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.