I once collected stamps, magazines, cards, and photographs. The magazines became a problem because, in my late teens, I amassed 8 metres-worth of magazines into my small room. I was hoarding by whatever means I could get them. Without intervention something changed. I clipped favourite images from those magazines and stuck them in a new collection of … scrapbooks. Flipping through the books my teenage dreams return with every smell of aged glue, paper, and ink. Now I’m inclined towards the less and the uncluttered, but there is no avoiding collecting.
Since mid-year, I’ve been collecting passages in books that relate to smells. Writers, and their characters, set the scenes predominantly through visual imagery and language. Literary descriptions of smells in the books that I’ve read – fiction or not – is rare unless the book is about perfume itself. When I read a character describe their environment through their sense of smell that’s when I feel like I am invited to step into the character’s feet and not just be a reader.
Here are smell descriptions from some books I’ve read in the last six months that have allowed me to be both excited and present whilst entering into the lives of others and deepening my own:
“They called a rickety elevator, the wooden cab filled with a floral powder essence, as if it had recently released old ladies on their way to church,” Angelology, Danielle Trussoni.
I think of a combination of violets, tuberose, rose, gardenia, jasmine, elemi, iris. And imagine these ladies in their Sunday dress in a New York building.
“…the unripe banana stench of stale beer,”
“As a child I believed that history was a kind of smell, the scent of baking clay – musty and biscuity. Or of the sunshine drying seawater on human skin,” A Guide to Berlin, Gail Jones.
Images of the morning after, nights before, the adventure in smelling something off, and different. And the sensual combination of earthy memories and salty skin come to mind.
“He would find out whether the Thames smelt of damp washing the way the Seine did,”
“Adamsberg opened the window and looked out at the lime trees. They had been in flower for a few days and their scent floated in on a breath of air,” An Uncertain Place, Fred Vargas.
Historian and writer Fred Vargas sets the scene showing Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg’s gentle humour. In the second passage, Adamsberg tells a son that his father has just been murdered. The smell description renders a visceral experience, and gets the adventure rolling on the whodunnit question.
“The other half arrived on the scent of girls in need of money who might be cajoled into dispensing with condoms,” In My Skin, Kate Holden.
A description on the kind of men that frequented the brothel the author worked at. For me, the line has a look-you-in-the-eyes honesty to it.
“The scent of Guido still condensing on her body under the sheet,”
“She showers, glad to sluice herself clean, sorry to lose the scent of her triumph,” The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days, Kate Holden.
Tingly scenes of sex (salty skin, sweat, hairs, saliva), and impermanence.
“No fragrance is more genuine than the flower of one’s being, so unconsciously sought after. Man cannot give off this fragrance by himself, so he puts on perfume derived from the essences of flowers.
“With a person born to his or her “becoming,” however, smell is the fragrance emanating from body that has been quintessenced in the accomplishment of the Great Work of alchemy,”
“The scent of flowers is by the symbolic reflection of the scent of man who has attained the highest expression of virility, of man deified and partaking of the bright resonate, and fragrant vibrations of God,” The Body and Its Symbolism, A Kabbalistic Approach, Annick de Souzenelle.
Throughout de Souzenelle’s chapter on the spiritual and physical functions of the nose I imagined perfumer Francis Kurkdjian’s work with orange blossoms.
“And so they turned, battling in the narrow room, and the odour of Elisha’s sweat was heavy in John’s nostrils.
“…and John, watching these manifestations of his power, was filled with a wild delight,” Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin.
John, and young priest, Elisha, have a friendly fight while cleaning the church before a life-changing mass. Baldwin brings us up close, as if we are the one in the fight.
“Yet the distance between them was abruptly charged with her, and her smell was in his nostrils. Almost, he felt those moving breasts beneath his hand. And he drank again, allowing, unconsciously, or nearly, his face to fall into the lines of innocence and power which his experience with women had told him made their love come down,” Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin.
Gabriel’s, John’s Pentecostal minister stepfather, account of the night he succumbs to his temptation. James Baldwin writes several smell descriptions of Gabriel’s experiences with women throughout the book, often involving whisky, along with guilt and fear.
“Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent,” The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben.
Trees, such as beech and oaks, will release scent compounds that travel in the air to warn other trees that is in being eaten in order to protect themselves. By making their leaves bitter, for example.
The next books in line as the year ends and the new begins are Swing Time by Zadie Smith, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes, The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, and The Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs. A new collection of books, passages, pages, worlds, and scents are coming.