Saturday, October 24, 2009

Narcisse Noir

Well I have survived my first week at the new job with nothing more serious than (very) sore feet and the odd bruise and cut – wine is a hands on dirty dangerous sort of occupation, but now I’m at the weekend and seriously in need of some escapism. I’m still flipping through ‘Perfumes The Guide’ in odd moments – it’s an excellent book to get lost in and spent a very satisfying half hour this morning scouring town for a perfume called ‘Encre Noir’, I thought a scent called black ink might just be the thing for a booklover, the description promised a top note of wet paint to delight anyone who’s ever dipped a pen in India Ink. I found the perfume and can confirm a definitely bookish smell on first spray, most satisfactory.

I’m also talking about perfume because it introduced me to one of my favourite authors – Rumer Godden. Hers is a name I sort of knew for years, but never really paid any attention to until I read somewhere about a near legendry scent – Narcisse Noir, and that it was one of the few/only perfumes to inspire a book; Godden’s 'Black Narcissus', which was also the inspiration for one of my favourite films (also Black Narcissus). This is what finally made me read Godden, and kick myself for not reading her before. For absolutely no good reason she seems to be drifting out of bookshops and out of print at the moment, although if I’m honest I don’t think much of the cover art Pan chose for her books - I certainly wouldn’t have picked one up if I didn’t know what was inside, and perhaps I’m not alone in that.

In ‘Perfumes’ Tania Sanchez describes Narcisse Noir thus:
“Shed a tear for Narcisse Noir. Where is the darkness, the strangeness, the smell of the cold, damp ashes after a bonfire, the animal breath – the drama? It was for woman in columnar gowns, marcelled hair, and red lipstick waving foot long cigarette holders and making life memorably difficult for everyone...It is now a pretty, safe little sweet jasmine and orange blossom. How can you ruin a man’s life properly whilst wearing this?”
It’s very close to being a good description for the book as well, and I am thanking heaven that no one can reformulate and dilute books at this moment. I made the pilgrimage to Les Senteurs in deepest darkest Belgravia to smell Caron’s Narcisse Noir once, if you ask nicely they will decant some into a little sample tube and you can take it away to consider. I used mine to drench my copy of ‘Black Narcissus’ - it still smelt pretty strange and opulent to my nose and I can think of worse things to make libations to.

If you haven’t got a copy and you see ‘Black Narcissus’ cheap then buy it. Second hand on amazon today it’s about £15, so clearly there’s demand for it, and so there should be. It’s a dark and strange tale of a group of nuns sent into the Himalayan mountains to start a school and dispensary in an old harem palace. From the beginning they are out of place and at odds with their surroundings which resist all attempts to be tamed into Anglican ideas of correctness. All business has to be conducted through Mr Dean, another dark and disturbing element who proves powerfully attractive to some of the nuns. There is also Dilip the young general, who come to the nuns for lessons, nephew of the man who has presented the nuns with their palace. He too is an exotic disquieting presence in the house; it is his habit of wearing Narcisse Noir that gives the book its name. It is Dilip who explains that “you have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”

It’s not giving much away to say that eventually all the nuns turn a little mad as the mountain seduces them into giving into their desires, be it for a garden of flowers rather than vegetables, or children to care for more deeply than is allowed, or even a man. The ending is both tragic and hopeful which seems fitting for a book about faith.

There is something fascinating about nuns and convents, I’m certainly aware of more books about them than their male equivalents, what I love about ‘Black Narcissus’ is that Godden manages to explore the sacrifices faith demands and the difficulties of living a communal life with sympathy, and presumably a deep personal faith. It’s not a faith I share, but she makes me understand it which I think is rare and precious gift enough.


  1. Oh, wow, I just saw this movie, Black Narcissus with Deborah Kerr and I really loved it. It was so beautifully shot and such a dark and intriguing film. I looked it up later and found out the book was written by Rummer Godden. Have you seen it? I've only read Greengage Summer which was good!

  2. Jolly pumpkin, Hayley!
    I just happened to see the perfume book today, and found it fascinating. Sitting here, am wondering why I didn't buy it.

  3. Ha, back in the land of the living, Sherry glad you like the pumpkin, he's last years and his eyes are like that because those were the moldy bits, but he came out looking quite appealing in the end.

    The Black Narcissus is the film of the book and one of those rare occasions when the film is as good as the book.

  4. I love Rumer Godden and totally love the film. Just discovered your lovely blog via dovegreybooks. Harriet.