Writing That Stinks

Pick up a smelly paperback for National Read a Book Day.

My mother read me The Hobbit when I was 11 years old. She did all the voices and when I watched the Lord of the Rings as a teenager, I told her Andy Serkis’ attempt was almost as good as hers. When describing Bilbo Baggin’s hobbit hole Tolkein writes:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

As a nature-loving child, that ‘oozy smell’ was one with which I was familiar. It drew to mind damp riverbanks, wet fields and the cavities left when carrots are pulled from the ground. Tolkein’s description is one I never forgot. 

The Five Senses

I have both attended and facilitated many writing workshops. The challenge to draw on the five senses is always issued, and the sense of smell is where we flounder the most. However, when done well it can evoke a sense of place in a unique and powerful way. We can tap into our collective scent memory by writing about aromas of cut grass, summer soil when it rains, baked cake or freshly percolated coffee. There is also the potential to surprise by using unique descriptions of scent.

Flush, by Virginia Woolf, is the closest a reader can come to exploring the world with one’s nose to the ground. It documents the misadventures of writer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog through the streets of London, and later, Pisa and Florence.

‘As for describing the smell of a spaniel mixed with the smell of torches, laurels, incense, banners, wax candles and a garland of rose leaves crushed by a satin heel that has been laid up in camphor, perhaps Shakespeare, had he paused in the middle of writing Antony and Cleopatra — But Shakespeare did not pause.’

Flush smells it all and Woolf uses these descriptions to craft an olfactory romp through these cities as you have never smelt them before.

The Power of Smell

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind is a testament to the power of smell. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is an orphan with a highly acute sense of smell. He uses this skill in his work as perfumer but ultimately (spoiler alert) it drives him to commit murder when he encounters a woman with a beguiling scent. 20 million copies of the novel have been sold since its publication in 1985. The core message of the thriller is best summed up by a quotation from the novel:

‘He possessed the power. He held it in his hand. A power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind.’

A Flask of Memories

For something a little easier on the nose, the French poet Charles Baudelaire writes beautiful scent descriptions in his collection Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). Like this from The Flask:

‘Or poking through a house, in closets shut for years,

Full of the scent of time - acrid, musky, dank,

One comes, perhaps, upon a flask of memories

In whose escaping scent a soul returns to life.’

If you are a lover of non-fiction try Julia Child’s book, My Life in France, where she hangs a haunch of venison out of her window to marinade and judges it ready by smell. Or Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum. It charts her fascinating journey to rediscover her sense of smell. It details interviews with perfumers, personal anecdotes and scientific research. It is funny, informative and honest with scent descriptions sprinkled throughout for flavour, such as:

‘The difference between the smell of sweaty socks and Parmesan cheese, after all, is only one carbon atom of change. The signals create a pattern—of perception, the symphony read by the brain.’

In celebration of National Read a Book Day, choose a book that encourages you to think about scent in a different way. It is not yet possible to convey the complexities of smell through our television screen. However, the written word can render scents on a page so pick up a paperback and start sniffing.

1 comment

I love this dander through smelly places in literature. In fairness to Shakespeare, the phrase, ‘It smells to heaven’ was first spoken by Claudius in Hamlet. He is, however, speaking about the rank offence of murder, so not so suitable for a piece about perfume pong. Beautiful journal writing!

Ruth Morrison 10 September, 2019

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