Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Vertical Chord: Nabokov's Multisensory Evocation of Scent

Vladimir Nabokov is one of those writers I return to again and again. I love his taste, his elegance, and his wry humor. His style, especially in his early stories, uses sights, sounds, and yes, even smells, to give a spontaneous immediacy to scenes from the past that are full of soft sadness, even nostalgia. One could make the case that he is a synesthetic writer; there is no doubt that he is one of the best olfactory writers of all time.

The story Sounds, written in Russian in 1923, was translated into English and published in The New Yorker in 1995 by his son, Dimitri Nabokov, who noted that “the story is, among other things, a transmuted evocation of a youthful love affair” that his father had with a married cousin.

This is one of many olfactory passages in the story. It is a perfect literary example of how to set up and deliver an olfactory image.
I was watching your back, the silk checks of your blouse. From somewhere downstairs, probably the courtyard, came a resonant peasant-woman voice, “Gerosim! Hey, Gerosim!” And suddenly it was supremely clear to me that, for centuries, the world had been blooming, withering, spinning, changing solely in order that now, at this instant, it might combine and fuse into a vertical chord the voice that had resounded downstairs, the motion of your silken shoulder blades, and the scent of pine boards.
in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov