Quick reminder: join me for an online book club in October. We'll be talking about Remembering Smell by Bonnie Blodgett.
Between my usual work commute, and an unusual amount of travel, I’m finding it difficult to curl up with a book these days. But I haven’t cut back on my reading. All of this road and plane time has led me back to one of my favorite indulgences — audio books, and to one of my favorite authors — Margaret Atwood.
I heard Atwood speak last April at a nearby university. She was promoting her newest book, The Year of the Flood (2009), a novel about environmental catastrophe, mass extinction, genetic engineering, world hunger, exploitation, the end of literacy, and the future of humanity. You will understand that although I was eager, I refrained during the Q&A from voicing my one burning query: “What perfume do you wear?”
This question isn’t quite as gratuitous as it sounds. As Atwood spoke, my mind filled with half-memories of her novels, many of which I’d read over a decade ago. While the details had blurred over time, I was still haunted by the olfactory ghosts of each and every one of them. There is a passage in Bodily Harm (1998) that I just can’t shake — only a sentence I think — where changes in a Lora’s bodily odors lead to a disturbing revelation. Early in Alias Grace (1997), the protagonist describes the word “murderess” as having the musky, oppressive smell of dead flowers in a vase. Later, Simon Jordon is distracted by Grace’s scent of skin, smoke, laundry soap, mushrooms, ferns, crushed fruit, and unwashed scalp. She in turn has detected his odor of lavender, leather and ears (yes, ears). In the dystopic Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Offred remembers wearing Yves Saint Laurent Opium before the revolution; under the current rule of totalitarian theocracy, Lily of the Valley perfume signals luxury, feigned piety, and hypocrisy. A title-within-a-title, The Blind Assassin (2001) foreshadows several fatal failures of perception. In this multi-layered, richly fragrant story, even the space ship in a character’s pulp novel gives off a hard-to-pin-down signature scent: “almonds, or patchouli, or burnt sugar, or sulphur, or cyanide.” Protagonist Iris Chase Griffen fumbles through young adulthood, eyes wide shut, yet sensitive to the everyday smells of wet earth under melting snow, kitchens, sheets, bakery, garbage bags, tobacco, rubber boots, furniture polish, and human bodies, including her own. Among the gifts from young Iris’s inattentive husband were perfumes, including Lui by Guerlain. Much later, at the age of 83 she muses: “I can't overcome the notion that my body smells like cat food, despite whatever stagnant scent I sprayed on myself this morning — Tosca, was it, or Ma Griffe, or perhaps Je Reviens?”
Atwood constructs narrative kaleidoscopes. Multiple perspectives and seemingly loose pieces fall into order through reflections of reflections. Past and present, childhood and adult experiences refract off of one another. With their limited access to words and interpretive tools, the children are especially sensitive to smells. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Cat’s Eye (1985), the Atwood novel dearest to my heart. Elaine’s repressed recollections of cruel girls and complicit adults unfold against a crisp, often overpowering olfactory symphony. “We remember through smell, as dogs do,” she observes.
My fond, bittersweet, incomplete and perfumed memories of Atwood’s prose have led me to re-read (or re-hear) a number of novels in quick succession. An old favorite, The Robber Bride (1993), was the latest. It is the story of three women brought together by a mutual college acquaintance turned enemy, the ruthless and ravishing Zenia, who bulldozes her way through life, leaving a wake of broken-hearted survivors. The likeably and believably flawed protagonists maneuver through that familiar, “Atwoodian” world of shaky social terrain, made more precarious by limited perspectives and an unconscious desire to not see the obvious. Odors signal moments of connection, pleasant and painful: Tony savors the the familiar fragrance of her husband’s head; warm Tabu is the smell of childhood trauma for Karen; Roz identifies a lingering scent of Opium perfume at the location of her greatest loss. But above all, this is a story of disconnections, reluctance to communicate, missed chances to read signs.
This time around, I was struck not so much by the riveting, suspenseful tale of Zenia’s manipulations, as by how the Robber Bride (like Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, etc.) celebrates the importance of story-telling, and of telling one’s story; of listening to stories, and reading them, too, not just to communicate, or to reveal, or to archive, or to heal, but also to think, to interpret, to understand, to exist. I am reminded of a twist on Descartes' "Je pense, donc je suis," or cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”), in The Handmaid’s Tale — words I replayed, then hastily scribbled down in a parking lot one day: "Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are."
Fragrant Readers, if only I had pulled over and scribbled more often, I would have notebooks full of quotes from the works of Margaret Atwood, and so many others. Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy Atwood on audio, particularly as read by Barbara Caruso.
I’m sure that you, too, have been drawn to literary scent trails. Share your favorites. Tell your story.