WHEN NEXT YOU MEET THE GREAT BIG SUN
by Daniel Parokia
translated by Louis Cancelmi
That summer of 1959, there was a scent wafting along the beaches of France which, in subsequent years, would never be encountered again. It was the scent of Ambre Solaire, a fabulous tanning oil dreamed up by Eugène Schueller—chemist by training, founder of the L’Oréal Group, and, in his spare time, amateur yachtsman.
Ambre Solaire was born in 1935 when Eugène, whose skin couldn’t tolerate the harsh sun out at sea, decided to create a body oil that would protect against solar rays while promoting suntan. One of the only compounds known to possess UV-filtering properties at the time was benzyl salicylate. Schueller’s Ambre Solaire therefore contained a singularly effective substance, in combination with a classic blend dominated by rose and jasmine. A passion for coastal areas and paid vacation took care of the rest: Schueller had invented the smell of the beach.
When, years later, researchers at L’Oréal discovered compounds much more efficient at blocking ultraviolet rays, the use of benzyl salicylate was discontinued. Sales plummeted instantly, as many consumers now missed what to their eyes—or rather, to their nostrils—constituted the scent’s particular charm. And so, not long after, the benzyl salicylate went back into Ambre Solaire, not as a sunscreen this time but as a layer of fragrance. In such tiny quantities, however, and blended now with other substances it didn’t harmonize with as before, it never again had quite the same effect. The new products were but pale copies of the original.
A mixture of floral, balsamic, sweet, succulent and spicy tones, benzyl salicylate—despite its rather long-lasting fragrance—is not especially strong on its own. It can be found in ylang ylang oil, and in absolutes of frangipani, carnation, and Tahitian Gardenia, conjuring irresistibly the exotic, evocative aromas of the South Seas. And by increasing its concentration, one obtains without fail that splendid impression of sunshine, which, for the tanning lotions of the 1950s, was the very key to success.
It was already a component in Je Reviens (Worth, 1932) and in Fleur de Rocaille (Caron, 1934), but joined here in unforgettable union with carnation, rose, jasmine and gardenia (which could also be found in those days in Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps), this chemical substance reinforced cravings for lightness, gaiety and romanticism among young women in the early post-war period.
L’Air du Temps and Ambre Solaire belong to that category of fragrances that put their stamp on the otherwise tasteless and charmless decade known as the Fifties. The miraculous recipe, built on a foundation of floral aromas, musk, woodsy notes and, naturally, those much talked about salicylates—benzyl, cis-3-hexenyl, and amyl—would generate the loveliest perfumes of the end of the last century: Fidji, Chloé, Anaïs, Charlie, Paris…
Joël, ever since he became a “nose”—that is, a tester and developer of fragrances—never tired of smelling them. You could even say it was thanks to these perfumes that he became a “nose” in the first place. Thanks, essentially, to Ambre Solaire, mother of them all.
The truth is (if I may be so bold), no one is born a “nose.” Rather you become one, and then the problem is to stay one: “noses” are easily lost, and perfumers know this better than anybody. Unlike Gogol, however, who detached this appendage from one of his characters and gave it, in the same stroke, its own independent existence, Joël managed to hold on to his—and doing so he made his fortune.
According to data archived by NASA, solar activity in the year 1959 was particularly intense. Wolf number values—which measure the number of sunspots and groups of sunspots observed by astronomers through their telescopes—were notably elevated in July and August. These figures take inventory of our star’s moments of passing weakness, when its local surface temperature drops by a little more than two thousand degrees.
Beginning in the month of January, you could detect a certain restlessness in our star. A huge group of sunspots, reported on the 4th to be running in long, gleaming faculae along the Sun’s eastern rim, was on the 17th migrating toward the western rim of the solar disc. On the 25th it split into two disjointed subgroubs, between which more turbulent regions could be inferred, evolving into coiling, spiral shapes, with pronounced curves along the northern edge. All these effects intensified in the weeks that followed, becoming authentic cyclones by around mid-April.
The increased number of bright surges around the limb and on the disc; the confirmed presence of dark surges in the central region; the appearance here and there of unforeseen eruptive prominences, along with, simultaneously, the sudden disappearance of quiescent and active filaments: though more or less comparable to what had been going on in preceding years, in May these phenomena took place on an unparalleled scale.
For all this, the solar magnetic field, subject to Hale’s law of polarity, and the considerable tidal effects of the giant gas planets—Jupiter and Venus—remained entirely consistent with standard benchmarks, and through the course of this half-year had produced no massive solar storms.
