In May 2020 I began an intermittent diary, a notebook of infrathin sensations. I was housebound in a heat wave in London, in a pandemic, with my wife, A., and our daughter, R. S., who was then four. I started to notice what I was noticing in this reduced era: minuscule sensations, tastes. I was becoming obsessed with everything that was nonverbal. I started to seek it out. I was getting into perfume samples, which I ordered in batches from a perfume shop in town, the perfumes all decanted into miniature atomizers and sent in clear plastic sachets; and also natural wines I bought online, old music, tarot cards, the coffee I was drinking, the chocolate I was eating. I took photos of flowers as they faded. I was worried that if I tried to write down these impressions in the journal I was keeping for the novel I was writing at the time they would get lost. So I began a separate notebook. It was a very small notebook, made by a Japanese manufacturer, that I’d bought and had never known what to use for. Writing in it always felt like defacement. But now its miniature size could be useful. Each new entry took up half a page.
The more I wrote, the more I started to think about what these impressions represented. I decided that the category of experience I was describing could be extended to anything that lingered—tiny scraps from my reading, stray physical memories. I came up with different definitions for what I was after: old-fashioned words like nuance, or timbre … I liked nuance because in Barthes’s lectures, collected in The Preparation of the Novel, he describes nuance as the practice of individuation. “Nuance = difference (diaphora),” he wrote, and then added a literary analogy: “one could define style as the written practice of the nuance …” On the level of style, he continued, nuance constituted the essence of poetry, the genre of minute particularities; on the level of content, nuance represented life.
Life! I missed life very much.
Anyway, this infrathin diary lasted about six months, maybe a little less. Then the urgency of these feelings and of recording these tiny sensations began to dissipate and was overtaken with a new obsession, or a new version of this nonverbal investigation. I started manically buying paper and ink and colored pencils and pens—to make small drawings and diagrams. And so I abandoned that notebook and began another.
La Perdida, O Pando 2018, citrusy, salt, chamomile, then what? A thin mineral sourness.
I hate all descriptions.
Maybe this will become all names and nouns.
Chanel’s Cuir de Russie—ylang and jasmine and iris, which somehow produces the illusion of leather. But then there’s also Rien by État Libre d’Orange, aldehydes then frankincense, incense, labdanum, which also produces leather but this one somehow fizzing, like it’s at a level above reality.
I have no idea how to write this. I wonder if you could do an essay on perfume writing as an example of the problem (impossibility) of all criticism: something abstract infected by people’s associations (the mad online reviews of Rien, which seem to be describing a perfume that’s completely different to the one I’m smelling).
Barthes—The Grain of the Voice: “talking about music without adjectives”
Air du Désert by Tauer—Amber, cedar, vetiver, with petitgrain, coriander, cumin, rose, and a powerful idea of incense, or myrrh: if, that is, I even know what myrrh smells like. (I don’t.) Something so rich about this, so matted—I wonder if what I love is this complication, sense of something dense and inextricable. (The allure of the burnt.)
Mendittorosa—Le Mat. Pepper and cashmere wood, then rose, clove, geranium, with immortelle, nutmeg, patchouli—another perfume that’s warm and bitter at the same time. A rose that sweats.
Gesualdo’s Madrigals recorded by Les Arts Florissants. Chromatics, dissonance in the rhythm as much as the harmonics. (Are all these excitements to do with layering? I mean, the perfume and the music share the same structure: something uncovered layer by layer?)
Whereas this one (Bogue–Mem) it’s as if this is a form of oscillation, whereas so many other perfumes are a progression. Technically an oriental fougère—lavender and roasted barley; underneath, civet, ambergris, castoreum, with little moments of petitgrain, mandarin, then ylang, rose, geranium, vanilla, mint; and finally cedar, benzoin, rosewood.
It’s unlike anything else I know.
Another perfume by Bogue—Maai. Again, something that uncovers in overlapping layers: a chypre that begins aldehydic, peppery, then becomes floral—eucalyptus, petitgrain, rose, and finally oakmoss, myrrh, labdanum (I’m copying this list out)—but so rich and so minute: candied fruit, ylang, cloves, cypress: something sticky, dirty, about its beauty.
Monteverdi’s Madrigali: polyphony and the invention of the concerted style—the play with voice and instruments that becomes opera. A definition I just read somewhere and can’t remember where.
L’Artisan Parfumeur—Timbuktu—this time vetiver with sandalwood and incense and cypriol: the opposite, in a way, of everything else: sparseness, cleanliness, separation of elements. So maybe it’s more boring.
