Book Blitz

Scents and Sensibility

Has American fiction been deodorized?

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Is it me, or does something not smell in contemporary American fiction?

A few months ago I read Swedish novelist Mikael Niemi’s Popular Music From Vittula (recently translated and published here by Seven Stories Press), which prompted me to question whether American fiction has become as deodorized as our bathrooms, armpits, and tongues. In Popular Music From Vittula, the narrator, Matti, recalls his small-town, Arctic-circle upbringing with extraordinary detail, particularly when it comes to smells. Take, for example, a scene in which young Matti and a friend sneak into an old gym where middle-aged women are doing aerobics: “Bum sweat cascaded over blubbery backs, the air was alive with a whiff of pussy. … Women fell like two-ton bombs, lay slithering in the pools of sweat on the varnished floorboards before scrambling up on their feet again, indomitable. The room stank of marshy swamps and menopause.”

After reading the above passage, and several other odor-infused scenes in the novel—including a three-page description of the stench of a thousand maggot-ridden rats—I scoured my shelves for other examples of scent in literature. I turned immediately to German writer Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,and I came across long and textured descriptions of sublime fragrances and rancid stenches in Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola, and George Orwell. But a casual survey of writings produced by American writers in the past decade suggested that collectively, like Gogol’s Major Kovalev, we’ve lost our noses. Of course, there are one-line or single-metaphor descriptions of smell to be found in contemporary American fiction, but I’m talking about what appears to be the absence of counterparts to Proust’s madeleine, Lawrence’s chrysanthemums, Shakespeare’s roses, Donne’s elixirs, and Chaucer’s farts.

I need help finding smell in contemporary fiction—please help me. It’s odd that it’s difficult to find the olfactory in American literature when all the other senses seem to be flourishing on the page. In recent years Jhumpa Lahiri has allowed us to taste meals; Daniel Mason, Jonathan Lethem, and Ann Patchett have let us hear music; Susan Choi has given us extraordinary visual descriptions of the Hudson River; Kate Braverman has found myriad new descriptions for colors (especially blue); and, as for the power of the physical touch, Ana Menéndez has written a vivid account of a woman’s sexual relationship with Che Guevara.

Perhaps one of the challenges facing writers is that there are so few words in our language to convey smell. There are many more words to characterize taste: bitter, sweet, sour—and, in fact, we steal these same words from the taste lexicon to specify a smell. Another result of our limited aroma vocabulary is that, more often than not, a scent is conveyed by referring to the very thing from which it originates: the smell of babies, the smell of bread, the smell of paint, the smell of chocolate.

Yet of all the senses, smell is perhaps the most powerful and overwhelming. Often, it accompanies intense emotions—both of attraction and repulsion. Smell makes frequent—albeit brief—appearances in fiction when male characters come within the proximity of women, and when pregnant female characters are in the proximity of food. But odors are more putrid and profusive when writers are depicting countries in upheaval or crisis—when bodies are on the battlefield and garbage is in the street.

Which is maybe why writers today don’t have as much reason to describe smell as writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The fact of the matter is, things were smellier then, especially in European cities. People dumped their refuse—which included human waste and entrails of slaughtered animals—out the window. Rain eventually sludged discarded items into a local river, but that could take days. It was these abysmal and malodorous conditions that prompted Jonathan Swift to write:

Now from all parts the swelling kennels [gutters] flow
And bear their trophies with them as they go;
Filth of all hue and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.

This time period remains fertile territory for today’s smell enthusiasts. Süskind’s Perfume, published in the 1980s, gives us incredibly sensual descriptions of Paris in the late 18th century. The novel follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an aromaphile, as he sniffs out and murders virgin girls. Grenouille’s sense of smell is so acute, the novel suggests, because he’s born at a time when “The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat … people stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese, and sour milk and tumorous disease.”

Suffice it to say that Grenouille probably wouldn’t possess such a nose had he been born even 20 years later, when sanitary reform had begun sweeping across Europe. The problem of waste disposal became difficult to ignore, and in the 19th century doctors began to suspect that smells (not germs) spread disease, and typhus and cholera outbreaks were attributed to odors. According to Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell,“as the upper and middle classes, at first reluctantly, began to purify their bodies, their homes, and their streets of dirt, they grew more conscious of the malodors of the working classes which did not.”

In Europe, smells became associated with the lower classes and with foreigners; the pervasiveness of this classification system endures in literature. Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) that class distinction in the West can be encapsulated in “four frightful words … the lower classes smell.” In America, evidence of past class distinction based on scent can be found in such unlikely pages as the Hardy Boy series, in which the smell of cabbage often accompanies descriptions of lower-class residences.

But today, we Americans have cleaned up our act. We’re both a more egalitarian culture and a more sanitized one. We live in a society in which some of the sexiest segments on TV are ads for deodorant, a society in which pine-scented tree ornaments often hang from taxicabs’ rear-view mirrors. Equipped with garbage disposals, Scope, and Lemon Pledge, unsavory odors have been expunged from our lives as much as possible.

As I mentioned, I started this quest for smell a few months ago. Recently, when I began to notice the publication of a spate of novels incorporating, to various degrees, the events of 9/11, I searched them for scent. It’s there.

In Nicholas Rinaldi’s new novel, Between Two Rivers, he depicts his character Maggie waking up on Sept. 11: “There’s an odd smell in the room, acrid, bitter, and when she pulls open the drapery and looks through the window, she feels a strangeness, something wrong. … She moves about the apartment, checking on the windows. Most are closed, but a few are open a crack, and powdery white stuff, gray-white, has sifted in. And the odor, the stench is deep into the sheets on the bed and the towels in the bathroom.”

In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman describes rushing through downtown Manhattan with his wife as they try to find their daughter whose school is near the World Trade Center towers. In his depiction of the journey, Spiegelman metamorphoses into the mouse from the Maus books, as he mentally conjoins the stench of Manhattan soot and the smoke of Auschwitz gas chambers.

Last week two American scientists, Dr. Richard Axel and Dr. Linda B. Buck, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for providing a molecular understanding of how people who smell a lilac, for example, in childhood can recognize the scent as adults and also recall associated memories. Their findings not only provide a scientific explanation for Proust’s memory-triggering madeleine, but also suggest that with the publication of more novels set in New York around 9/11, smell may no longer be the forgotten sense in American fiction.

The author wishes to acknowledge Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott.