Lara Feigel is a tutor of English Literature at the University of Sussex and author of A Nosegay: A Literary Journey from the Fragrant to the Fetid (Old Street Publishing). Here, she chooses her favourite examples of writing on the subject of smell, all of which appear in her book.
1. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Still the last word in smell literature. Not only does he render a plethora of particular smells (hawthorns in bloom, petrol, the perfume of a beautiful woman), he also makes a convincing case for smell as the most evocative and memorable of human senses: “‘When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.” Don’t be scared by the size of Proust’s tome: start with volume one and you won’t look back.
2. Flush by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel is dominated by smell. For Flush, “love was chiefly smell; form and colour were smell … To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power.” Nonetheless, Woolf does exert her powers as best she can in describing the odours of London and Florence, of humans and dogs, and Flush is a masterpiece of olfactory writing.
3. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
This list would not be complete without Perfume, which is a classic piece of smell writing. Süskind is the doyenne of olfactory prose and this novel includes some virtuosic descriptions of the stenches of 18th-century France and the extraordinary aroma of a beautiful girl whose scent resembles “a piece of thin, shimmering silk” combined with “pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk.” Süskind’s name is everywhere at the moment with the release of Tom Tykwer’s film, which sadly doesn’t quite live up to the novel in its power to evoke smell, so read the book before you see it.
4. The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin
Scientist, amateur perfumer, writer, and nose extraordinaire, Luca Turin is one of the most exciting smell writers around today. He took the world of perfume by storm with his perfume guide, Parfum, written in 1992 during a break from scientific pursuits. This reads at moments as a Proustian remembrance of fragrances past: Nombre Noir is “halfway between a rose and a violet”, “glistening with a liquid freshness that made its colours glow like a stained-glass window”. His new book, The Secret of Scent, includes some lyrical descriptions of perfume and is also a daring piece of science. He rambunctiously dethrones the widely accepted notion that the smell of a molecule depends solely on its shape, asserting instead that the vibrations within the molecule play the crucial role.
5. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
George Orwell, the plain-speaking socialist documentary writer, was also an avid recorder of smells. I could have chosen any of his books here: each has at least one evocative description of the aromatic or the fetid. I have chosen Wigan Pier for its memorable description of the smell of the slums, and daring challenge to the British middle-class who, he claims, believe that the working-classes smell.
6. Toast by Nigel Slater
Slater’s recent biography is a must for olfactory bibliophiles. Food and smell are natural bedfellows, of course, and Slater’s childhood memories are permeated by both. The odour of bread-and-butter pudding, of orange-and-clove pomanders and of his Aunty Fanny’s urine are all lovingly scrutinised by his discerning nose.
7. Problems by Aristotle
Aristotle’s book of conundrums has two sections on smell: one on problems connected with unpleasant smells, and one with pleasant smells. For a book written in the fourth century BC, the problems are strikingly modern, reminding us how smell connects us to our long-dead ancestors. “Why,” Aristotle asks, “is the armpit the most unpleasant smelling region? Is it because less air reaches it? Why does urine become more evil-smelling the longer it remains in the body, while dung becomes less so?”
8. Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire
‘As other minds float on music,’ Baudelaire wrote in La Chevelure, ‘mine, o my love, swims on your perfume.’ Baudelaire’s poetry was dominated by the sensual and this collection is peppered with paeans to smell. He extols the odours of ‘promises, perfumes, endless kisses’ in Le Balcon and the sweet smell emanating from the blond and brown fur of a cat in Le Chat. Well worth a read.
9. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
As with Orwell, I could have chosen any of Zola’s books here. Nana has some wonderful descriptions of the aromas of the “fleshy madness” taking over Paris on a rainy evening, when the “dripping city exhaled an unpleasant odour suggestive of a great untidy bed”.” The Sin of the Abbé Mouret portrays a man weeping at the smell of roses in the hands of his loved one. I chose L’Assommoir because in this novel Zola uses smell for plot and character as well as for description. The stench of the dirty washing is at once putrid and intoxicating for Clemence and her lover, and their first ‘tumble in the slow downfall of their life together’ occurs when they are both drugged by the potent fumes of the laundry.
10. The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin
Corbin’s book provided Süskind with much of the research for Perfume, and is an exhaustive account of the stinking slaughterhouses, cesspools, swamps, corpses and prisons of 18th-century France, as well as of the public complaints and initiatives to do something about it. He also considers how attitudes towards different smells changed over time, and there are endless fascinating nuggets of smell trivia. According to Corbin, in the 18th century it was believed that male and female blood smelt different and that menstrual blood enabled mothers to watch over their daughters’ physiology, while sperm formed the essence of life. Fascinating stuff!