The story from Lolita was first meant to take place in Provence but then, this Provence becomes a metaphor because Van Gogh is present in the novel through the reproduction of paintings cherished by one character. But inside this story is a secret code and a perfume. All the essence captured by the relation between the man and the very young girl has already been captured in a painting, in a strange word and in a very rare perfume. The secret of Nabokov is a perfume that escaped to all western critics because this was deeply buried in his early life and left almost no trace on the market, at least not on the American soil.
When the book was released in 1955 it was in the middle of the Cold War but with one single reference Nabokov told an invisible story that linked past-present, east and west.
Vincent van Gogh painted La Mousmé in 1888 in Arles and now the painting is in USA (Washington National Gallery) since 1929. The personal history of the painting and its journey Berlin-Paris-London and finally New York has surprising similarities with the Nabokov own exile.
"It took me a whole week...but I had to reserve my mental energy to do the mousmé well." This name, he explained, came from a character in a popular novel set in Japan. "A mousmé is a Japanese girl—Provençal in this case—twelve to fourteen years old." wrote Vincent to Théo.
What a surprising coincidence with the character from Lolita.
In his painting Van Gogh not only captured the emotion and the tension of a possible imaginary relation, but he also planted the seeds of a book. If in XIXth century Nature inspired Art in the XXth century and through the words of Nobokov, Art became Real and an untold history painted by Van Gogh becomes novel.
But the history of the first Lolita has not ended yet.
One of the most mysterious and forgotten Russian fragrances is called Мусмеа - Mousméa in French. In a Russian dictionary from 1910 I found exactly the same description as the one given by Van Gogh. The name, with a very French accent reveals nothing unless you dig deep in the history. The poetic name put on the label of a seductive perfume is the best metaphor for a decadent sin - the forbidden love with a young girl hypnotized by the power of fragrance. During La Belle Époque the fascination with Japan was not just about art / ikebana and Zen. For many it was an exotic dedication where forbidden pleasures were free for white men (as they were also in the colonies). Vintage pictures from that time shows the Japanese prostitution to a level that we could not understand today. No surprise that Madame Butterfly was written at that time.
Mousméa was an expensive extract in Russia and it was still produced when the soviets arrived. In fact, it is found in a catalogue of the trust TEJE (late 20's - there is as well a Cio cio san perfume).
Nabokov (also a synesthète) left us clues and the discovery of this perfume was one my greatest joy of the year.
The very first Lolita perfume was not a marketing creation but an untold story. The last drop left the earth decades ago and became a novel. No one knows the smell of the precious Мусмеа unless one day the formula will be resurected like in Sleeping Beauty.
Here you have the description of this rather strange french word, given by Marcel Proust in Le Côté de Guermantes: "C’est Loti qui introduisit ce mot en France. C’est un mot qui signifie jeune fille ou très jeune femme. C’est un des plus jolis mots de la langue nippone ; il semble qu’il y ait, dans ce mot, de la moue (de la petite moue gentille et drôle comme elles en font) et surtout de la frimousse (de la frimousse chiffonnée comme est la leur). Je l’emploierai souvent, n’en connaissant aucun en français qui le vaille."
The word in japanese would be musume (written mouzoumé in 1869 in french)
The was also an opera in 1909 with this name.
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Fragrance is the 8th Art - Octavian Coifan - Le Parfum est le 8ème Art