The Greatest Perfumes Never Made – Bulgakov The Master and Margarita

Recently I started re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. This masterpiece novel had left so many visual impressions on me, that I wanted to visit them to put them back in the right order so to speak. The book seems to be made out of images, one stronger than the next; Behemot the speaking, gun carrying and chandelier swinging cat, Satan himself in the disguise as ‘professor’ Woland, a ‘magician’, the naked broom-riding Margarita as the Master’s mistress, Pontius Pilate and Yeshua a Notsri (as themselves). There’s even a short cameo for the atheist head of the literary circle called Berlioz, which makes me think of the ‘programme’ symphony, Symphonie Fantastique by that composer, which ends with a 5th movement called “Songe d’un Nuit du Sabbath” (Dream of a night at the Sabbath).


I shall not attempt at a summary, (I was personally sold to this book by the thought of a speaking cat), but the main story lines are that of Woland and his gang creating a mayhem in 1930s Moscow, that of Pontius Pilate and the trial of Yeshua a Nostri, and that of Margarita flying off to Walpurgis night and ultimately succeeding in being rejoined with ‘the Master’.

There are a few passages of scent, but to me by far the strongest is the start of the second chapter, when Pontius Pilate is suffering a terrible migraine, and describes the smells around him.

“In a white cloak with a blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there emerged into the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. More than anything else on earth the Procurator hated the smell of attar of roses, and the omens for the day ahead were bad, for that smell had been haunting the Procurator since dawn. It seemed to the Procurator that the smell of roses was being emitted by the cypresses and palms in the garden, and that mingling with the smell of his escort’s leather accoutrements and sweat was an accursed waft of roses.image
From the wings at the rear of the palace that quartered the Twelfth Lightning Legion’s First Cohort, which had come to Yershalaim with the Procurator, a puff of smoke carried across the upper court of the garden into the colonnade, and with this rather acrid smoke, which testified to the fact that the cooks in the centuries had started preparing dinner, was mingling still that same heavy odour of roses.
“O gods, gods, why do you punish me?… No, there’s no doubt, this is it, it again, the invincible, terrible sickness… hemicrania, when half my head is aching… there are no remedies for it, no salvation whatsoever… I’ll try keeping my head still…”
Cypresses, palm leaves, leather, metal, sweat, smoke and above all; roses.
After my many attempt at finding the right rose, I feel that with perhaps exchanging sweat for warm animalics, this could be the foundation for rather a great dark rose.
A link here for the 5th movement of Symfonie Fantastique
pics mine, The Master and Margarita excerpt in the translation of Hugh Aplin.

13 thoughts on “The Greatest Perfumes Never Made – Bulgakov The Master and Margarita

  1. I love The Master and Margarita too. It’s one of my favourite books from the Russian classics.

    I recall a reference to Guerlain in the book, which was definitely a popular name in Tsarist Russia. I wonder myself what the characters would smell like. In particular, what fragrances they would wear.

    Speaking of the roses, I recently smelled Amouage Opus IX, which features varnish and rose. It’s a very interesting composition, which reminds me of the scene at the theatre when Woland performs his tricks.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

    • Hi ScentBound, Thank you, and good point. “Guerlain, Chanel, Mitsouko, no5, Narcisse Noir” are announced at the magic show, but with no further meaning to them. And how interesting about opus IX reminding you of that particular scene, I will try and remember that when I get to smell the Amouage. It’s such a great book, luckily Russia has no shortage of great writers 🙂

  2. The speaking cat would pique my interest too, though I sense this book has rather too much going on for me to be able to keep up with the action! I can enjoy your illustrations meanwhile. Margarita on the broomstick reminds me that it was World Naked Gardening Day yesterday, of all unlikely things.

    And hold on, wouldn’t a rose scent, even tweaked, and with only a tangential link to Pontius Pilate, still be hard to love?

