Serge Lutens: Perfume Genius

4.3.2011

By Abdella Taïa

The conversation turns to Paul Bowles and his wife, Jane, who for a long time lived in Morocco and knew how to capture in their books the madness and eroticism of Moroccan daily life. We move on to Roland Barthes, Herv' Guibert, Arthur Rimbaud, and, of course, Proust. The conversation with (and surrounding) their ghosts causes us to lose track of time. It seems that literature is pulling us away from talk of the fragrances. On the other hand, it brings us back to the question of origins, to a place: a street in the city of Lille, where Lutens grew up. The Rue de Tournai.

Like in a text by Proust, uttering the name Rue de Tournai brings Lutens back to a particular part of his life: adolescence. He speaks at length about this 'dangerous street,' frequented by Maghrebian immigrant men, his fear and fascination with the street as a teenager, his attempts to get to the bottom of his desire. He ended up getting there, filling himself up with the masculine atmosphere of the place. He tirelessly passed, again and again, the caf's filled with Arab men. He never went inside. He left. He came back. He'd forget about the street. He'd return to it, lose himself there.

All this happened at the beginning of the 1960s, when France was at war with Algeria, which was reclaiming its independence. When Arabs were poorly regarded by everyone in France.

Recalling this street, Lutens remembers his first desire, a palpable one. He remembers violent scenes, his father and mother endlessly fighting, his jealousy of his brother, his life in dotted lines, his almost sickly sensitivity: 'I felt everything too much'I felt like a man without bones.'

He remembers his father too, with whom he never got along ('He never stopped saying to me, 'You're stupid.' '). His father, who called him in Tokyo, at the other end of the world: 'I hadn't seen him in years. He wanted to tell me something. What? I'll never know.' His father died, rather young, a few days after this unexpected phone call. A father that people in the streets of Lille took for an Arab. Was he?

I ask the question several times.

Lutens, each time, changes the subject. He says, 'In Morocco, they take me for a Moroccan. What do you think?'

Boldly, I look him straight in the eyes. I see a man who doesn't look at all his age. An open and anxious face. Big, kind eyes. A vast, smooth forehead, like a continent. I see a teenager. He is afraid, still. Who has he become? Who is he still? A man from the city of Fez, the cradle of civilization and Moroccan sophistication. A man who has white skin but who goes under the sun, in astonishment, in wonder. A man who doesn't understand everything in life, but for whom that isn't a problem. A man who immediately seems so approachable, the kind of man you want to sit next to, have fun with, and listen to as he jumps from one topic to the next, whose delicacy you want to taste, whose silence you want to interpret, whose hand you want to hold. The kind of man who makes you question the world. The kind of man who makes you want to live, through him, another way, who makes you want to invent the origin of everything about him, including his obsessive fragrances.

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