Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Vladimir Nabokov: The Literary Scent of Nostalgia

I’ve been dipping into the marvelous stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977). Many of them are about Russians, like himself, who were driven from their country in the revolution of 1917 and spent the next decades circulating around Europe, trying to make sense of what had become of them and their past. Nostalgia was forced upon Nabokov at an unnaturally young age—his family lost its estates, its wealth, its history and its place in the world. As an author he would return continuously to the themes of memory, longing, and fractured time.

Nabokov is a also multisensory writer: he describes sounds, textures, colors, and shapes as if they were animated by their own intentions and emotions. His stories are shot through with smells—very specific ones tied to a particular time and place. The overall effect is almost one of synesthesia. Here is an example from the story "Mademoiselle O", Nabokov’s recollections of a French-Swiss governess his family hired to look after him and his siblings in the years just before the revolution.
Presently, lessons are over and Mademoiselle is reading to us on the veranda where the mats and plaited chairs develop a spicy, biscuity smell in the heat. On the white windowsills, on the long window seats covered with faded calico, the sun breaks into geometrical gems after passing through rhomboids and squares of stained glass. This is the time when Mademoiselle is at her very best.
Nabokov’s often writes long sentences that are an inventory of objects and smells. But these are not mere lists. Watch as he seamlessly weaves scents into a psychological portrait of Mademoiselle O:
Mademoiselles’ room, both in the country and in town, was a weird place to me—a kind of hothouse sheltering a thick-leaved plant imbued with a heavy, queerly acrid odor. Although next to ours, when we were small, it did not seem to belong to our pleasant, well-aired home. In that sickening mist, reeking, among other effluvia, of the brown smell of oxidized apple peel, the lamp burned low, and strange objects glimmered upon the writing desk: a lacquered box with licorice stick, black segments of which she would hack off with her penknife and put to melt under her tongue; a picture postcard of a lake and a castle with mother-of-pearl spangles for windows; a bumpy ball of tightly rolled bits of silver paper that came from all those chocolates she used to consume at night; photographs of the nephew who had died, of his mother who had signed her picture Mater Dolorosa, and of a certain Monsieur de Marante who had been forced by his family to marry a rich widow.
Mademoiselle O
in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Monday, April 13, 2015

ISDP: Georgia on My Mind

Bright spring sunshine is slicing through gaps in the shingles here at FirstNerve Manor and illuminating the thick dust beneath the White Castle boxes scattered on the floor. We’re going to have to do something about that. Maybe plug the holes with wads of Dubble Bubble.

In the meantime, this fresh April edition of FN’s most popular recurring feature is rather light on classic ISDP incidents, i.e., ones in which the wretched, unforgettable stench of decay leads to the discover of a deceased person. The sole offering comes from Albany, Georgia, where police found a dead body in vacant home on West Tift Avenue after they responded to neighbors’ complaints of a foul odor.

By way of consolation to dedicated fans, we are able to present two new nominees for the Norman Bates Award™. Hailing from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is 58-year-old Barbara Ann Helton who is charged with violating her parole under some unusual circumstances:
a Fort Wayne Community Correctional officer was on a home visit for a woman, and while talking to her and another man, he noticed a foul odor. Questioning led the officer to go into the upstairs bedroom where he found an adult body in the closet . . .
Always Trust Your Nose!™

The coroner’s office has yet to positively ID the body, but it may be that of the home owner. According to neighbors, he hadn’t been seen in weeks and the couple told people he “was having surgery”. Police had been to the home “several times”. Hmmm . . .

Nominee number two is “Carolyn” from San Francisco, who may have been living with the mummified remains of her elderly mother in a house in the Richmond District. Neighbors say the mother has not been seen in years and that Carolyn hasn’t been seen outdoors much for about a year. The house was stuffed with junk in classic hoarder style. Here’s an odd additional bit from Carolyne Zinko’s story at SFGate.com:
a man living in an in-law unit at the house was informed on Tuesday that the property was in foreclosure
Dude! Was he anosmic or just being politely disattentive?

Finally, here’s a story that doesn’t meet our famously rigorous criteria for an ISDP incident, but in which the smell of decomposition turns up twice as valuable forensic evidence. It involves the body of a missing 18-year-old Colorado woman found in a discarded suitcase. Hotel employees reported that a room rented by two persons of interest in the case had a foul odor. Also, a police cadaver dog alerted to a smell in the suspects’ car.

As Marcel Proust used to say, À la prochainet!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

An Academic Flashback

It’s spring cleaning time here at FirstNerve Manor. I’ve been getting rid of some academic books I’ve dragged around with me for decades. The dust jacket on one of them caught my eye—an author photo of Edward O. Wilson (that’s him on the right, Charles Lumsden on the left).

