Friday, 17 January 2014

Some smells

Agota Kristof’s novel The Notebook, translated by Alan Sheridan and reissued by CBe, has this sentence on page 15: ‘We smell of a mixture of manure, fish, grass, mushrooms, smoke, milk, cheese, mud, clay, earth, sweat, urine and mould.’

Kristof’s memoir The Illiterate, translated by Nina Bogin and published alongside the above and recalling her childhood in Hungary (she emigrated to Switzerland in 1956), has this on the first page: ‘My father’s classroom smells of chalk, ink, paper, calm, silence and snow, even in summer. My mother’s large kitchen smells of slaughtered animals, boiled meat, milk, jam, bread, wet laundry, baby’s pee, agitation, noise, and summer heat, even in winter.’

Andrzej Stasiuk’s Fado (Dalkey Archive, 2009), a collection of essays on the parts of Europe of which the Western bit has only skimpy knowledge, has this, of a village in the southern Carpathians: ‘Rasinari smelled of hot oil, fried onions, pig and horse manure, hay, and herbs. On hot afternoons this extraordinary combination made one’s head spin.’

And this, in the following essay: ‘What about the herds of cows returning at dusk from their pastures, lifting their tails and shitting in the middle of the village? What about the cattle smell, which reminds us of where we really come from? When that disappears, when it vanishes from out of everyday existence, there’ll be nothing left that is capable of assuaging our loneliness.’

More elaborately, this, from James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941): ‘The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp and yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle than it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly notable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide, thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak, and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second, the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat, or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them, and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely “pleasant”, some are “unpleasant”; their sum total has great nostalgic power. When they are in an old house, darkened, and moist, and sucked into all the wood, and stacked down on top of years of a moldering and old basis of themselves, as at the Ricketts’, they are hard to get used to or even hard to bear. At the Woods’, they are blowsy and somewhat moist or dirty. At the Gudgers’, as I have mentioned, they are younger, lighter, and cleaner-smelling. There too, there is another and special odor, very dry and edged: it is somewhere between the odor of very old newsprint and of a victorian bedroom in which, after long illness, and many medicines, someone has died and the room has been fumigated, yet the odor of dark brown medicines, dry-bodied sickness, and staring death, still is strong in the stained wallpaper and in the mattress.’

As opposed to this, from Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd (2012): ‘The apartment smells of a mixture of uptown perfumery, make-up, newly ironed clothes and asparagus.’

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