Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Inferno of Odors: A Literary Smellscape

I’ve been re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which he calls An Autobiography Revisited. It’s a memoir of his boyhood in Tsarist Russia and his later émigré ramblings through Europe until his departure for America in 1940. But it is also about the realm of memory, the patterns of life, and how one places oneself in the web of experience.

Nabokov’s prose is precise yet inventive and evocative—enhanced by his natural tendency toward synesthesia. He is also a keen olfactory observer; I quoted him on the scent of butterflies in WTNK.

What caught my attention this time was his description of the Grunewald park in Berlin where he and his wife would stroll with their young son. This would have been sometime between 1934 and 1937. It is remarkable because it is an outdoors smellscape that involves BO:
“And nearer to the lake, in summer, especially on Sundays, the place was infested with human bodies in various stages of nudity and solarization. Only the squirrels and certain caterpillars kept their coats on. Gray-footed goodwives sat on greasy gray sand in their slips; repulsive, seal-voiced males, in muddy swimming trunks, gamboled around; remarkably comely but poorly groomed girls, destined to bear a few years later—early in 1946, to be exact—a sudden crop of infants with Turkic or Mongol blood in their innocent veins, were chased and slapped on the rear (whereupon they would cry out, “Ow-wow!”); and the exhalations coming from these unfortunate frolickers, and their shed clothes (neatly spread out here and there on the ground) mingled with the stench of stagnant water to form an inferno of odors that, somehow, I have never found duplicated anywhere else.”

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