... [a] gripping olfactory history ... Schlögel writes, briefly but shatteringly, of how the uncontrollable stench of Auschwitz’s furnaces drifted over the Polish countryside ... Schlögel, a specialist on Russian history based in Frankfurt, is sensitive to how, in the hierarchy of the senses, smell is at the bottom ... He has done something improbable: written a memorable book about the most ungraspable of historical phenomena. Osip Mandelstam said there was a noise of time (hence the title of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich); Schlögel plausibly argues there is a smell too.
Schlögel is a knowledgeable guide through the eras covered ... Schlögel’s work places each perfume in its cultural context ... The Scent of Empires views the twentieth century through the tantalizing lens of an iconic perfume and its Russian rival.
Schlögel’s attempt to extract the quintessence of totalitarianism from the formulae of a pair of successful perfumes soon gets sticky ... Perhaps Schlögel’s formidable reputation as a historian rendered his editor as timorous as Lagerfeld’s PR assistants; his observations are reiterated more frequently than the boucle jacket. Our perception of the world, we are reminded on page 24, does not only occur through our eyes, a point so penetrating that the author repeats it on page 25. Between repetitions, The Scent of Empires attempts to draw parallels between the careers of Chanel and Zhemchuzhina ... Schlögel’s suggestion that the women’s lives in some sense mirrored one another fails to elide the fact that Chanel was a creator while Zhemchuzhina was a bureaucrat. Unlike many of Chanel’s biographers, Schlögel’s reverence for her talent does not inhibit him from confronting her collaboration with the Nazis and—to a lesser degree—her self-serving antisemitism ... Schlögel quotes effectively from Konstantin Verigin’s memoir Fragrance (1960) ... but despite the doggedness of his scholarly approach, it is perhaps the original Fragrance that readers will want to sample.