Every day this week the MacLehose Blog will feature an extract from Parfums, Philippe Claudel’s brilliant “catalogue of remembered smells”, a unique memoir which re-creates the author’s childhood through recollections of the scents he inhaled.
First up, a particularly charming extract – the unforgettable sensory experience of a first kiss.
So what is this fragrance our petites amoureuses, our first girlfriends, have, when our lips initially find theirs for the first time, and then, awkwardly, don’t really know what to do?
I am twelve years old. Girls don’t look at me and boys tease me for being skinny. My over-eager heart beats madly whenever dark-haired Natalie or blonde Valérie walk past me. I write poems that I slip into their hands at eight o’clock in the morning when I arrive at the Collège Julienne Farenc. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Athene, Aphrodite, Diana, Nefertiti: I recycle the history and mythology syllabus. And, shamelessly, I plunder the authors in our French textbook: Valérie, sous le Pont des Voleurs coule le Sânon, Et mes amours, Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne or else Demain dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne, je partirai à l’école Nathalie, je sais que tu m’attends, je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps. But Nathalie does not wait for me.
As though to prove the intensity of my passion, I invent, in honour of Valérie, the verb radadorer, the repetitive superlative of “to adore”. Valérie, je te radadore! All I am allowed in return is a shrug and a disdainful pout. My poems end up as scrunched-up balls of paper in the gutter. They’re thrown there right in front of me. To be sprayed on by dogs and cats. Playing the role of the sentry, that’s all I’m good at, warning François, who is kissing Nathalie, or Denis, who is doing the same with Valérie, whenever an adult approaches and they risk being caught in the act in the narrow alleyways that connect rue Jules Ferry to rue Jeanne d’Arc. I’m the willing little sucker cuckold, keeping watch over the love affairs that others are having with my girlfriends. I ask them afterwards what they taste like and smell of, these kisses mimicking those that can be seen every Sunday on the screen of the Georges cinema, film kisses that are as ardent as they are motionless, and which could pass as advertisements for superglue. They call them patins. But the only patins I know are the slippers we wear at home to polish the floors. They’re old, with a tartan design, and they stink.
A few months later, I learn how it’s done: it won’t be with either Nathalie or Valérie, but with Christine Frenzi. Fat Frenzi. A birthday tea party at the Waguette twins. We eat cake. We drink Sic orangeade and Sic lemonade with psychedelic colours. Someone puts on some music; it’s slow, easy-listening stuff, as syrupy as the drinks. Couples team up. They shuffle around as best they can. Many of the dancers are in shorts. There are only two people still sitting down, her and me. She comes to fetch me, she takes me by the hand. I dare not refuse, and here I am pressed up against her. My arms can barely reach round her body. I feel slightly ashamed. What will Nathalie and Valérie think, both draped over my friends, so near, yet so far away? I close my eyes.
It is she, too, who puts her face against mine, who seeks out my lips, finds them, kisses them. Silky hair washed in the same Dop shampoo as mine, but smelling of something else too – something vegetable and sugary, candied, a whiff of confectionery, of home-made cakes, of plant stems and open fields – that I can’t identify, but which takes hold of me and which I breathe in happily, on her neck, on her lips, those lips that I kiss again, and this time I’m the one who wants it. Nathalie is forgotten, Valérie is forgotten. Their loss. And when, after the dance, Fat Frenzi does what the other girls have done with the boys and comes to sit on my lap, and the pain crushes my bare thighs and the few muscles I have on my bones, I say nothing. I grit my teeth. I inhale her neck, her cheeks, her mouth. We kiss again and for years afterwards these kisses, which are scented with the green smell of angelica – at last I’ve succeeded in naming it – impel me to go and open the jar of crystallised fruit which my mother uses to make cakes and decorate rum babas and which she keeps in the bottom of the kitchen cupboard. I grab a handful of sticks of this sweet and sticky candied umbellifer, pass them under my nose, close my eyes, and munch them as I sit on the linoleum floor, thinking of Fat Frenzi and her kisses – but also of Michèle Mercier, whose delicately erotic adventures are shown on television each summer – while at the same time humming the sickly sweet tune that brought us together: On ira, où tu voudras quand tu voudras, et l’on s’aimera encore, lorsque l’amour sera mort.
Thanks be to Joe Dassin for having helped me far more than Apollinaire and Hugo combined ever did.
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