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?
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.
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.