Reek Between the Lines
Liam Pieper discusses the power of smell and great works of literature that stink to high heaven.
Once, in primary school, someone defecated in the playground. Specifically, in the tunnel, built into the half-hill under the tanbark; mysteriously, with wraith-like secrecy in a distracted moment of recess; precisely, a perfect spiral of soft-serve, steaming malodorously in the crisp winter morning.
Scent is inescapable. It is omnipresent and it muscles through the nostrils to lodge in the mind.
Our teachers could not find the culprit despite cajoling, bribery and the vague threat of genetic testing. In the end, they appealed to science, calling an assembly to explain scent to us. ‘When you smell poo,’ a teacher announced primly, ‘it is because little particles of poo are going inside your nose. You all have poo in your faces right now.’ We were scandalised, our imaginations taken hostage by this horrible plot twist.
Of all the senses, smell is perhaps the most invasive. More intimate than photons bouncing off rods and cones, or pressure against nerves in our epidermis, smell gets all up in us in the most profound way. Taste is perhaps more intimate, but we’ve got some degree of autonomy over what we put in our mouths.
Less so with scent. In Kate Grenville’s new book, The Case Against Fragrance, the celebrated author reveals she suffers from an unpleasant sensitivity to artificial fragrance and begins an investigation into the science and industry of perfume. Some people find perfume ‘an enrichment of life, like wonderful music,’ she writes. For Grenville herself, and others who get sick from fragrance, it’s ‘a tyrant that more or less runs (and ruins our) lives’.
In Grenville’s reckoning, the modern world is drenched with invisible, insidious and fragrant antagonists, silently causing headaches, wheezing, cancers, mutations. It is a hostile pre-apocalyptic wasteland that smells of cheap chemicals – a high-school gym writ large. Grenville notes wryly that, ‘the only way to avoid it is to become – to put it mildly – eccentric’.
It is true, scent is inescapable. It is omnipresent and it muscles through the nostrils to lodge in the mind. There it will wait a lifetime, ready for retrieval at odd intervals.
In reality, Mr Darcy would have smelt like sweat-stained shirts and rotting teeth and bathing once a week.
The madeleine scene in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the classic example. Technically it’s the taste of the cake that sets off the narrator’s journey through memory, but a good deal of taste is made up of smell anyhow. I know a primary school teacher who will happily explain it to you. Here’s the thing: Proust is of the finest authors to have ever riffed poetically about a snack for seven novels. Few writers have matched him in the sheer capacity to capture the ephemeral cognitive miracles that scent provokes.
German writer Patrick Süskind, in his 1985 creeper classic, Perfume, notes, ‘Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearance, emotions, or will’. That’s a power writers have tried to bottle since the dawn of literature.
Scent is evocative, in real life and on the page. Poets have anchored smelly images to words for so long, the lexicon reeks of them. Good writing is fresh, bad writing stinks. Love is sweet and defeat is sour. A thriller is redolent with mystery, a grunge novel, of shit.
The best writers of scent might be for children. Smells, good and bad, are a mainstay of kid’s literature. Restricted from exploring adult experiences like heartache and loss – children’s authors in search of a universal cultural touchstone reach out for the first antagonist in everybody’s life: farters.
Before Saruman, before Snape, everyone reviles the kid who stinks up the classroom. We turn against them, yet maybe we are them. It’s how we learn moral complexity, empathy, tribalism. The archetype for every literary epic ever written is printed into a young reader’s mind in, say, the Andy Griffith’s 2001 classic The Day My Bum Went Pyscho. The plot revolves around a cabal of malevolent arseholes who are plotting to destroy the world with an apocalyptic fart. This might also be the political playbook of certain incumbent governments.
In adult literature, smell tends to cleave closer to Grenville’s perception than Proust’s. If scent is rendered on a page outside of a romantic context, a bad time ensues. In The North Water, Ian McGuire’s brutal novel of the 1850s whale-killing industry, the vile and violent harpooner Henry Drax follows his nose to incident after incident of irrepressible viciousness. ‘He feels his heart swell and shrink, he smells the usual tavern smells – farts and pipe smoke and spilled ale’. From the first page, the savage realism is rendered in smell: bitumen and oil, the blood, guts, the rot. And, like Andy Griffith’s world: the farts.
Perhaps, when you think about it, it’s for the best that most writers don’t aspire to verisimilitude when it comes to scent. While some historical novelists reach back in time to summon the foulest of stenches to set the scene, most of the big names in the canon ignore it almost entirely.
Who can blame them? In reality, Mr Darcy would have smelt like sweat-stained shirts and rotting teeth and bathing once a week. We don’t need to know that, we brush over it. That’s the point of literature – it drowns out the prosaic with something more spectacular. It is fragrance for the imagination. And that, we must believe, is worth making a case for.
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