This is Wilson as he looked when I met with him for a job interview at Harvard, about the time I got my doctorate in biological psychology. He was cordial and soft-spoken; I was a bit awestruck.

I’m not sure he knew what to make of me or my work on rodent reproductive strategies and behavioral time-sharing. He led me into the humidified chamber that housed his ant colonies and showed me a few—he kept them in large plastic tubs.

“You psychologists study individuals,” he said, peering down into a tub, one eye wandering independently of the other. “I study entire societies.”

An odd duck, but brilliant in some respects.

Monday, March 23, 2015

It’s Here! The All-New Paperback Edition of What the Nose Knows

The original hardcover edition of What the Nose Knows has been sold out for a long time. There has always been a Kindle edition but never a paperback. Until now.

After sweating every detail for months, I’ve finally released my own paperback edition on Amazon. It’s a beautiful thing, if I do say so myself. (And I do!) Grab a copy.

Order one for your newbie DIY perfumer friend. Get one for Uncle Fred who likes to read about science and psychology but needs a break from Malcolm Gladwell. Assign it as additional reading for your next Sensation & Perception course at Faber College. Take one to Starbucks and finally get a conversation going with that cute barista.

Friday, March 13, 2015

ISDP: The Call of Cthulhu

Can it really be Friday the 13th again? It seems like we just posted a Friday the 13th edition of ISDP. Have we, like an H.P. Lovecraft character, entered some sort of hallucinatory dream state? Have we floated right out the window of our miserable garret and across the Mountains of Madness? Well, yes and no. It is indeed the second month in a row with a Friday the 13th, and west of us, atop the Watchung ridge, stand the ruins of an abandoned psychiatric asylum. Who’s to know what malevolent spirits from Ward 41 may be tugging at our sleep-addled subconscious? Who are we to say that the bat hanging from our desk lamp is not real?

What we do know, courtesy of FOX reporter Adrian Acosta, is that in Anderson, South Carolina, a guy named Tony Johnson recently rented a house from Perry Pruitt. Pruitt himself lives next door and the two houses share a forty-foot deep well. Soon after moving in Johnson complained to his landlord about the water.
“It had a foul odor,” Johnson said. “But he (Pruitt) said it was just stagnant water.”

Johnson said after various treatments failed to fix the problem he asked Pruitt to take a water sample from the well to have it tested and that led to a confrontation and to Pruitt shutting off the water. Johnson said at that point he called deputies.

“Once the officer saw how he (Pruitt) was acting he called detectives,” Johnson said.

A few hours later Johnson said detectives told him they had found a body in the well.
The body was that of Patricia Freeman, with whom Pruitt had had a relationship. She had been missing for weeks. Pruitt was arrested and later released on bond.

But wait, there’s more:
Johnson said his luckily his family had not consumed any of the well water because of the smell but had taken showers with it.

“It’s just disturbing,” Johnson said.
Remember, friends, Always trust your nose™.

About 20 miles east of La Jolla is the community of Lakeside, California. Deputies there were serving an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent at the Riverview Villa Apartments. When a woman in the unit let them in they noticed “the odor of decomposition” and discovered it was coming from a body inside a container sealed with duct tape. It appears to have been there anywhere from six months to more than a year.

Our fans know the rules: it can be an ISDP incident only if the body is discovered by smell. So, no dice. However, we are thrilled to nominate the non-deceased resident of the rental unit for the 2015 Norman Bates Award™. She is “described by neighbors as a quiet woman in her late 50s.”

Flue Season

Our musty, sad-smelling archives are full of ISDP incidents where the proverbial foul odor led to the discovery of a body in a chimney. It has happened in a French bank, an English barrister’s office, and twice in California. In Bakersfield the victim was a female M.D. who was stalking her boyfriend and tried to enter his home through the chimney. In Fontana, the unfortunate individual was a homeless man who attempted to break into an unoccupied residence.

This month’s case is an odd twist on the usual pattern. In San Antonio, Texas, a 32-year-old man with a history of mental issues had been living in the guest house behind the home of his parents. The man hadn’t been seen since late January. His parent thought he might have gone to Austin.
The parents noticed a foul odor that continued to get worse as time went by, but they were unable to identify the source of the odor. While searching the guest house again Thursday, they found their son curled up inside the fireplace behind a screen.
There appear to be no signs of foul play.

That’s it for this edition. Be sure to stop by the gift shop on your way out and pick up a spiffy ISDP coffee mug. And yes, yes, of course you can use it to collect the tears running down the face of Nyarlathotep.