The Courtesan, the Conjuror and the Cynic


– a review (and a tale) of Amouage “Ubar”

She would always come to his shop on the perfumer’s row in the late afternoon, when the worst heat of the day had dissipated to a shimmering golden haze above the streets and the ships in the harbor, when every sensation, every sound and every scent seemed to linger just a little longer than usual, when fine black lines delineated the shapes around the tools of his trade – the mortars, the oils and flasks and jars, the smaller boxes that held his secret treasures; resins and woods, precious myrrh and the white-gold tears of frankincense he hoarded and kept only for those trusted customers who paid promptly and in cash.

Like most everyone here in Alexandria, she obviously came from somewhere else. Her name he never learned, although he knew enough to see her for what she was, with her expensive shawls, the gleaming silks and linens dyed deep and vibrant colors, all the better to set off her remarkable amber-gold hair and that pale, milky skin that told tales of another, colder climate on the far northern edge of the sunlit world he knew.

She came accompanied only by a girl, so like her she could only be her daughter, and in all the many months he spent with her, the daughter would simply sit with a bit of embroidery in her lap listening, or else observing every item close by, the tiny cauldrons bubbling over the fire, his chopping boards and knives, the flower essences and bunches of herbs hanging in profusion on the walls, so heady in the summer heat customers had been known to grow dizzy and faint.

“I have an assignment for you,” the woman said that first afternoon. “I want you to make me a perfume. I will pay you well.” A fat and heavy purse of coins clanked on his counter top. “Consider this an advance.” She stood back and assessed him, as if to judge whether this were a task he were worthy of.

“Lady, I have many perfumes in my shop…the Susinon of one thousand lilies that Cleopatra herself perfumed her sails with these two hundred years ago, the Megaleion, I have the finest items from Callimarchos’ shop in Athens, I have Panathenaean, I have Royal Parthian perfumes, even, straight from the courts of the Parthian king…”

She did not let him finish. “No.” Such finality, such determination in that small and simple word. “I said,” she lifted an elegant hand and the gold of her bangles gleamed and flashed in an errant sunbeam from the door. “I want you to make me a perfume. For me. Not to sell to your customers or to smell on the whores in the harbor brothels…” her nose wrinkled in fastidious distaste. “A perfume just for me.”

“Then, dear lady, I shall need to know something of you first. What scents you like and dislike, where you might be challenged,, and what…”

Again, she did not let him finish. “I will come to your shop in the afternoons and tell you…stories. And when I am done, you will make a perfume just for me.” She inclined her head, and the pale and silent girl preceded her out into the street, already bustling after the afternoon’s siesta.
For years after, he would remember how he had stood that moment, transfixed in the sunbeams off the floor, wondering where to start. A perfume, just for her.

True to her word, she would come in the afternoons and tell of her adventures, of dancing for the Emperor at his palace in Rome so far away, of sunlit mornings on a rose-covered terrace in Rhodes, of the dust and heat of a faraway fabled city that grew rich off the trade in frankincense and the long and perilous journey she had undertaken once to India with a merchant who could not bear to be without her company. She told of the unexpected pleasure of finding patches of those tiny, bell-shaped flowers that she loved on cool, misty mornings in a shady forest. She told him of heartbreak and unexpected joy, tragedy and laughter, all the pains and pleasures of a life lived to the fullest extent of all her many passions.

For almost a year he toiled with her perfume, conjuring the memory of her life in his essences and oils, the animal hints of sensuality, the flowers and the fruity bite of the lemons that grew in his secret garden in the Delta. He chopped and brewed, he macerated and stored and applied every trick of this ancient land that he knew. He tried to capture the jeweled gleam of her hair, a double-spiraled errant curl at the base of her neck, the glint of a rosy ruby in a comb, the flash of wit he saw in her eyes. No question but she knew to enchant, and as she enthralled him with her stories, he enchanted the brew in his cauldron, committing the formula to memory and a secret, buried scroll.

Until the day came when he was done, and could do no more. He dreaded her visit, knowing he would now never see her again, or her silent, smiling daughter. He had been paid handsomely for his toil, and yet no payment was enough for the simple song of her voice, a silver tinkle of laughter as she remembered a detail, a place or a caress. This creation was his masterpiece. There was nothing throughout the Empire or far beyond even remotely like it.

