getting to the bottom of the smelly stuff, with words

Monday, November 18, 2013

In Handling the Truth, I write, in part, about smell—why we need to pay attention to it and what happens when our memories trip up against the stuff.

In the November 18 edition of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Eugenides, in a story called "Find the Bad Guy," does such a terrific rendition of smell that I feel the need to quote it here. Sure this is fiction, but the lesson holds: Look how much history and story and sensibility these aromatic sentences lay at the reader's feet:
I remember going into people's houses as a kid and thinking, Can't they smell how they smell? Some houses were worse than others. The Pruitts next door had a greasy, chuck-wagon odor, tolerable enough. The Willots, who ran that fencing academy in their rec room, smelled like skunk cabbage. You could never mention the smells to your friends, because they were part of it, too. Was it hygiene? Or was it, you know, glandular, and the way each family smelled had to do with bodily functions deep inside their bodies? The whole thing sort of turned your stomach, the more you thought about it.

Now I live in an old house that probably smells funny to outsiders.
I am inclined, reading this, to scissor out space in my day to stop and remember the smells of the houses I once knew.

I wonder what you'd remember, if you scissored out some smell-hunting mind space, too.


Anonymous said...

When I go into a shop and don't like the smell, I walk out again. There used to be a common belief that good smells literally came from heaven. There is something in that.

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