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

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