Monday, April 13, 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

Sunday, April 12, 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
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.