Sunday, October 28, 2012

scent in literature

My first real memory of scent in books is when I read The Tin Drum as a young adult. Oskar said that Maria smells like vanilla, so I used to dab vanilla extract on so I too could smell like vanilla.

Currently I am reading I Capture the Castle, written by Dodie Smith.  I cannot remember why I put this book in my 'to read' list on Goodreads.  I believe it is because at one of our writers' creativity night get-togethers, we were all asked to talk about some of our favorite books of all time, and this was one member's favorite.

(photo of Manorbier Castle, which was used in the 2003 movie)

And then, a few months later, Olenska mentions the book in her Soivohle Yin Hao Eau de Parfum review.  Don't you just love when that happens!?  I sure do.

This book is bursting with scent images - I'm only half way through, but I wanted to share some of these lovely passages with you:

"How well I remember that run through the stillness, the smell of wet stone and wet weeds..."

"The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss and the air was scented; it smelt a bit like bluebells but richer, deeper. 'What does it smell of, exactly?' I said. And Rose said 'Heaven.'"

"There was a wonderful atmosphere of gentle age, a smell of flowers and beeswax, sweet yet faintly sour and musty; a smell that makes you feel very tender towards the past."

"And there was a glass table with at least half-a-dozen bottles of scent and toilet-water on it. (Americans say 'perfume' instead of 'scent' - much more correct, really; I don't know why 'perfume' should be considered affected in England.)"

"I noticed the mysterious old-house smell again but mixed with Mrs. Fox-Cotton's scent - a rich, mysterious scent, not a bit like flowers."  (I wonder what the perfume was!?  The book was written in 1948 but the story is set in the mid-1930s I believe.)

And finally:

"'And how many things can you smell?' I asked Simon.  We counted up:
     Wood smoke
     A farm smell coming on puffs of breeze (we subdivided this into:  
              Straw, hay, horse, clean cows: good.
              Manure, pigs, hens, old cabbages:  bad - but not too awful if only in little whiffs),
     A wonderful pie cooking somewhere,
     The sweet, fresh smell which isn't quite flowers or grass or scent of any kind, but just clean country air -one forgets to notice this unless one reminds oneself."

Are there any descriptions of scent in literature that speak to you?

16 comments:

  1. "I Capture the Castle" is on my nightstand right now too because of Olenska - I just have to finish "These is My Words" for book club and "Necromancing the Stone," (sequel to "Hold Me Closer, Necromancer" and my personally appointed winners of "Most Awesome Book Titles Ever."

    Most of the descriptions of smells I've enjoyed in literature have to do with food: "Like Water for Chocolate" and the recently read "School of Essential Ingredients," and I remember vividly reading about the comforting smell of stew cooked on a Bunsen Burner in "A Wrinkle in Time." I also really enjoyed Molly Birnbaum's memoir "Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way."

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    1. Hey Dionne!! I bet you are going to love ICtC!! And I'm laughing (and have an earworm) re: HMC,N. Too funny!!

      So interesting that you pick up on the cooking smell descriptions - now I'll be aware of that more. Thanks! I tend to hone in on personal and atmosphere-ish smells mostly. In Cloud Atlas (which was the book I read before this one), there were two personal smell mentions that I remember - one of 'lava and ash' and another of almonds.

      And also because you mentioned food, and those books, I'm going to ask my one sister who is interested in food histories and all things foodie in general if she picks up on that, too.


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    2. Well, Carol, as you know - we seem to have a special talent in sniffing things out. I'm not sure that I focus on food scents specifically, but scents in general. I have always been hyper-focused on food description in general and one of my favorite books as a child had a lot to do with the inclusion of food - Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy." I do know that especially since I began my studies, I tend to pick out food and smell descriptions in what I have been reading. I love the description on "lava and ash" you mention. I can actually taste that - most probably because I had a penchant for consuming burnt matchsticks as a child. Can you say "pica?!"

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    3. I sure can - pica!

      Thanks for chiming in, my sister. One of these days I need to take a look at the Little House Cookbook. But in the meantime, I'm going to start my annual re-read of the books.

      love you!

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  2. Have you read 'Parfum'? Disturbingly good.

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    1. I have, Sonia, and you put it perfectly "disturbingly good"; the film wasn't a bad adaptation of it, either.

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  3. Read I Capture the Castle for the first time a few years ago and it is a wonderful old favorite of mine now, up there with Cold Comfort Farm.
    The last description you quoted sounds like where I grew up in rural Maryland,cows and chickens and hay. Come to think of it, L'Air de Rien is not so far off it-minus the hay-that is.

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    1. howdie BA - I was thinking of perfumes that would match those descriptions - L'Air de Rien does come to mind for that passage! I was trying to find out if there was indeed a bluebell-scented perfume as later in the book Cassandra gets a present from Rose of that type of scent. I found nothing. Sigh.

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  4. Lovely post, two books I've read recently with satisfying scents; Joanne Harris-Blackberry Wine
    Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni-The Mistress of Spices, also made into a film. (I haven't seen it but I don't think the reviews were very good).

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    1. thanks for stopping by, WDiva! I just added them to my list. Thanks so much!!

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  5. Loved your literary scent quotes, Carol. My favorite? Michael Chabon's The Amazing Advenutres of Kavalier & Clay. A mind-blowingly beautiful book, period ... and he evokes the olfactory sense in so many of his descriptions.

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    1. Thanks Suzanne. I'm so bummed that I finished that book :(

      I'll have to try Chabon. For some reason, I lump Chabon with Franzen and have never read him. Added to list!!

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  6. I Capture the Castle is one of my very favorite books! I'm going to have to reread it now with a focus on the scent images. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. Hello Jaclyn! Thanks for posting - I just finished the book and actually want to re-read again already. Her imagery in general is just fantastic. You're welcome!!

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  7. I adored this book when I read it at school, I think - should try to get my hands on a copy again...I would see it through new eyes, as in nostrils, obviously.

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    1. oh you must! what an absolute joy to read - you'll be delighted with all the scent images!! (I got my copy for 3 dollars on amazon.com - used but in nearly perfect condition - I'd send it to you, but I selfishly want to keep it to read it again, and again)

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