How Bitter the Holly Smells!

Elizabeth Jane Howard telegraph

A Very Happy & Prosperous Peaceful New Year to you all!

I left you in December with memories of Susan Coolidge’s Katy books. I come back to you in January saddened by the unexpected death of the great Elizabeth Jane Howard, and gladdened by the genius of Thomas Mann.

Elizabeth Jane Howard would have been 91 in March: she was an Aries, born the day that Sarah Bernhardt died and maybe some of that artist’s glamour, energy and allure was reincarnated in her. Anything by Elizabeth Jane is an inspiring and deeply satisfying read: memoirs, anthologies, cookery books, novels, ghost stories, psychological thrillers. She’s marvellous on fabrics, cats, colours, textures, clothes, food, gardens, smells. I remember the luscious seductive aphrodisiac summer dinners in “Odd Girl Out”, the pinks, reds and greens of fruits, cold salmon and fruits. There is always lots of perfume around; opening a book now at random, I find almost at once references to Evening In Paris and Caron. She loves heat, sunshine, hot afternoons – “the caramel scent of hay”. There’s an unforgettable apercu ( in, I think, “Something In Disguise” ) of a dandruffy scalp smelling of cheap raspberry jam. In “The Light Years” Howard suggests rather than describes the aroma of an elderly governess who finds the getting of food, baths, washing and laundry all prohibitively expensive. She writes of a haunted dressing case reeking of rotting roses in “Left Luggage” and the stench of a car filled with a supernatural smell of death (“Mr Wrong”). I saw Elizabeth Jane lecture once in the 1970’s with her then husband Kingsley Amis: she wore crimson velvet and her glorious hair unbound in a magnificent glossy tawny mane. It was as though a goddess had come down from Olympus to the humdrum halls of Loughborough University.

Thomas Mann’s first novel – published in 1904 and a huge best-seller until Hitler burned it – was “Buddenbrooks”. I’ve just read it: a modern paperback of a 1924 translation was given to me last summer and something told me to save it for a ripping Christmas read. My instinct was dead right: 600 pages of perfect bliss, the sort of novel that makes you cry out at intervals ” this is the best book I ever read!” I wish I’d found it years ago; I want to read it again, on a beach or in a wet holiday hotel, eating digestive biscuits and drinking tea on the bed, in those long afternoons perfectly described by Elizabeth Bowen. Warm, funny, wise, sad – and so leisurely, so smooth, so confident: “Buddenbrooks” is a family saga that spans the central portion of the nineteenth century, set in a provincial town (maybe Lubeck?) near Hamburg within easy reach of the coast and the salty tang of the Baltic.

Lord! Germany then sounds a lovely place; better than Victorian France, Italy or Britain for my money. Full of sun and light, sea and sand, flowers, music and abundant wholesome meals. Houses smelling wonderfully of coffee; everyone filling their faces at the second breakfast and doing ample justice to sausages in ginger, ham with sour onion sauce, raspberry trifle, bacon broth, fruit soups, boiled carp in red wine, apple jelly, lemon buns with smoked goose, grilled chops, green cheese, currants, bread and butter, sugar and chocolate. Has any other novel featured such delicious good food?

The family house smells of cologne, used to brisk up, freshen and revive. Scent hints at the autobiographical origins of the novel, the tricks and hooks of memory: a Buddenbrooks matriarch wears heavy silk gowns smelling soothingly and aromatically of the patchouli in which they are stored; her son, when young strong and confident, perfumes his moustaches with wax. Both Howard and Mann implicitly remind us that perfume is a innate sensual pleasure that should develop organically as part of the human condition, an aesthetic and psychological enhancement of life not a disassociated pursuit of scented fluid in a bottle. The Buddenbrooks sense of smell takes its place in the repetitive rhythms and joyous monotony of family life – and plays its part in one of the most disturbing but underplayed death scenes you will ever read.

I cannot bear to finish it!