Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Scents and Sexuality, Roses and Sweat

My thirteen year old niece, aspiring writer and veterinarian, likes to ask me when I think she'll be old enough to read my books.

I shrug, demur, and tell her it's up to her moms...

Though in truth, I think the very best way to read a sexy book is as a teenage baby-sitter, finding it on the shelf after the kids are asleep and putting it back very very carefully in the exact same spot before the parents get home so that no one will ever ever know you were reading it... I certainly have no fonder hope for my books than that they be read by a generation (or two, if I'm lucky) of breathless baby-sitters.

But don't tell my niece's parents I said that, okay? Anyway, with or without me, one way or another, I have no doubt she'll read my stuff when she's ready for it.

What I really worry about is whether I'm ready for her.

By which I mean that I hope my books aren't too much of a letdown from some of the deeply, brilliantly romantic stuff she's read already.

I mean, how much more moving could any doomed passion be than Severus Snape's lifelong, tormented, ultimately sacrificial love for Harry Potter's mother, Lily?

And I may never have come up with any single detail as hot (in its squeaky-clean way) as the bit from Twilight, the first book in Stephanie Meyer's teen-age vampire series, where the dreamy good teen vampire Edward explains to our very human heroine Bella how he first became attracted to her, in biology class -- which was by her body's unique and particular smell.

In biology class. Of course. Meyer got it dead-on right. There's something wonderfully basic and biological about writing about smells -- it's the immediacy of them, the way that good and provocative smells are part of our animal nature, our preverbal, amoral attunement to what's safe -- or (even better) to what's so captivating and attractive that safety be damned.

And yet smells are also a deeply cultural link to memory and identity. Mothers and their babies can recognize each other's smells. As of course so can lovers.

Smells can be so overpowering that they seem to surround us. Imagine not wanting to lose any of those little atoms you and your lover's bodies are sloughing off, as though you want to short-cut the journey from desire to memory. And actually, if you don't change the sheets after a week or two... In the Japanese director Oshima's astonishing 1976 movie, In the Realm of the Senses, the sex-crazed couple don't allow the brothel housekeeper to clean the room they've spent some weeks in. It's as though they want to create an environment that's as much an extension of their own bodies as possible.

I've used smell in all my books, but perhaps most consciously in The Slightest Provocation, the story of a couple who've been separated for nine years, and who journey back to where they first fell in love. It's a book where memory and desire are intertwined as tightly as I could make them, as in passages like this one, where Mary, my angry, overwrought and very horny heroine, can only get to sleep by means of a combination of masturbation and laudanum (that ubiquitous 19th century remedy of opium dissolved in alcohol):

She swallowed it down, threw off the rest of her clothes, slipped naked below the quilt, and -- quickly and coldly, skillfully and purposefully -- touched herself until she cried out. Until the aching became a burning, a hard white light easing to a warm orange glow, until the trembling stopped and the candle guttered and died and the visions faded, of blazing eyes and strong tapering hands, of pain and anger, disillusionment and rivalry -- oh, and other visions, memories, from youth, of things they’d done and things they hadn’t dared to try. The smell of lemon oil, warm smooth cherrywood surface of a desktop, her face and breasts crushed against it. All subsiding now, to a dull dark red, as though dimly painted upon the velvet insides of her eyelids. Ebbing, waning, flickering. Until she slept.

Or this passage, no doubt unconsciously influenced by Oshima's movie, where my hero Kit thinks happily of sex and song and smells and dirty sheets:

Come live with me and be my love -- an old lyric she’d liked to sing -- words and cadence coming echoing back now, from behind his thoughts. Pastoral, a shepherd’s love song: giddy swain wooing his lady with promises of beds of roses, food served al fresco on silver plates, and absolutely no messes to worry about. Poetry, in a word.
While reality was quite a different matter, especially if you were accustomed to having servants clean up after you. Astonishing, Kit thought, how smelly a linen sheet could become and in how short a time, at least when subjected to such excellent usage as this one had been getting. The odor had been piquant at first; at this moment one might call it “earthy.” Give him and Mary an additional sweaty day or so of pounding each other so delightfully, and the only thing one could honestly call it would be “stinking.”

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove

On stinking sheet in chilly air . . .

I do smells differently in my forthcoming book, The Edge of Impropriety. And -- finally tired of roses and sweat, of leather and lemon and of the Provencal lavender and rosemary that wafted through my French-set Bookseller's Daughter, I found a new scent. Or a very old one.

But since this post's quite long enough already, you'll just have to come back for my next to find out about this most interesting, evocative, exotic, and ancient of scents.

While right now, I'll turn the discussion over back over to you readers and writers.

What role do you think the portrayal of smells plays in erotic writing? Writers, how have you used it? And readers, got any favorite examples you'd like to share?


Christina said...

Scent is absolutely necessary. I sometimes think it is more important than the other senses when I read because it identifies everything for me: characteristics of the people I am reading about, their mannerisms, etc.

My earliest and favorite recollections of scent were found in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The smell of his foul breath or of the earth used in the coffins.

After reading this post, I think I will have to read the Twilight series.

Pam Rosenthal said...

The Twilight series is terrific, christina. And to find out more about Meyer and her books, go to a recent Time Magazine article on her.

Eva Gale said...

I was born in the states but was then taken down to Brazil where I spent about 5 years. I never went back again, but one day while visiting a US city where there is a heavy Portugese population my Mom and I stolled into some stores. I'm a smeller-I pick up bottles and sniff them before I buy, but this time I picked up a bottle of baby lotion and inhaled. I immeadiately was in Brazil, and when I showed my mother the bottle, she told me it was the brand she used on me when I was a baby. It was almost a primal effect, like when I stuff my nose in my husband's neck and inhale.

Writig specific scents is so hard-esp for the hero/ine. Sometimes it gets summed up in, "That unique scent that was all his own." Which, of course it is and as a description is lacking in all ways. Sweat and leather is a nod. Maybe to write how the scents make them feel rather than the smell itself?

What a wonderful post. Marlowe is a favorite, I'll try to remember to leave my yummy books out for the babysitter--and my daughter. I had forgotten how I picked up my habit. ;-)

Looking forward to The Edge of Impopriety.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, eva, and thanks for sharing the great story about the baby lotion. I think you may be right about the difficulty of describing the specificity of a scent. Quite possibly it would be better to describe how it makes the character feel. I enjoyed writing this description in Almost a Gentleman about how Phoebe remembered David tasting: sweet as toffee, heady as tobacco, dark as earth, but I think what I loved about it was the dizziness of the tobacco... so yes, it was how it made her feel. Or how it made ME feel, because I'd definitely still be a smoker if it were good for you. ;-}

Lil said...

I read your post yesterday but had to think about it before commenting. Scent and taste are so evocative for me and I think most people. However, I don't think I am generally conscious of it. Interesting post.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Perhaps you're right, lil. Perhaps tastes and smells shouldn't leap out at the reader. For that matter, perhaps evocative language of any type should sort of, you know, keep it's counsel. My writing was once cited on some romance blog, along with some other writers', as particularly poetic. And when I told my husband and a friend about it, they said, "oh no, what's good about your sentences is that the rhythm carries the reader along, not that it stops the reader." A different way of looking at things, and perhaps more like yours.

Thanks for the provocative thought. And thanks for going away to think about things, and then coming back to post.

I've got to see if I can work some of these thoughts into the presentation Jane Lockwood and I will be doing at RWA National this summer, on WRITING THE HOT HISTORICAL.

Hope those of you who can come, will.