The master of the olfactory landscape

Interview conducted on October 9, 2018 in Paris at the launch of the “Désert Suave” perfume, the latest creation of Liquides Imaginaires.

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Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is already a well-known name of the French contemporary literature. After a high-profile debut rewarded with the Prix du Jeune Écrivain in 2006 (Prize of the Young Writer), Jean-Baptiste never let himself overwhelmed by his growing popularity, quite the opposite. With each new novel, his artistic message has constantly gained amplitude, strength and grace, bringing him further accolades from the literary critics and juries: Une Éducation Libertine (2008) was awarded the Prix Goncourt of the first novel; Pornographia (2013), the Prix Sade; his most recent novel, Règne Animal (2016), the Prix du Livre Inter.

Without getting into the depths of his artistic and human quests, we would like to bring to light here a confidential yet remarkable side of Jean-Baptiste’s work: his fascination for fragrances and his highly lyrical way of plying the pen in order to awaken olfactory sensations to the reader. All the universes that he imagines have strong olfactory identities, as if their capacity to generate odors would be a tacit pledge of their very existence.

In the background of his narrations, Jean-Baptiste creates odorous landscapes of a fierce and tormented beauty. Still, their aesthetics emerges at the antipodes of beauty, into the abyss of human conscience, actions and relations. Between the grimy walls of a pig farm, in the Seine’s mud or inside the Parisian brothels in the eighteenth century, in life or in death as well, his environments abound with sensorial hints which lead, inescapably, to the sense of smell, in order to stir up emotions and tear our insides apart. Throughout this emotional journey, his stylistic artistry delivers the reader from the abuses that his characters are about to endure or to perpetrate… and what a sublime deliverance!

Is he a nose disguised as a writer or a Baudelaire reborn as a master perfumer? Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is a little bit of all this, which is perhaps the reason why his oeuvre has the singular power to elevate us way above words.

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In your novels, most of the descriptions lead, sooner or later, to olfactory evocations. Words and noises, colors and lights, patterns and fabrics, all these elements leave behind them vivid odorous experiences, even when you recount places or trivial facts. How come that the sense of smell is so present in your writings?

For me, writing isn’t about reasoning. I don’t write thesis novels, I don’t start from a theoretical premise and then recount a story that will serve that particular idea. My writing is mainly a sensorial act. My relation to the surrounding world, as a child, was built through the prism of the senses. Growing up in the countryside, I was always swamped by odors and sensorial details, much more than a regular urban kid… this is has completely shaped my imagination. For me, writing has always been an attempt to recreate something pertaining to childhood. Most of my childhood memories are linked to smell. The smell is a way of reaching that time of my life, which is irremediably lost.

Which are the smells that make up your childhood olfactory landscape?

Everything related to earth, crops, to the smell of plowed land and dried sunflowers, all these rustic scents, the hay rakes spreading on the fields. The smell of animals, the smell of horses, cattle, pigs. I haven’t grown up in the city, I know little about urban smells; maybe that’s why in Une Éducation Libertine I have chosen as scene the eighteenth century Paris, because it was easier for me to grasp that Paris and fantasize about it. I couldn’t write a book about today’s Paris, because I would be short of material. Above all, yes, my childhood memories are memories related to the countryside, to the surrounding nature.

Do you think that we are bound to love or hate the smells and tastes that we have loved or hated as a child?

I don’t think so… In any case, what I’ve learned from working with perfumers is that the sense of smell can be refined, changed, molded. If we don’t like red wine when we’re eight years old, it doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it when we’re older. I think tastes can evolve. But, on the other hand, there are smells so deeply embedded in our visceral memories that they can no longer be separated or disconnected. So, yes, we can also have abiding revulsions or fascinations with certain smells.

Using solely words, you manage to paint haunting olfactory landscapes: bouquets of mud and filth poured into the Seine, decaying matter in the Cimetière des Innocents, farm walls redolent with nauseous pig stench, scents of copulating bodies, effluvia of giblets and rotting flowers of a tropical city… What do you wish to arouse to the reader by polarizing his senses toward these repulsive scenes?

What I want to enkindle through my writing, in a rather selfish way, is a form of aesthetic emotion. I have always been attracted by the beauty that can be found in triviality, in the dark, in the evil… It’s a means to tame my own fears, my fascination with death, other obsessions and questions that are very present. Perhaps by writing I’m trying to disclose the truth that can exist in those situations. In writing, I explore the freedom of transcendence allowed by literature – just like painting or photography to another extent.

Transcendence for you or for the reader?

I disagree with those writers who think that when we write, we write for others. Those who start with this intention can only go astray, because literature is not about that. Literature is first of all a self-centered act, which afterwards gives itself to others. The readers are free to identify themselves or not with the narrative.

Can you give us some examples of disturbing odors that left their mark on you or inspired your writings?

There are so many! For instance, the smell of decaying flesh, the smell of carrion. As a kid, living in the country, there were always animals that had been killed, rotting in a ditch or by the side of the road… This is perhaps one of the most unsustainable and singular odors, because it is immediately recognizable. There is something that tells us that this is the smell of death. It’s also what touched me while reading Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, especially the poem A Carrion: the idea that beauty can spring from something vitiated.

For instance, I am very interested in Zen Buddhism. In the first Zen texts, it is written that aspiring monks were asked to meditate in front of a corpse, as a way to gain awareness of both the emptiness of life and the interdependence of phenomena. In my texts, I try to relay the idea that life has something beautiful and precious precisely because death exists, because it is something extremely brief and fragile. Finally, by contemplating death, we manage to reveal glimpses of our humanity. It is almost a poetic gesture, although I write prose, but I always intend to bring to light the beauty, but the beauty that can exist in pain and discomfort.

As a reader, which were the texts that upset you the most?

Beaudelaire’s texts were an aesthetic shock. Sade also made a strong mark on me. There was Lautréamont, Les chants de Maldoror, I could name many authors that I enjoy greatly. Gabrielle Wittkop has written some staggering texts, which are of great formal mastery. Each time, I was dazzled by these writings because, precisely, they took me out of my comfort zone. This is what I am looking for.

Even in relation to perfumes, I am rather seduced by smells that will seem uncomfortable, more than by any caressing or enticing perfume, which will try to please me. I prefer the baffling perfumes.

Thinking of Une Éducation Libertine, beyond the main character and his destiny, there is the city of Paris emerging as full-fledged and ubiquitous character, endowed with a strong olfactory identity. Is there such thing as olfactory identity of a city?

I am highly seduced by the smell of cities, especially the African ones, by the blending smells of exhaust gas, market, ripe fruits, sand. Those cities where you are assaulted, almost aggressed by the surrounding smells. There, the entire perception of the city passes through the sense of smell. It is less the case of the Western cities, which are too clean and aseptic, but this is still prevalent in the developing countries. In most cases, these are disturbing, violent miasmas. For example, Havana is a city with a strong olfactory identity, this time due to architecture, old buildings with rotting timber, the smell of ocean spray and waves breaking on the waterfront. Whenever I feel these smells, I am completely transported with emotion. Kyoto, in another genre, also marked me a lot, with the smell of temples, incense and everything emerging from its spirituality.

Is the perfume a return to visceral sensations or the path to spiritual transcendence?

Both. However, I prefer to see it as something transcendent. I don’t really like nostalgic perfumes. I can have an emotion by smelling a particular substance, which may bring back a childhood memory, but it remains something very factual, linked to a specific place and moment, and thus it is confined by the memory.

I am keenly interested in perfumes that use specks of emotions and memories in order to transcend them, to bring them elsewhere, to reshape them, venturing in unexpected alliances of materials.