Honeysuckle, Heat, and Humanity

The lilac is just finishing, but the honeysuckle is emerging into bloom. So’s the lavender and a mock orange making a slow appearance, too, along with even shyer rosebuds. June now. I do not grow flowers for their scent – I plant whatever will grow in our rather shady back garden, frankly. But it’s always a huge bonus if they give up their perfume.

I wrote about describing smells in text a while back – Creating the sense in writing: smell. It can be, I noted, an overlooked sense in literature. Plus, what takes you to a particular time and place, or releases a memory, like a certain scent?IMG_20200531_143008

The blooms prompt me to think of this again. Also, the fact I have just finished Michèle Roberts’s short story collection: Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, 2010 (my Goodreads reviews are fed into this blog, see below – in a slightly hit and miss process). Roberts is a sensual and vivid writer. Her descriptions of food, particularly given many of her stories are set in (her mother’s native) France, compel you to want to eat that potage, even that bowl of leftover cold rice and chicken, right this minute. Smells, too, are richly evoked, often sublime, in her work. The ‘scent of hot chocolate and yeast drifted out of the café’ (an essence of a small French town); and ‘the passages around Borough Market smell of exhaust fumes, refuse, rotting flowers.’ (a concentrated extract of London).

Writing of how smell triggers memory, in her novel The Looking Glass (2001), Roberts also describes how the recollection of a past love is evoked for her heroine Geneviève: …’to this day the scent of carnations brings him back. That powerful, almost choking combination that hits your throat : cinnamon sticks mixed with the rough sweetness of pears.’

If I say, ‘wood smoke’, ‘boiled cabbage’, ‘pine’, or ‘benzene’, perhaps ‘vanilla’, ‘manure’, or ‘grass’, what do you think of? Where does that take you, for better or for worse?

An often quoted statistic is that 75% of our emotions are triggered by smell. I cannot track down the origin of this figure. Something relating to marketing, I think. But it feels plausible, doesn’t it?

Sylvia Plath’s much praised opening passage to The Bell Jar (1963) refers to ‘…the fusty, peanut-selling mouth of every subway.’ Without referring to ‘smelling something’, as such, this takes the reader directly to the hot summer city streets. There are so many examples in that novel, from the vinegar stink of a preserved cadaver to the domestic ‘smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door.’ People, too, are described in smells. Plath describes an acquaintance, Doreen, as having an ‘interesting sweaty smell that reminded me of those scallopy leaves of sweet fern.’ Later, as she descends into depression, Esther’s own un-changed clothes, bring a strange comfort of companionship as ‘the sweaty cotton gave off a sour but friendly smell.’ Esther even decides to enjoy the smell of cigarette smoke if it helps to retain the company of her psychiatrist, Dr Nolan, a little longer.IMG_20200531_143113

We notice that this is not all about the jasmine and rose-fragranced air, then. There are unpleasant odours as well as good that transport us to places, conjure a scene. And the smells we like, at a personal level, are not always universal. I remember how my brother and I adored the whiff of freshly- laid tar, as kids, pushing our heads out the car window (we did that back then) to catch more of the sticky pungency – there is something organic in it somewhere, a deep peatiness.

Another writer of sensuous description, Angela Carter, writes of smells foul as well as fair, exploring the rancid, the warm animal reek and, as she put it, the ‘lingering odour of sexuality’. The ‘perfume of spiced leather’ betrays the silent presence of the sinister ‘Bluebeard’ of a husband in The Bloody Chamber (1979). In the same short story, the heroine compares her suitor to a lily, funereal, symbolic of the departed souls of the dead, a flower later described as distributing a ‘lush, insolent incense reminiscent of pampered flesh.’ It isn’t easy to describe smells, but this line gives me the precise putrid sweetness of a lily.

Carter’s characters, too, emit a human aroma. In Wise Children (1991), a lover, departing after an erotic encounter, is described as ‘smelling of Shalimar and sex.’ What a pithy, wonderful line. And in Nights at the Circus (1984), the dressing room of the sturdily beautiful and vulgar aerialiste Fevvers is a ‘hot, solid composite of perfume, sweat, greasepaint and raw, leaking gas…[with] a powerful note of stale feet.’ Clearly, in addition to the ability to fly, this lady, when she walks, treads on the ground – to borrow from Shakespeare.

There. Well. I have already admitted no lack of aversion to a bit of purple prose.

Looking out the window at the garden, I reflect how dry it’s been. Nothing more than a light shower, not for weeks on end. It makes me long for one of the best smells of all: the earth after rain.

 

Main image by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash

 

 

23 thoughts on “Honeysuckle, Heat, and Humanity

  1. I’m adding Mud: Stories of Sex and Love to my TBR. Thank you!

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    1. Roberts is great if you like beautiful and descriptive prose.

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  2. vinegar smell of a preserved cadaver – now, that’s an imagery that’ll stick!

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    1. Especially a head that ‘floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast…’ as Plath put it!

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  3. Food, love and fragrance- perfect combination for a beautiful setting. Loved the write up – and your read sounds interesting –

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    1. I agree – love sensual and lyrical writing like that.

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  4. All of these scents took me through a range of emotions.

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    1. I agree, smell is such an emotive and powerful sense. But so challenging to write about.

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  5. “Wood smoke et al” are fine. I draw the line at boiled cabbage. Ghastly. 😉

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    1. If you ask English, perhaps British, people, many, at least over a certain age (35/40?) will say it takes them back to school and school dinners (i.e. lunches). Not good!

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      1. Boiled cabbage at school? Goodness gracious. 😉

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        1. Not to mention the spam fritters and a creative confection names cornflake tart…

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          1. Reminded me of an oxtail soup in a camp in Maasai Mara National park in Kenya. Years ago. I opted for the curry. 😉

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            1. Good choice! At least in UK we had the sense to become curry lovers. Often the best way to eat cheaply in the country!

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              1. Which is a service to the community. I like curry. (Maybe my Pakistani birth?) How are things your end?

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                1. We’re better for our nearest Indian restaurant having re opened – for take away. Most ‘Indian’ restaurants in UK are in fact Bangladeshi.

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                  1. LOL. Not surprising. Our best “Indian” restaurant here, is actually run by Pakistanis. I understand, from Indian friends that “moslem” cuisine” is different and quite valued by Hindus. Weird. Namaste then.

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  6. Note to myself: add more smelly descriptions 😜 Great post! Btw my exam work at uni was “The colors in the novel of Dostoevsky, Crime & Punishment”… I wrote 70 pages about it. Damn

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    1. Hope it didn’t put you off! I seem to recall Dostoevsky being fond of the colour yellow, for some reason?

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      1. Yep, he liked yellow & all shades of it 😂 I haven’t read Crime & Punishment after that…but I read his other books 🙂 which I liked 🕺🕺

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        1. Crime and Punishment is one of only two by that I have read by Dostoevsky!

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          1. I think those 2 is good enough to understand his work/style… ✌️☀️

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