    • Indeed M&M has so much going on, I can see how not everyone would enjoy having to follow all plots. In the little research I did, it turned out Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber abandoned his ideas of turning the novel into a Musical, for exactly that reason. (I will allow my self to be very relieved 😉 )
      World Naked Gardening Day actually exists? I know a girl who once mowed the lawn naked, but only to make a point to her too curious neighbors! But a World Day, 😀

      Perhaps it would be very hard to love a perfume which such a reference, although the Pontius Pilate of the book is a slightly different character (no plot spoliers), but also the notes are those which cause or intensifies his migraine, so it’s like Pilates’ nightmare perfume. I’m not sure though, hasn’t ELdO createt worse names than that? (‘Don’t get me wrong baby, I don’t swallow’…)

  3. The Master and Margarita is one of my all-time favorite books so I was especially pleased to read this post. And the quote you used is one of the most famous quotes from this book (though I’ve never read it in English before – so it was something new for me today).

    That would be an interesting perfume! I’d have definitely given it a try.

    Now I want to re-read it again…

    • I think I knew it was one of your favourites, and I completely understand you. I didn’t know it was one of the most famous quotes though, but when you mention it I see that it would be so in that it can so easily stand alone, and is such a powerful image.
      Reading Master and Magarita, I can’t help the feeling that any Russian would obviously understand the layers of this book much more, and that I’m missing out on something. As for translations I actually read the Danish translation, just because I borrowed the book the first time around, but I always wondered wether German or English ( or even Danish) would be the better language to read a Russian translation in? I think English has the most words, but it doesn’t strike me to be to the point enough the way I imagine Russian to be?

      • I haven’t tried reading it in English so I wouldn’t know from the point of the language nuances but the social significance of different scenes, phrases, etc. cannot be completely comprehended without being a part of that environment. But, most likely, it’s true about any deeply cultural-based literature so we all rely upon our common sense, general knowledge and our own picture of the world.

        • Oh, I didn’t expect you to have read it in English, just wondered from a linguistic point of view how you felt Russian translates into English? If it takes on a significantly new ‘character’? But you’re right, the nuances rely upon our cultural roots to be fully understood.

  4. Thank you for introducing me to this book, Asali. I’m more than a little intimidated by the Russian classics but I should at least try. The Master and Margarita does sound fascinating and that scent is definitely something I’d be interested in 🙂

    I love how in the main pic you’ve managed to make Margarita’s skin look like it’s bathed in moonlight and beautifully shadowed. Now I’ve started going to an art group I have even more admiration for your talent!

    • You’re welcome, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by this one, it’s not War and Peace 😉 and books are there to be read, if you like it- great, if not, it’s no big deal. Yes, that scent image is strong isn’t it?
      And thank you for complimenting the pictures, I think most mortals are only too aware of the talent around them and their own shortcomings, that’s why my mantra is that I need to enjoy doing it, and I hope you do too. The main thing is to not give up, like with running ( or any other thing) everyone has bad days, but keeping at it is always an improvement. Sorry for the ‘lesson’, it was meant as much for me as you, as it’s something I’ve been giving some thoughts lately.

      • I’m really grateful for your advice and encouragement because I have discovered that could be a real block for me. I’m judging and wishing I’d never given it up in my youth (after criticism from art teacher). I’m also trying to tell myself it’s about enjoying the process and not focusing on the result too much.
        We need to make art the way we did when we were children!

  5. I have not read this book, but my husband has partially read it. He was reading it when I was away visiting my family, and started having bizarre, violent, nightmarish dreams. He thinks perhaps it was the book, although he claims the book was not scary in the least and sometimes comical. I argued that perhaps he was afraid to sleep in the bed alone. 🙂

    Your perfume idea sounds really interesting – you must find a perfumer friend to turn your ideas into reality!

    • Haha, perhaps it was a bit of both, it sure is strong imagery, even if it isn’t exactly scary in the normal sense. Imagery in books does tend to get under your skin in the way a film could never do, because the imagery is your own.
      About turning the ideas into reality, thank you, perhaps one day 🙂 I would hate for it to feel like I was taking advantage of others (as in the authors) greatness. I know I always cringe when I read how someone took their inspiration from a great piece of art and turned it into something perfectly boring and nondescript. He!

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