at the end of September, she reappeared to Benoîte on the other side of the valley at Pindreau. “Go to Laus,” she said, “and you will find a chapel that exudes beautiful scents, and there you will be able to speak to me very often.”

Here are their statues raised on the hillside at Pindreau to commemorate that event:

The next day, Benoîte walked to the hamlet of Laus and easily found the Chapelle de Bon-Rencontre by following the trail of perfume. There, Mary stood on the altar and told Benoîte what she wanted her to do. She was to build a church and a priest house to receive pilgrims and hear their confessions.

The new church was built over the chapel between 1666 and 1669. The day it was blessed, Benoîte became Sister Benoîte and a member of the Order of St Dominique. She ministered to the pilgrims for the rest of her life, responsible for many cures and conversions, and was said to have the gift of mindreading - by all accounts the priests were astonished at the quality of the confessions she elicited!

For fifty-four years, Mary continued to appear to Benoîte, sustaining her in her calling. In addition, the former shepherdess saw visions of angels and saints, a mystical vision of paradise, and Christ on the cross. Along the way she did battle variously with the devil and with Jansenist priests, and died “full of joy” in December 1718.

Today Benoîte (pictured in this stained glass receiving her first rosary from her mother) is slowly being granted sainthood. The process of beatification was begun in 1981 and she was declared venerable by the Catholic Church in 2009. Evidence of her interventions and miracles is being carefully examined before the final declaration. The healing oil from the sanctuary lamp at Notre-Dame du Laus is said to cure many ills, as effective as the waters from Lourdes. The Sanctuary is open to all (click here for the website) and it is possible to request an application of this oil.

The "exquisite fragrances" of Laus are apparently still experienced. Inhalations of these perfumes are reported to bring a sudden, calm joy to the senses and encourage spirituality. Benoîte Rencurel smelled these fragrances when she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the scents, which impregnated everything, persisted even after the apparition disappeared.

Saturday 12 January 2013

A hornets' nest

I found this on the path the other day - part of a hornets' nest blown down in the wind from its evil empire under the roof tiles. This piece is a good four to five inches wide which gives you an idea of the scale of the beasts who called it home, those enormous frelons that hover around menacingly in the dog days of August.

They gather for battle orders around the outside light at the top of the alleyway between the buildings and make a sound like the rumble of military cargo planes lining up on a runway. You really don't want to get stung by one, either.

But with the turn of the seasons and the first icy temperatures in Provence, their time in the sun is over. Rather satisfying to see the source of the trouble close up knowing it's harmless now. What on earth we can try next year to control them and all the other hedonistic species of wasp determined to have the swimming pool is still unresolved.

Sunday 6 January 2013

The Next Big Thing

Twelfth Night and the festivities are officially at an end. Another retreat behind closed shutters, then, (here's the first) for some renewed hard work on the new book. But there’s just time to answer the questions posed by The Next Big Thing, which gives writers a chance to open up their current manuscript.

I was tagged by Vanessa Couchman, a freelance writer living in France. She also writes short stories which have been published in anthologies and is currently writing a novel set in Corsica. A member of Writers Abroad, she blogs with brio as Vanessa France at Life on La Lune. If you love south-west France, its history, architecture and daily life, you’ll be entranced.

Here goes with my answers:

What is the working title of your next book?

The Night Flight.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I happened across a poignant newspaper story about the excavation of a crashed plane in a field, and the archaeology involved to discover more about it. It was almost certainly a World War II plane – but who were the crew on this fatal flight? Some seventy years afterwards, time is running out to solve many such mysteries across Europe as the war generation passes away; the witnesses too, most of whom were children at the time.

Although I began the novel with this scene in mind, it probably won’t make it into the book. The story that evolved from this first idea took on a life of its own and placed the characters in different settings so that this scene became an awkward complication. But I reserve the right to change my mind.

What genre does your book fall under?

Romantic suspense with a strong sense of place and well-researched history.

Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Let's pencil in Olivier Martinez as the Resistance hero and Rosamund Pike (cool, intelligent English toughness) as the young garden designer, unnerved by the unexpected darkness of the world she has entered. And we can always find something for Dan Stevens.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

On the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, the restoration of a garden is key to the secret lives that cast a long shadows over the present.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am extremely lucky to be represented by Stephanie Cabot at The Gernert Company in New York and by Araminta Whitley at Lucas Alexander Whitley in London. The novel will be published by HarperCollins in the USA and Orion in the UK.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m not there yet but as a general rule of thumb it takes me about a year - excluding breaks for consultation with agents and editors - before the first draft is ready for submission.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

William Boyd’s Restless, Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life, Rachel Hore’s A Gathering Storm.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have long been fascinated by stories of clandestine daring in World War II. Our part of Provence was a big Resistance stronghold where complicated networks operated across isolated farming communities, many in liaison with British agents and pilots, a courageous partnership that is far from forgotten today. The poet René Char wrote some of his most beautiful and heartbreaking prose-poems about the fine line between life and death in those dangerous times, and a memoire La Nuit d’Alexandre (his code name was Capitaine Alexandre).

But my novel – structured in three distinct parts – is set in wartime London and Sussex too, showing another side of the operations and other lives intersecting with these events. Secrecy was all, along with the immense difficulties involved in communications and maintaining contact.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

One of the three sections centres on a character from The Lantern, Marthe Lincel the blind sister with the gift for perfumery. What really happened to her at the perfume factory in the lavender fields of wartime Manosque, omitted from Bénédicte's narrative?

My picks for The Next Big Thing:

Essie Fox is the acclaimed author of The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid, both dark Victorian novels. Before her success as a writer she worked as an illustrator, which clearly shows in her wondrous blog, The Virtual Victorian, Essie Fox’s Facts, Fancies and Fabrications.

Helen Smith is a novelist and playwright who lives in London. She is the author of cult bestsellers Alison Wonderland, The Miracle Inspector and Being Light. She’s a shrewd observer who makes being very funny look easy. Here’s Helen's writing blog.

Ann Sharples is a writer and artist in Spain and is the author of the Violet Jelly books for readers aged 8-10. Her Wordstitcher blog is a delight, full of gorgeous photos and well-chosen words.

Karen Wojcik Berner has been a writer, editor and magazine editor for twenty-five years, and puts up fantastic posts about grammar on her Bibliophilic Blather blog. As a defiantly indie author near Chicago, she is the author of the sassy Bibliophiles series about a fictional suburban Classics Book Club.

Friday 4 January 2013

Sun and snow

A few more glimpses of the village of Risoul under a new fall of snow. Rather off the beaten track for glitzy winter sports, which suits us very well. The ski pistes are further up the mountain at Risoul 1850, the same altitude as the far more glamorous Courchevel further north into the French Alps.

Above the church the road was silent and smelled enticingly of wood smoke mixed with incense. I was drawn inside to find a spartan wooden interior and an intriguing story of sainthood and perfume from the seventeeth century which I shall have to tell another day.

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Happy New Year!

Wishing you a very happy 2013 from the snowy uplands of France, in the small village of Risoul below the ski pistes. I hope the coming year is a good one for us all and the blank pages of the weeks and months fill with la belle vie as well as greater knowledge and understanding.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

             T S Eliot, Little Gidding

This is a good moment to say an enormous thank you to all who join me here on this blog, reading and leaving your thoughts and comments. It is a lovely facet of the way writers have direct contact with readers and other writers through social networking and it's great to be able to establish a rapport. It wouldn't be the same without you.

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