David's Reviews > The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession

The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr
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's review
Feb 12, 08

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-in-2008, unexpectedly-terrific
Read in February, 2008

Ever since I heard that the NYT had its own perfume critic, I've had a kind of love-hate relationship with Chandler:

"In Dior Homme, its perfumer, Olivier Polge, has used a light, assured, masterly touch to turn out an iris that has the grace of a Japanese maple and the careful, muscular cool of a leopard.

Béthouart has worked magic here, taking Versace’s genetics — its petulant Italian machismo — and adding technical virtuosity (the stuff diffuses perfectly on the skin) to create the scent you’d get if it were possible to combine sugar, steel and graphite. The Dreamer startles you. It’s strangely mouthwatering, like a French pastry crossed with a Thai spice (caramel lemongrass?). Then there’s the hint of ice cream, gunpowder, star fruit, hot cocoa and blood-orange peel crushed on wet rock.

in the hands of Slatkin’s talented young perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, Absinthe is a blunt instrument: you smell the 1800’s Parisian bar, the fermented wormwood, the rich scarlet velvet curtains, and then you get the slam in the back of the throat as the poison goes down. Slatkin is smart enough not to genderize its scents, but men will wear Absinthe for its heightened reality."

What do the three text snippets above represent? The winning entries from some mad logophiles' parlor game? Random text from one of those post-modern essay generators? Coded messages from the Paterson, New Jersey terror cell?

Why, no. The gray lady herself, the nation's newspaper of record, The New York Times, now has its own resident perfume critic. The maiden 'nose' (so to speak) is an individual named "Chandler Burr". The text at the beginning of this post are examples of Chandler's writing style.

As a grateful subscriber, all I can say is that this is the most poop-in-your pants exciting news in years. And the poop of which I speak would have an almost tropical bouquet, redolent of the chickenshit and antibiotic slurry in your local poultry plant, mingled with the fresh diarrhea of a hormone-packed cow just entering the slaughterhouse, with brusque overtones of that old-people smell in the elder-abusing nursing home where you've stashed Grammy, almost as if you'd managed to crush a baby kitten's brain in a Krups blender. And blood-oranges. And the muscular androgynous calm of Jeffrey on Project Runway as he prances, hyena-like, through the studios and canyons of Manhattan.
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message 4: by M.kenosian (new)

M.kenosian I cracked up, David. Maybe you want to edit, and say "Includes reader's barf bag."
With a quick skim, I was unsure whether I was reading the review or the book. It's a difficult decision to pick one for the "Most Putrid Prose" prize. I decided on the book because it is heavier.

Do you think the NYT writer randomly threw magnetic poetry on the page?

For entertainment on a chat board with a Boring Thread, once upon a time I copied a few of the pseudo-review advertisements for books from The New York Review of Books. Amazing how many ways purple prose can flow where the "intellectuals" read. Or maybe intellectuals ended with post-modernism and I haven't caught up with the trend.

Please, go on the warpath. I will follow.

David “The Emperor of Scent : a True Story of Perfume and Obsession” (Chandler Burr)

Let me start by getting something out of the way. I owe Chandler Burr an apology. You see, when I first became aware of him, it was in his role as perfume critic for The New York Times. There was something too irresistibly precious just in the fact that the NYT even had a perfume critic to begin with, and then a reading of some of Chandler’s reviews turned up the kind of breathlessly lush, over-the-top, prose that cried out to be mocked. So I did, in the slightly scatological initial comment that begins this thread, taken from a March 2007 blog entry of mine. But, even as I was lampooning Chandler, I knew that his over-the-top perfume reviews were not the entire story. A visit to his website indicated that he was the author of two books, both of which seemed potentially interesting, and which had received excellent reviews. Furthermore, I had heard him being interviewed on NPR, where he came across as articulate, interesting, and obviously very smart.

I’ll let you reach your own judgement about the perfume reviews. But let me go on record that the Chandler Burr who wrote “The Emperor of Scent” is articulate, fascinating, funny, enormously smart, and an exceptionally good science writer. This book is simply awesome. Before reading it, I was already somewhat familiar with its subject matter (it’s the story of the distinctly unorthodox biophysicist, Luca Turin, and his efforts to elucidate the fundamental mechanisms underlying the sense of smell). I’d seen a BBC documentary about Turin’s work (interesting and accessible), and read Turin’s own account:
(oddly less interesting than one would expect, given the flamboyance of Turin’s personality, and leaving key aspects of the research maddeningly opaque, though not deliberately so – I look forward to reading it again, now that I’ve read Burr’s account).

Chandler Burr and Luca Turin met by chance, when both were waiting for the (delayed) Eurostar train from Paris to London. During the trip, Turin explained his work, and the revolutionary theory of smell which it supported; by the time they arrived at Waterloo Station, Burr knew that he had to write about it. Their meeting was a stroke of luck for Turin, and for all of us. Burr’s account approaches perfection. His ability to explain the details of Turin’s somewhat abstruse theory in an accessible fashion leaves me slackjawed in admiration. In my professional career, the ability to develop a gut-level understanding of biochemistry and biology at the molecular level, deep enough to be able to converse intelligently with scientists engaged in cutting-edge research in these areas, has been critical. Accordingly I have a first-hand understanding of how difficult this can be, and a healthy respect for anyone who can manage it. There is only a handful of science writers who can do it well; Chandler Burr makes it look effortless. Which it assuredly is not.

This ability alone, to write about scientifically complex subjects in a way which makes them accessible to the general reader, would make this book worth reading. But it’s more than just a clear exposition of a difficult scientific exploration. It’s a fascinating story, with some larger-than-life characters, backstabbing, intrigue, bad behavior ....

And yes. Perfume reviews. But I have to say, by the time I was done with this altogether beguiling book, I was willing to forgive Chandler anything, even those rhapsodic (tongue-in-cheek?) exercises in the purplest of prose.

Because (and, believe me, I never thought I would write these words): Chandler, you da man!

Note - the unexpected brilliance of "The Emperor of Scent" moved me to create a new bookshelf "unexpectedly terrific", for books fitting that description. I've added books which I've stumbled across over the years, and really liked, but which are perhaps a little off the beaten path. Check it out!

Alicia Phew. For a minute there I thought you had not read the book, which I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed. In the book, there are far fewer adjectives to describe scent than your example (send up? I haven't seen the NYT perfume reviews). I feel about most wine reviews the way you do about over the top perfume reviews. Some folks need to just sit down and catch their breath.

Victoria Yes! Unexpectedly good, and I'm another who's been following Burr since he joined the NYT to write about perfume. Burr reminds me of David Quannem in his ability to make someone's complicated problem a collective problem.

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