Pierre Benard Challenge Day 7- Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I’m going a little bit outside the boundaries of the challenge for today. Part of what has made me want to do this is it encouraged me to look perfume as part of a wider experience in my life. Which brings me to adding “prose” to the direction of “posting ten smells, perfumes or posters”. There is one book which is part of my fragrance experience. Especially when I re-read it years after the first time; the perfume part of it really resonated.

One of my favorite authors is Tom Robbins. Ever since I read “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” in 1976 I was hooked on his unique comedic style of storytelling. Which meant that in 1984 when his fourth novel was released called “Jitterbug Perfume” I was there on the first day it was published. At this point in time I was interested in the author while having little knowledge of the perfume industry. I was treated to another time-spanning story of memorable characters with perfume at the center of it all. It was the characters which I remembered.

Tom Robbins

I picked it up again eight years ago and it was an entirely different experience. This time my knowledge of perfumery gave even greater life to the characters. Three of the protagonists represent the three levels of modern perfumery. As I read the novel, I was reading things which rang true within the contexts of a novel and liberties being taken.

It is difficult to encapsulate a Tom Robbins story, but I am going to try.

The titular fragrance is an ancient perfume created by King Alobar and Kudra. The lovers were searching for the secret to immortality. Along the way they succeed and open a perfume shop in 17th century Paris.

In the present day, the remains of the last bottle of Jitterbug Perfume reside with Seattle waitress and aspiring perfumer Priscilla. Her stepmother, based in New Orleans, Madame Devalier is also trying to re-create the perfume for a competition in Paris. Claude and Marcel LeFever are the heads of the large commercial LaFever Parfumerie.

It was easy for me to see the small independent perfumer in Priscilla. Wanting to understand the perfume she has as a gateway to creating her own. Madame Devalier has a different tack as she sources a unique variety of Jamaican jasmine delivered by a man covered in live bees. This is that indie way of finding or making unique ingredients to make a singular perfume. The LaFever’s are a family business with a precocious talent in Marcel. They are developing the synthetic equivalent of Jitterbug Perfume.
This is the perspective of the large perfume brand. Can you still be creative even while forgoing the natural inspirations?

Our perfumers each receive a beet through mysterious circumstances at the beginning. By the end all the stories will come together in Paris. The final piece of wisdom comes from Alobar as she reveals the secret to immortality is to, “lighten up”.

I know many think “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Suskind is the novel which represents perfumery. I find the overall depiction of perfumery much more appealing in Jitterbug Perfume. Especially the reminder to lighten up which seems more important these days.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

I am not usually asked what my favorite perfume book is. I do know my answer is one few of my infrequent interrogators expects; Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.

Jitterbug Perfume was the fourth novel released by Mr. Robbins. By its release in 1984 Mr. Robbins had staked out a reputation as a literary cult author. His most famous book is “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” which is how I first discovered him. Mr. Robbins has a style of writing a tale in multiple layers covering different timeframes and almost always a bit of the fantastical. In between those threads are many laugh out loud moments. I’ve always categorized Mr. Robbins as a writer whom it is best to read over a few days and not in small bits before bed or on the commute. To fully enjoy his writing I think you have to ride the wave of prose until it carries you to the shore. Fortunately, his books are written in such a way that they propel you to wanting to know the answer to the questions of the narrative which keeps you turning pages. There is also some odd focal point which ends up tying many of the protagonists together. In Jitterbug Perfume it is beets.

The first sentence of Jitterbug Perfume informs us, “The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” After a few paragraphs supporting that thesis Mr. Robbins closes the first chapter with, “A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil. That is a risk we will have to take.” From there a beet is delivered to three protagonists living in the modern-day Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. All of them are working on making a modern version of Jitterbug Perfume. As the story progresses we learn they are connected by more than the beet they received. Interspersed between their story are chapters of King Alobar and his paramour Kudra. Their story tells of the reason for and the creation of Jitterbug Perfume.

Tom Robbins

When I read it for the first time in 1984 my knowledge of perfume was at an early stage. When reading it twenty years later discussions of Jamaican jasmine and synthetic replacements of the natural ingredients resonated more. The plot drives towards the moment the new Jitterbug Perfume will be revealed while Alobar and Kudra supply the historical foundation.

If you have not discovered Mr. Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume is a great place to start. I consider him to be one of the great American writers. His books are a good choice for vacation reading where you can dive in and spend uninterrupted time with them. Just be ready to have people look at you when you laugh out loud; and ask for beets in your salad.

Mark Behnke