“It is finished,” he forced himself to say when she came that afternoon. “There is nothing more I can do, nothing more I can add.”

She pulled at the stopper and inhaled deeply. Her eyes closed and for an instant, she seemed to swoon on her feet. Then, in a sudden shocking movement, she unfastened a brooch on her shoulder and pricked a fingertip. Two crimson drops, a dark, rosy red against the pallor of her skin, glistened in a sunbeam before they vanished into the vial.

“Now,” she said with that same stubborn finality he had heard that first afternoon, “now it is finished.” As she said the words, she fell to the floor as if she had fainted, and her daughter grabbed her and held her. She was dead.

He was speechless. “One thing only she left me,” her daughter said after a while. She took the golden vial from her mother and lifted it up. “She left me this.”

It was his masterpiece, his perfume, the memory of this storyteller in a bottle.

Down through the centuries swirled the memory of that woman and that perfume, through her daughter and her many descendants after her, until a damp and foggy day in a town on the edge of the old world found it again, the world the perfumer had known so many centuries ago.

This long-descended daughter was also a storyteller. In the warp and weft of her tales, she twisted yarns and fables, passions and music, and sometimes her memories of scents and sensations. She was convinced she had heard it all and tried it all, she had broken hearts on two continents and many countries, and there was little left to surprise her, not much to take her breath, her speech or even her words away.

Until a tiny bottle was opened, a tiny spray applied to her skin, and a ruby drop of blood-red rose, of a lemon grove in the Delta and a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, of a memory of a woman and a life well-lived and well loved, a woman like herself, wrenched at her heart and made her cry that such a surfeit of beauty could exist and such powerful emotions could be felt.

Even by the cynic she thought she was.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Notes: Bergamot, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, rose Damascena, jasmine, civet, vanilla.

Amouage Ubar can be bought in many locations, including Luckyscent and First In Fragrance and Alla Violetta Boutique, although you might be required to take out a second mortgage on your house, take a second job or pawn your children if all else fails. Trust me, I’m thinking about it.

Image: Sir Frederik Leighton, Solitude (1901)

24 thoughts on “The Courtesan, the Conjuror and the Cynic

  1. My words are wasted here. There is nothing I can say that would properly convey my feelings of pleasure when reading this. So I will shut up and seek out a sample of Ubar, and hope to God someone will publish you. You sure deserve it, T. That post made my day brighter. NOW I shut up for good, promise. 😉

  2. There was once a famous advertising campaign that had the slogan “Think Different.” I've come to realize that with me it's a permanent condition…:-) I could have written this as a straightforward review – or as straightforward as I'm able to get, I should say. So I spent a little time on MUA and Basenotes yesterday, and on not a few other blogs who had reviewed this same perfume, and thought…what could I do…different? Not better, not more articulate or knowledgable, just…different.

    Instead of a review, I wrote a story. It seemed like the right thing to do. If both your own and Dee's reactions were anything to go by, it seems like it was indeed – the right thing to do! 😉

  3. Wow!!
    This is really some incredible story-telling (I really need to read your novel).
    I don't think I've tried Ubar so far, and now it's become a serious urge I have and need to deal with soon. 🙂
    Once more, just incredible. 🙂

  4. T., you blew my mind. I was crying, CRYING, at the end. Ok, ok. I admit that I'm a little more *sensitive* this week, but still. That was beautiful. I'm shaking my head—I'm so glad that the perfume community has you; this is the kind of “review” that bridges the gap between what the fragrance notes are, and what it actually *smells* like. If a fragrance can transport you, allow you to become something more (or something else entirely) then you have captured that. I feel like I understand what Ubar is. And it's beautiful.

  5. Lucy – it's always so amazing when you find a perfume that does tell a story. Some of them louder than others! Those are the reason for my passion – and I rather suspect, yours and all of ours as well! 😉

  6. Ines, thank you! I'm so, so glad you liked it! Given your taste in literature, I suspect you might like my book, although that is a rather different and darker story. This was of another kind, and when the Muse came to call, I sat down – and paid attention!

