Gaia Fishler blogs indefatigably about fragrance and cosmetics as The Non-Blonde. Yesterday, in a change of pace, she wrote about her earliest scent memories. The smells themselves are not remarkable: her mother’s brand of soap; a Moroccan neighbor’s cooking; a summer weekend at the beach. But the web of associations she spins around them gives them unique vividness, detail and emotional tone. She describes them in a way that lets the rest of us imagine them, even when Gaia the pre-schooler relates her idiosyncratic impression of the inside of a washing machine as “white and ominous”.
Note that Fishler’s olfactory memories as not Proustian. They are not spontaneously evoked by a scent in the air (or the tedious madeleine dipped in tea). Rather, they are the product of deliberate recall. Also, they do not require a prolonged inner struggle to place them in time and space. Instead, Fishler tells us about them in an easy, compelling way that, to my mind, qualifies as olfactory memoir.
In What the Nose Knows, I contrasted Proust’s over-praised madeleine passage with a more open and democratic type of olfactory memoir:
Henry Adams gave us a small sample of a true olfactory memoir—it puts you behind another person’s nose in another time and place. In his honor, I call it Adamsonian memory. To my way of thinking, Adamsonian memory beats Proustian memory because it deals with smells that are deliberately sniffed and voluntarily recalled. These are not the buried landmines of Proustian memory; Henry Adams describes a smellscape that was familiar to his entire generation, and his memory of it is open to the public. Proustian memory inhabits a private, interior place, and is open by invitation only. For Proust, smell was a tool, a reflex hammer he used to probe his own mind. For the young Henry Adams, smell was the whole world; for the old Henry Adams, it was an open gateway to the past.Gaia Fishler has given us a lovely Adamsonian glimpse into her early life. Brava!