The Schwabe cycle, on the other hand, in the course of its eleven-year period, had reached its maximum value the year before. The number of sunspots and solar bursts, the intensity of flux and radiation—whether significant or perceptibly escalating—was interfering with the propagation of radio waves, notably that of short waves in the decametric frequency range, and this throughout the ionosphere.
From further and further away, strong electromagnetic storms were still interrupting communications, interfering with aerial and maritime navigation systems, preventing not only the tracking of ships or aircraft but the entirety of their transmissions.
In the Barents Sea and in Antarctica, aviators and seamen, when they weren’t watching their instruments go haywire, were staring awestruck at this balletic dance of particles which, caught in the Van Allen radiation belt, now flooded into the atmosphere, provoking what are called auroras above the North and South Poles, great canvases of color illuminating the night sky.
Despite the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere, which filtered the majority of these speeding particles, a certain number of them managed to cross through this barrier.
On Earth, plants, animals, and men were all subject to the effects of these electronic hurricanes. Photosynthesis may have been easier to carry out, but in blood serums the albumin wavered back and forth at the mercy of the solar field. Lymphocytes, which ordinarily make up twenty to twenty-five percent of white blood cells in humans, were in steady decline under the attack of this astral activity, increasing the instance of such disorders and pathologies as thrombosis, tuberculosis, or myocardial infarction. On the shores of the Black Sea, there were too many heart attacks to count.
Likewise, a marked upsurge in rather commonplace afflictions—melanoma, fever, heatstroke, ophthalmia or photoallergy—was affecting the whole territory of France, upon whose seaboard a suffocating heat had descended with the approaching summer.
Careless, negligent, frivolous, or completely blasé, sunbathers which until then had been exposed to mostly benign ultraviolet rays now began to dread our star and to look at it a bit as though it had turned evil. Above all, they wondered how to protect themselves from it.
Whence this dark brown, exceptionally fragrant oil, unlike any other, which bare bodies would from then on cover themselves with, and which made a brave (not always successful) go at opposing the harmful effects of our yellow dwarf.
But the sun’s ever more insidious influence didn’t stop at the frontier of the body. It stretched further, in fact, into the brain, penetrated consciousness itself even, acting on people’s central nervous systems, their sense of balance, and all of their mental faculties—emotional, affective, intellectual, to name but a few.
It made anxious personalities more unstable, made those prone to vertigo more irritable and nervous, made lethargic people feel more exhausted, afflicted the chronically depressed with amnesia, nausea, and palpitations, and generated dizziness, headaches or even just a constant and intolerable pressure in the most well-structured cranium.
Under the combined effects of solar wind and its bursts of increased activity, cellular memory (where the low-frequency energy of deep emotions is usually stored) would awaken, subtly, as a result of the impact of these particles, unleashing by turns feelings of sadness or grief, depression or even hatred, every long-buried trauma now resurfacing in response to quantum tunneling and ruptured membranes.
Vacationers weren’t sleeping well. They complained of visual disorders, inner ear problems, sore throats, tinnitus, general unease; they presented with abortive thyroid symptoms, experienced (on a smaller scale) cold sweats, clammy hands, or that miserable dry-mouth feeling that neither a glass of liquor nor a swim in the ocean can succeed in getting rid of.
And there was no antidote for any of this. No cream, no ointment, no spray to relieve the pain or the distress, nothing to keep the heart from burning. There was only life, and time, skating slowly toward the heavy gate.
It was in this troubled context that our story began. But if, despite all these reservations, you prefer a more tried and true formula—and for that matter a judicious one—you could say that in reality it was, all things considered, the start of a beautiful summer.
Let’s zoom in now on a villa at the edge of a little road, hidden among the foliage in the uplands of the village of Canadel.
In the garden of this villa, the plant beds were beginning to sprout, and right beside the house a shady terrace was becoming ever more inviting with the advancing summer.
If memory serves, there was a long and more or less oval-shaped table on the terrace, where people had lunch and dinner and, often, the coffee that went with it, which Joël would prepare—back then it was his only social function, his sole contribution, as far as I can recall, in terms of helping out around the house.
Frequently after meals Joël would remain at this table, protected from the sun by a parasol pine. He would set up camp on a chaise, always the same one and always in the same direction as the stripes (in order to avoid unnecessary questions).
