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A literary journey from the fragrant to the fetid

PUBLISHED: 11:24 13 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 September 2010

Bridget Galton talks to Lara Feigel about tracking down odours for a new anthology THE current release of Perfume, a film based on Patrick Suskind s bestseller, may revive national interest in our sense of smell. West Hampstead writer and academic Lara F

Bridget Galton talks to Lara Feigel about tracking down odours for a new anthology

THE current release of Perfume, a film based on Patrick Suskind's bestseller, may revive national interest in our sense of smell.

West Hampstead writer and academic Lara Feigel certainly hopes so.

She admits to becoming "much more smell aware" since researching her anthology of literary references to odour.

A Nosegay covers a range of sources from Catullus' complaint to friend Rufus in 54 BC that "a fierce goat lives in your armpits," to Virginia Woolf's 1919 diary entry complaining that the crowd on Hampstead Heath on Easter Monday "is detestable; it smells; it sticks; it is a tepid mass of flesh scarcely organised into human life."

Feigel had noticed while putting together her PhD how writers like Orwell and Proust used smell in their work.

"I was interested in the different ways writers use something as unliterary as smell to evoke atmosphere," she says.

Once commissioned, she set about searching for smell references - from surfing the internet to ransacking friends' literary memories.

People even started contacting her with suggestions once they heard of her quest.

Unsurprisingly, the likes of Jonathan Swift and Roald Dahl make an appearance. But other entries are more eclectic.

Feigel has included a passage from the Bible when Mary anoints Jesus's feet with "a pound of ointment, of spikenard," an internet website introducing the iSmell, and BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes describing the industrial smells of Beijing.

Some extracts are shocking, such as 19th century medical writers Gould and Pyle pondering in outrageously racist fashion on how different tribes and races have characteristic odours.

Others are intriguing, including Sigmund Freud describing how one patient associated her trauma with the smell of burnt pudding.

Feigel doesn't claim she has edited an exhaustive collection, but says it has opened her eyes to what she calls "smell literature".

The 26-year-old enjoyed her voyage of discovery, including learning about the life and sayings of fashion label founder Coco Chanel.

"I didn't know much about her before but she was the first person to make perfume to be sold worldwide. She had so much gumption her whole story is amazing. She used her perfume in the war to escape Nazi persecution."

She adds: "Orwell I had always seen as a dry documentary writer but, when I started looking, I noticed how much he used smell and the senses in his work."

Perhaps inevitably, the French, including Baudelaire, Proust, George Sand, Guy de Maupassant and Zola, figure prominently.

"The French appreciate cheese and wine and have more smelly things around them," says Feigel.

"They have always relished the plethora of nice and nasty smells, while we take the lead from the Americans in deodorising life and seeing smell as something that needs hiding and cleaning up.

"The whole literary tradition in 19th century France is more sensual, while our Romantics weren't quite as smell-oriented as you might expect."

Feigel, who grew up in North Hill, Highgate, and attended St Michael's and South Hampstead High Schools, hopes dipping into the extracts will encourage readers to explore further.

"It sheds light on how different writers experience the world and how they turn that into literature. I hope this sends people on their own treasure hunt for smell literature."

o A Nosegay is published by Old Street Publishing price £11.99.

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