Four perfumes today. I feel sick. It all began with Nicolai’s New York Intense: petitgrain citronnier, bergamot, maybe orange, then a deep pepper, clove, cinnamon that ends in oakmoss, incense, civet and musk: something deeply rich, regal about it, a sense of being encased. This was followed by Ormonde Jayne’s Ormonde Man: juniper, bergamot, and pink pepper, then vetiver, cedar, sandalwood, musk, with oud and black hemlock. Here it’s as if the arrangement expands in waves. I then decided to compare this with Ormonde Jayne’s Isfarkand—like a first variant on Ormonde Man: lime, mandarin, pink pepper, then cedar, vetiver, oakmoss: less enveloping, sharper, slightly more woody and also abrupt. And finished with Ormonde Jayne’s Black Gold, which begins like Isfarkand without the pepper: lemon, mandarin, bergamot, then goes closer to Ormonde Man, with oud, sandalwood, but also patchouli. It shimmers. (But how? What do you mean by shimmer?) It creates total presence, and maybe this illusion of presence is what these tastes or perfumes can offer—as if you can enter a new idea of a world or yourself, the way I inhabited this cloud while walking the dog in the dead park.
Lea Desandre singing Vivaldi arias – her voice has this woozy chromatic quality, as if something baroque is also supermodern. Maybe all pleasure is to do with sincerity or at least potential expression. These arias: idealised suffering.
Vetiver Extraordinaire by Frederic Malle, a sharp vetiver that has this little halo or surround of cedar and lemon. Can these sensations each have a different tempo? This feels very short, very sharp, something that exhausts itself in a single green outburst or movement.
Then I get it again and it smells totally different. WHY IS THIS?
Monteverdi’s Incoronazione—the voice dragging against the instruments: abrasiveness amongst the sweetness. Everything must catch, must take (timbre/nuance).
Maybe this is all a definition of the word nuance?
Zoologist—Hummingbird—it begins tutti-frutti, with cherry, plum, pear, violet-leaf, then enters a rich soft blur of ylang and mimosa and lilac, until ending on coumarin, musk, sandalwood – and I like it very much, but on me, not A., which must mean that as usual everything, even nuance, depends on context. And that one thing this diary is about is a return to an androgyny I thought I’d lost.
I always loved how small I was. I loved the adjective mercurial.
YSL—Rive Gauche—powdery, floral, and it’s dazzling because it’s so kaleidoscopic—a rotation of different elements.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: “I am always surprised when I see a completed work of something that I have done, all done piece by piece, and between jobs and breaks, in sleep, between arguments with Richard, all the maniac frustrations of these jobs, joblessness, poverty states …”
Nuance is identity (presence) and the absence of identity (fleeting).
L’Artisan Parfumeur—Dzing!—is it possible to have comical nuance? Surely yes, like this cardboard circus, something like that circus made by Calder, leather, fur, wood, talc, iris, caramel—all peppery and warm. (Like Jasmin et Cigarette by Etat Libre—the acrid delicious smoke of it, lingering amongst the jasmine.)
Papillon—Dryad: super elegant, but it turns out that elegance is boring.
Nicolai—Eau Mixte—the juniper in this made me immediately think of martini—no, made me want a martini. I miss martinis in dark bars. But that’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that it seems it’s impossible for abstraction to exist.
Frederic Malle—Geranium pour Monsieur—a nuance is a sequential procession—I’ve said this already, but it’s what I keep thinking. Or, I like it when the sequence is overlaid on itself, which is why it’s so surprising how much I like this perfume—but perhaps the answer is its stickiness.
I can’t think of any better way of describing stickiness than stickiness.
Nuance as what you remember: scattered, sparse.
Frederic Malle—French Lover—What makes it alluring is its hard, cold, leafy astringency, incense, pepper, galbanum, oak moss, which goes to a woody amber: but it’s an amusement, not something that convinces.
Frederic Malle—Une Rose—the pure lipsticky artificial pinkness of it.
August Kleinzahler in “Music XXII”: “I’m a timbre queen … I especially go for early keyboard instruments, precursors of the modern piano: harpsichords, clavichords, fortepianos, differing among themselves not only as to how their mechanisms work and basic sound, but by the vintage, instrument-maker, provenance, materials between like instruments, i.e., in the way that a Stradivarius or Guarneri violin has its own particular and differing sonic characteristics.”
In Plato’s Cratylus, I just read somewhere, Socrates describes the difference between the human and the divine as between the smooth—leion—and the rough—truchy. Like Dante on rough/hairy and smooth words.
Goatish tragedy; “rough hairy beasts” (Some Like It Hot): tragikos bios.
Chet Baker’s voice in Chet Baker Sings: lightness, floatiness, total smoothness. And yet I love it.