Joël would smoke—nonchalantly—American cigarettes, tapping the ashes into an orange peel situated on one of the armrests. From time to time, the peel would fall, scattering ashes into the wind. While they dispersed—oh, well—he followed them with his eyes, not feeling anything in particular. Shoeless, he would air his bare feet serenely above the tablecloth, among the empty plates and serving dishes. His step-mother would clear the table, scrunching up her nose and eyebrows, but he couldn’t have cared less. He figured it well within his rights to assume a lolling air of self-importance around his family, especially in the middle of this heatwave, in this time of great excitement: summer vacation.
When the cicadas were away, Joël would hear the humming of flies, which were abundant that summer. In the course of their random motion—inelegant motion, Joël thought—they would sometimes happen upon some meat or fruit. Joël kept his eyes half-closed, waiting patiently for them to land. While they rubbed their fore-limbs together, an irritating gesture, incomprehensible to humans, he would slowly move his arm toward them, trying not to be too hasty and create an unintended draft. His hand, cupped like a circumflex, would capture the flies quite easily, with a quick upward movement, rotating just so. Then, bringing his fist to his ear, thoughtfully, he would listen to it crackle—bzz, bzz—like a crystal radio.
All was peaceful nearby. A ladybug crept around a bowl. Some ants were carrying off some bread. A thin slice of Swiss cheese, infested with lilliputian worms, performed its death throes in the dust. Joël spent a long time staring at these gnarled remains, their circular trimmings, their random holes—their fragmented dimensions.
He would always, in his magnanimity, let his prisoners go.
Then it was time to go to the beach. Perfectly still, like an iguana, he watched the others leave. He remained alone with the flies on the terrace, which had become burning hot.
Reading that Basarab Nicolescu, a young Romanian the same age as he, had won the first International Mathematical Olympiad—held in Braşov, Romania—Joël began immediately preparing for the next.
Once he’d found the list of problems, he set about feverishly trying to work out their solutions. But his passion was quickly exhausted and he fell asleep, under the spell of these mysterious puzzles. In any case, the competition was only open to countries in the Eastern Bloc. For some time longer—for all time, in fact—the International Mathematical Olympiad would remain beyond his reach.
When the day was at its hottest, Joël would head to the bathroom. His eyes swollen with slumber, lurching with every step, he slipped into the shower, still entirely asleep. The warm water mingled with shampoo and stung his eyes, streamed down his limbs. Awake at last, he rinsed himself off thoroughly.
Then, applying in succession the appropriate creams, he would treat his sunburns, which for the time being kept him off the beach, slather his insect bites, and tend to a few pimples—blackheads, which he would squeeze pitilessly between his thumbs.
Once finished with his ablutions, perched on the scale, he would verify his weight, one hundred thirty-two pounds and three quarters: “Too heavy for a Feather, too light for a Welter,” he would say under his breath.
Moving then in front of the mirror, he would inflate his torso imperceptibly, pull in his stomach ever so slightly. He observed how his body responded perfectly to his every order. Joël had nothing to worry about—truly, nothing.
At night, before surrendering to a dreamless sleep, he would think about the so-called happiness of being alive. Incomplete slices of life which he sacrificed without a second thought, his first days of unemployment unravelling like lace. Lost in this intricate network of dissolving nirvanas, Joël would for a long time give himself over to reflection, anxious about the dimension that was left.
From time to time, without warning, his father would come into his bedroom.
“You should get outside,” he advised, “take your mind off things.”
He would have liked him to get out and see other people, other boys his age. Joël was too worn out to argue, too irritated to disagree. Lying on his bed, he contemplated this man with indifference. Once a few minutes had passed, he would hold his arms open, let out a little sigh or sometimes, infuriated, go so far as to look at his watch. He considered these visits absolutely inappropriate and liable to produce every manner of demoralization. Without being overtly hostile, Joël, his back turned, would allow the unpleasant thoughts to mount up, feeding dark and vengeful designs against his father. He would also make grand, forbidding gestures and show real animosity toward doors: slam.
Joël thought his life, this ephemeral skin, was shrinking away bit by bit—whole portions of it had already crumbled to dust—and he felt himself listing slowly, at the ripe age of seventeen, toward a muted future in which nothing much would happen. Nothing much, Joël told himself, and he was ready to give up hope.
Yet it was at this very moment that—just like the flies he would capture mid-flight with such dexterity—the world around him, in disorganized movements, began to come to life.