The Pot Pourri of Life and Death

Anna Atkins, Poppy, 1852

 

Wasn’t it funny when Ms Sturgeon “channelled Kellyanne Conway” (BBC R4) but nonetheless kicked off her shoes before sitting on that now famous sofa? Maybe she’d read our chat on this page the other week about going barefoot in the house. I’m so glad this theme has gone viral: it’s a social etiquette that needs defining in Britain once and for all. As a dear regular correspondent observes regarding the removal of shoes:

“… it is of course de rigueur in many Asian countries. Moreover, I do not lose my poise or posture: should I find it difficult to bend down there is usually someone around to undo my shoe laces…”

Now, there’s a class act!

Just now I am bombarded with divine spring smells. All weekend the sun has shone, drawing out the perfume of the narcissi and hyacinths in the garden. Indoors there is a wonderful blend of delicate scents opening and flowering in the new April warmth and light. A phial of the new Frederic Malle triumph SUPERSTITIOUS, gleaming with glass-green aldehydes, is the star performer. Its sophisticated glossy authority enhances the soft creamy sweetness exuding from my lovely stephanotis, Coty’s gift without parallel. And then I was given a tin of Kusmi tea from Paris: aren’t I spoiled? Kusmi is ‘Le thé des tsars’¤, brought from the Champs-Elysees. My present is the new ‘Euphoria’ blend – there are many others.

‘Euphoria’ is well named. When you open the tangerine & gold tin you may think that there’s been a muddle in the shop. You seem to be looking at a bouquet of the most exceptional pot pourri. Pieces of fragrant orange peel – generous chunks! – rub shoulders with cacao and roasted mate. That’s the official party line but I can see, smell and taste other things in there: jasmine? vanilla?  I mashed two large pots of this blissful blend yesterday and the exquisite aroma filled the house. Should you be lucky enough to be gifted by Kusmi my tip would be, don’t be in a hurry to throw out the dregs: let them sit and perfume your sacred space. And the tea also tastes delicious served cold, on a hot afternoon of transplanting, digging and weeding.

I keep thinking about St Martha¤¤ and the holy house at Bethany, also filled with odours. Martha’s cookery; her sister Mary’s precious ointment of spikenard; the smell of their brother Lazarus’s sudden illness and death. Yesterday’s deeply disturbing – and lengthy¤¤¤ – Gospel reading was the story of Lazarus’s rising from the tomb. His sister Martha is appalled – as we should all be – as the listener is – by the prospect of the opening of his grave: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”. The smell of death is truly terrifying: so final, so uncompromising. You can fool yourself no longer. No wonder certain highly-scented flowers give people the horrors – it is not so much the perfume of the blooms but the grim knowledge of what the fragrance is intended to conceal.

Lazarus, however, walks forth from his cave in the rock. He is sound and sweet and presumably redolent of burial oils and spices, though still terrifyingly wrapped with cere cloths. “…And his face was bound about with a napkin”. What dread there must have have been when that napkin was removed. Yet – and here was the miracle – all was well. Lazarus was alive and whole again;  later he is said to sailed with his sisters to evangelise Provence and the pagan Gauls. But, as Our Vicar said, he knew he must die – and rise – a second time.

From my long-ago cooking days in a City restaurant, I remember a terrible crisis one morning. The butcher never turned up with the poultry – but the boss refused to alter the menu and remove the featured Chicken Dish of the Day: he really did have a death wish, that one. This was the great occasion on which St Martha – urgently solicited – worked a true miracle. For – see! – the long-delayed chicken finally went into the oven well after noon: and not a soul thought to order The Dish of of Day until the chooky-chook was beautifully cooked and wondrously savoury. Although we were very crowded that lunchtime, everyone mysteriously preferred to choose cold quiche.

However, this episode marked for me the beginning of five years of vegetarianism. I had cooked enough chickens¤¤¤¤. The sight of all those pallid-pink joints and their post-feathery chilly smell nauseated me. Chicken in the raw. I was like King Lear with his hand:

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

And after that things were really never quite the same again.

¤ though I think that most of the Tsars of the Kusmi era ( the firm was founded in St Petersburg in 1867) had an anglophile preference for imported Liptons and Twinings.

¤¤ the name Martha and the word ‘myrrh’ probably have the same semantic origins. Once again, the motif of smell.

¤¤¤ permission given to sit, if necessitated by bodily frailty.

¤¤¤¤ remember Garbo on being asked why she retired at age 36? “I had made enough faces”.

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When Toni met Therese

katetattershalldotcom

Well I have to tell you I finally finished Buddenbrooks and the only thing is to do now is embark on a repeat journey through this most seductive of novels.

Meanwhile to clear the palate – though this is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances – I re-read Zola’s 1867 shocker Therese Raquin which seemed to me to have gained in horror over the years. I suppose advancing age makes this study of lust, murder, physical and mental decay even more disturbing. I now had to skip certain passages and once felt actually sick.

But there’s a connection with Buddenbrooks: the acute, even neurotic, sensitivity to smell. It surprises me that the party line today is the extreme difficulty of expressing scent and odour in words: publishers tell me they are chary of books on the subject of perfume; television treads a wary path despite sporadic huge success on shopping channels. Yet here we are in the gifted hands and brains of two nineteenth century novelists who use words and images precisely and exquisitely to convey smells.

One of the subtle images that only becomes apparent as you read the final chapters of Buddenbrooks is that the smell of death – strange yet familiar as Mann keeps reminding us – is continually abroad in the house of this once prosperous thriving family. It comes to the nose on odd currents of air, despite the heaps of tuberoses, violets and roses heaped up in the Sterbzimmer; it manifests even when the family is apparently whole and healthy. Evidently there is a rottenness in German society – and of course this is the theme that so enraged Hitler later on.

Zola fills Therese Raquin with the stench of corruption that breeds and fructifies in extremes of heat and cold. The characters’ bodies burn with desire, avarice, greed and delirium. When Therese ( born under the hot sun of Algeria ) are not writhing in bed they’re sweating and baking in the suburban countryside, eating in cheap restaurants smelling of burned fat, sour wine and dust; or stifling in hackney cabs. They live in a subterranean passage, in a terrible cavern of a shop with claustrophobic flat above. All is gloom, darkness, damp, the cold perspiration of guilty terrors. Everything is horribly softly wet and bloated like the flesh of their drowned victim, hosed down in cold water on the slabs of the Paris morgue – freely open to the public as a place of entertainment.

One of Zola’s masterstrokes is to have Therese’s seductive body smell of violets – that musky indolic note that is often compared to the scent of death. Elizabeth Jane Howard comments on this in her memoir “Slipstream” – her deceased mother’s room seemed filled with the delicate scent of the flowers though none were there. The roses with which Therese’s aunt thinks to purify the murderers’ nuptial bedroom wilt in the heat of the fire, becoming not bridal but bestial and we remember that chemists have noted the molecular similarity of rose extract to human sweat.

By a final irony Zola himself perished in 1902 as a result of a curious accident which he might well have relished as one of his own plot devices: he died of monoxide poisoning, caused by the the malfunctioning bedroom chimney.

Image: katetattershall.com