Barthes: “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs. If I perceive the ‘grain’ in a piece of music and accord this ‘grain’ a theoretical value … I inevitably set up a new scheme of evaluation which will certainly be individual … but in no way ‘subjective’ …”
Elmo Hope Trio—is speed always delightful? Maybe. I love this airplant tendrilly movement from block to block.
Masque Milano—Times Square—Crazed rose, lipstick accord, hazelnut, something gummy, like sweets, cheap sweets, tuberose.
E V-M—Paris Review—The image of Bolaño’s intensity, of E V-M’s intensity: Piglia’s description of the secret and occluded story in Kafka: purity of dedication, intelligence, playfulness.
Maybe this is all a pun on the idea of the note.
Musil in The Man Without Qualities: “The light in the room now resembled a hollowed-out silver cube … And at that moment something happened to her—it did not seem to come from her will but from outside—: the surging water beyond the windows suddenly became like the flesh of a sliced fruit and was pressing its swelling softness between herself and Ulrich.”
Derek Jarman’s Glitterbug. Filming like sketching (Sasnal)
Tacita’s postcard arrives: Shite Zeit, Anus Horribilis, faecism, miracolo de merde, mer de merde. Out of a baroque black and white cloudscape, a shit descends.
Everything is about something that develops over time. La Garagista’s Vinu Jancu—so floral, complicated. Here the orange wine has a layer of acidity with another layer of honey, rose, violet, fig leaf. Hedgerow eating.
Chocolate sorbet, hazelnut gelato.
You see? It was always going to end up as just nouns.
William Lawes, Consorts to the Organ. Lawes and dissonance: the negotiation of instability: movement between alien parts (Mem, Maai)
Billie Holiday—“Fine and Mellow”—on Whitney Balliett’s CBS show, 1957—Lester Young’s solo, and B.H.’s face—the beauty of the directly personal.
Thomas Adès’s idea of magnetism, indifferent to any break with tonality: ‘I don’t believe at all in the official distinction between tonal and atonal music. I think the only way to understand these things is that they are the result of magnetic forces within the notes, which create a magnetic tension, an attraction or repulsion.’
Morton Feldman on Beethoven: “It’s not so much how he gets into things that’s interesting, it’s how he gets out of them.”
Separation of elements – to separate might be a way for each element to acquire whatever is meant by life.
Transitions/juxtapositions (fluid, edge)—Adès: “A thing becomes possible which makes another thing possible which wouldn’t have been possible without it.”
Fetish notes—hinges of ambiguity.
Malted milk chocolate from the Saint Vincent Cocoa Company—jammy, figgy, custardy—all the words approximate, requiring the havering suffix—y. (Which you always like.)
Definition of a diva—in Koestenbaum: “public, creamy, and colossal”!
Residue: “I can remember seeing her once in the opera of Didone, but can say nothing of her performance, all I can recollect of it being the care with which she tucked up her great hoop as she sidled into the flames of Carthage.” Richard Edgcumbe on Caterina Gabrielli, quoted by Koestenbaum
The cartoon blue of hydrangeas, with no grading or mixture in it.
Thom Gunn’s essays on Robert Duncan: as if the pleasure is all in a refusal of a certain modernism. Lushness, instead.
Radikon—Sivi: something I’m now beginning to understand: the chypre-like structure that is everywhere, in perfumes and wines and chocolate and coffee: stone fruit turning into citrus. So this one bores me.
A.’s legs on my shoulders, my cock in her, seeing it, watching it—the sensation of such depth, such warmth—her pinkness, my redness. Like you could say: it looks raw but it feels soft.
Fanny Burney, April 1788: “transactions, reflections, feelings, and wishes.”
Raisins Gaulois—Lapierre—Gamay: total pleasure, as if the taste transports—in this case to Paris in some idyll of romance—a tiny restaurant, constant drinking, with no future pain or sadness implied.
Complication is depth, is time: something turning into something else.
Color and taste. Coffee from El Fénix in Colombia—pink bourbon: jam, peach, watermelon—pink colors for the pink berries? Coffee from Boji Kochere, Ethiopia: blue—fizzy blue, melon gummies, milk tea
But how to create this kind of nuance in a work? You can’t. Nuance has to be assumed, or hoped for.
In the early morning, my hand between A.’s breasts. How the breast feels on the back of my hand.
The problem with anyone reading this would be to make them read as slowly as I try to imagine these adjectives.
What are these notes except an attempt to recover a previous self—or something else, a permitted feminization, maybe.
The catalogue of Xenakis’s drawings from the Drawing Center years ago: the colors, the lines of his arborescences, grids, clouds.
Peonies fading from crimson to pink to cream to ivory to white.
Adam Thirlwell’s new novel The Future Future will be published later this year. He is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.
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