Quote and Comment, War and Turpentine

From page 25 of Stefan Hertmans’s War and Turpentine:

The world he grew up in before 1900 was full of smells that now have largely disappeared. A tannery gave off its tenacious stench in the thin September mist; the tenders with their loads of raw coal pulled in and out of the station in the dark winter months; the odor of horse droppings in the streets in the early-morning hours could create the illusion, for the half-slumbering boy by the drafty window, that he was in the countryside somewhere, as could the smell of hay, herbs, and grass that still pervaded the city. The penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth prevailed in the dimly lit shops where salt, sugar, flour, and beans were still sold en vrac, in bulk, scooped into sacks and canisters brought by thew omen who shopped there. The closed courtyards smelled of Brussels sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets, and drying tobacco leaves. Describing his own grandmother, he said that her black apron–he called it a pinafore–smelled like the offal of young rabbits.

I’ve been reading War and Turpentine in starts and fits the last several days, in snatches caught when the baby is playing contentedly by herself. Last night I laid in bed and read and read and read, and am well into the second section of the novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

There are so many passages I could highlight, I could quote and comment upon, but this one, from fairly early on, sticks with me. The smell of a lost world–that’s a notion that resonates with me. Even in my childhood, 20, 25 years ago, even that recently ago, there is a world lost that I regain briefly, fleetingly, when I come across certain smells. Some smells still exist, and their world is not lost, but merely lost to me. Thus, that world is not lost, but I am lost; I am separated from that world, living in bizarre parallelism to something that surrounded me and against which I now find myself, willingly or accidentally, hermetically sealed, foreign, lost, separate.

The smell cigarettes smoked indoors looms large in my memory. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, at 10 or so, putting together a puzzle on a rainy Saturday afternoon. A man whom I did not know, but that I remember visiting with grandma a few times, sat there with us, putting together the puzzle with us; he chain-smoked cigarettes he tapped out of a pack he kept in his shirt pocket, his old, worn-out, 50-year-old sailor’s tattoo on his forearm twitched into unrecognizability as he put the puzzle together. Whenever I smell cigarettes, I think of that moment.

The smell of hot canvas, holding the sweat and stink of adolescent boys beneath pine trees at summer camp. The acrid and sulfurous smell of the swamp mixed with a crispness reminiscent of fresh linen that is the air around my maternal grandparents’ home. My indigent uncle still lives in that home, which should have been condemned some time ago. Whenever I go to visit him, I get out of the car and am overwhelmed by that smell as soon as I open the car door, and I suddenly remember an entire childhood and adolescence of summers spent there, how open and free everything felt, how perfect and wonderful. And I walk into the house, and I’m surprised, and even oppressed, by how small it is. This can’t be the same place, can it?

Thus, I know the feeling whereof Hertmans writes: the world is always the same place, inasmuch as it is ever retreating into the distance; mournfully lost, yet inescapable.

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