  7. Awww…Dee, it certainly wasn't my intention to make you cry!

    When Ubar was re-released in 2009 and reviewed, I remember I caught certain shades of the lemming response. There was something…intriguing in that bottle, something I needed to know, something that triggered my curiosity in a way that no other Amouage review quite did. So when I had the chance to try it – I took it. I had no expectations, apart from the “with that kind of price tag, this had better be GOOD!”

    It made ME cry. I can't remember the last time that happened. And incidentally, I wore Ubar yesterday on a date with my Scorpio friend and received the kind of response you can't repeat in polite company! 😉

    Whereupon he promised me a bottle in exchange for a hardcover copy of QD. So I had best get on it!

  8. The idea of holding a hard-cover copy of QD in my hands THRILLS me beyond belief. I've worked in a bookstore for more than a decade, and I stopped buying books in favor of borrowing them from the library a couple years ago, with only a handful of exceptions (cookbooks, perfume lit). But QD will be bought by me, oh yes. I will hold it, and I will own it.

    Hmmm… I might even be able to get my hands on an autograph for it… 😉

  9. Not only will you get an autograph, but if in the pie-in-the-sky-event that I should be sent on a book tour, I'll make it a point to land somewhere in your general vicinity! Oh, and of course – this applies to all of you as well – an acknowledgment and a thank you (by name), because your blogs, your comments and our common passions have done so much to restore my faith in humanity at a time when I badly needed that!

    Your autograph might be…

    “To Dee, who went looking for trouble, and came to the right place!” 😉

  10. I want an autograph in my own HC copy! 🙂
    I do hope you get published soon.

    Now I'm thinking if there's a way to get the version published on your blog somehow into my soon-to-arrive Kindle…?

  11. Brava! A story as sumptous and as moving as the perfume…and that's saying a lot!

    Tarlesio, I'm a huge Amouage fan — it's probably my favorite perfume house. I find that so many of their opulent perfumes inspire narratives, and being a fiction lover, I think it largely accounts for why I am so ensalved to them.

    Yay to Olfactoria for pointing her readers to your story! It's wonderful to meet another person so ensnared by Ubar's powerful beauty as to write such a uniquely stirring tribute.

  12. Pleased to meet you, Suzanne! As a fellow fiction fan – and hopeful fiction writer – I can totally understand how certain perfumes can evoke or even provoke! stories and tales.

    Until last Thursday, I had never tried any Amouage at all. My curiosity was piqued by Birgit's and then Dee's review of Epic Woman, but the one I was dying to try was…Ubar. Something in those reviews when it came out in 2009, something there… made me want to seek it out. When opportunity comes knocking, and so it did, thanks to a sample binge at First in Fragrance…

    So, last Thursday, I sprayed it on paper, and my first reaction was…well, visceral. Can that be used about a perfume? I was in the grip of some emotion I hardly understood. I was overcome. I was transported. I was blown away, and that hasn't happened in..years!

    I was toast. I still am. There are no words. But what words I found told this story…and so it came to be!

    So I shall save this for special occasions, buy samples to keep me going, and hold my friend to his promise – when the hardcover arrives for 'QD', I'll exchange it for a (100 ml) bottle of Ubar…

    And there are so many more to discover! 😀

  13. What a beautiful story! Isn't it wonderful when a fragrance makes such a strong impression on you that it lead you to create your own fantasies? I have not smelled Ubar, but now the moment I return home in a couple of days, I am going to dig through my boxes for a sample. 🙂 Thank you for a beautiful morning read. You have a lovely, very interesting blog! It is a pleasure to meet you.

  14. Victoria! Thank you! I'm not sure if it's a question of a perfume provoking fantasies so much as it's a question of listening to whatever genie pops out of the bottle! 😉 I can only say that the beauty that is Ubar, appearing as it did at a time when I had reached a shoulder-shrugging “they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to” moment, was just what I needed, and so it needed a review not like my usual reviews.

    The pleasure, as I'm sure you know, is entirely mutual! And there's so much more to come! 🙂

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