Sunday, February 26, 2012

Savouring the scents of smelly stories

Just another Crikey site
Guest post by Elizabeth Redman
Every debate I have ever heard about e-books goes something like this:
Advocate: ‘E-books are cheaper, more portable and quicker to access than paper books. They also allow authors to self-publish more easily.’
Critic: ‘Yes but paper books are so much better because of the way they smell.’
My nose is not very discerning but I had never noticed the smell of any books to be anything extraordinary. That is, until I read Cargo by Jessica Au.
It’s not the physical copy of the book that smells any different. Rather, it’s her vivid depictions of a small coastal town. The beach smells so strongly of seaweed and salt that teenage swimmer Gillian can taste it at the back of her throat, and when she gets out of her local pool she smells like chlorine, girlish sweat, pear-scented shampoo, and perhaps a thin vapour of sadness. Her love interest Alex the surfer smells like wax, aftershave and Coopers Red (not just any variety of Coopers, mind), and the damp beach towel in the back of his van gives off cigarette smoke, cologne and dope.
Fascinated, I sought out other books that describe the odour of things.
Perfume by Patrick Süskind sets the bar high. Translated from the German in 1986, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man who had the most outstanding sense of smell of his time. He can identify every odour surrounding him in the poor neighbourhoods of 18th century Paris:
It was a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw.
The scent of tears! I don’t think I could pick it out in a line-up, but Grenouille can. He can also track down a young woman sitting in her courtyard half a mile away by following his nose, and he can recreate one of the most popular perfumes in the city by identifying its ingredients. The search for a sublime scent (which also occupies many of the characters in Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, published around the same time) is more important to Grenouille than popular standards of decency or ethics. I won’t spoil the end, but he doesn’t always use his powers for good, to put it mildly.
Immersing myself in the book’s scented world even began to affect my experiences outside its pages. While reading Perfume I started to pay more attention to the smell of objects around me: the drops of vanilla essence that lingered on my hand when I was making a cake; a pile of dirt at a construction site; cloves of fresh garlic in the greengrocer.
Things were smellier in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Vendela Vida points out – rubbish was dumped into the street and baths were infrequent. This might explain why descriptions of smell seem more common in literature written or set in this period. Prolific 19th century French novelist Emile Zola writes of the overpowering stench of humanity coming from piles of dirty laundry in L’Assommoir (sometimes translated The Dram Shop). Washerwoman Gervaise is used to the smell of bleach and soap at her work, as well as the odour of slaughtered animals that wafts on a cold breeze through her window. But finally the dirty clothes become too much, overwhelming Gervaise and her husband Coupeau – the effects of the smell and the heat are the beginning of their downfall.
Representations of 19th century England were full of odours too. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, the lawyer Mr Jaggers washes his hands with scented soap whenever he returns from a courtroom or dismisses a client from his office. Although he physically washes his clients away, the soap scent clings to his skin. Yet London itself was not so pleasant in 1860 when the novel was first serialised: Pip’s first lodgings are described as smelling of dry rot and wet rot and the rot of rat and mouse.
That doesn’t mean contemporary writers ignore smell. The characters in Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy seem to eat many pieces of toast, and the smell of toast and bacon wafts through the novel, for example. And then there are wordsmiths like Benjamin Law. In his memoir The Family Law, he equates masculinity with the odours of Lynx, Brut-33, and the auditory and olfactory musical his bowels produce after binges of raw egg protein shakes. Elderly people in his book smell of camphor or mothballs and a deserted tourist attraction made from hundreds of empty beer bottles smells less of beer and more of urine.
Mmm… mothballs, urine and protein shakes. Books have many more smells than the much-romanticised odour of ageing paper and glue.
What are your favourite smelly books?
Elizabeth Redman is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. She has just finished a year as co-editor of Farrago magazine and is open to all job offers. You can read more of her work at
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