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Scent-Related Quotes from Dr. Zhivago
As you know, I love to read. Many of the books I love are small-scale, fine-pointed works; I have a fondness for short stories, novels-in-stories and novellas: forms that, while narrow in scope, provide a reading experience that is incredibly direct and immediately intimate. But at the moment I am reading Doctor Zhivago and marveling at just how intimate this story feels when you experience it through reading Boris Pasternak’s sublime prose, versus watching David Lean’s cinematic version of it on screen. Don’t get me wrong: I love the movie and find it visually stunning. To read the novel, however, is to fall under a different kind of awe, as Pasternak proves that the pinnacle of great writing is, and always will be, the epic novel. The ability to master the imposing arc and broad themes of such a story—with its twists and turns and multiple plotlines that must eventually converge—and, at the same time, bring this high-flying dirigible back into the realm of the personal—imbuing it with the kind of details that ground it to everyday life—is truly an astonishing feat.
Boris Pasternak was a poet, first, before he wrote Doctor Zhivago (which won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature), and he possessed a poet’s ear for detail. And not only an ear for detail, but also a nose for it as well. Pasternak’s writing throughout the novel is chock full of olfactory descriptions of every kind—far too many to point out in this post—but below are three of my favorites.
From Chapter 3, The Sventitskys’ Christmas Party, in which the novel’s protagonist, Yurii Andreievich Zhivago (referred to here as Yura), first realizes he has feelings for Tonia, who up until this point has been like a sister to him.
It was almost two in the morning. Yura’s ears were ringing. There had been an interval with tea and petits fours and now the dancing had begun again. No one bothered any more to replace the candles on the tree as they burned down.
Yura stood uneasily in the middle of the ballroom, watching Tonia dancing with a stranger. She swept up to him, flounced her short satin train—like a fish waving its fin—and vanished in the crowd.
She was very excited. During the interval, she had refused tea and had slaked her thirst with innumerable tangerines, peeling them and wiping her fingers and the corners of her mouth on a handkerchief the size of a fruit blossom. Laughing and talking incessantly, she kept taking the handkerchief out and unthinkingly putting it back inside her sash or her sleeve.
Now, as she brushed past the frowning Yura, spinning with her unknown partner, she caught and pressed his hand and smiled eloquently. The handkerchief she had been holding stayed in his hand. He pressed it to his lips and closed his eyes. The handkerchief smelled equally enchantingly of tangerines and of Tonia’s hand. This was something new in Yura’s life, something he had never felt before, something sharp that pierced him from head to toe. This naïvely childish smell was as intimate and understandable as a word whispered in the dark. He pressed the handkerchief to his eyes and lips, breathing through it.1
From Chapter 9, Varykino, the country estate in the Ural Mountains where Yura, Tonia and their son have fled to escape the harsh living conditions of Bolshevik-controlled Moscow, where they were practically starving. In Varykino, the Zhivagos intend to eke out their existence by living off the land (despite knowing that, in this new Russian society, the land no longer belongs to them, but to the state, and thus they are working on it illegally). Still, it is a brief time of happiness for the Zhivagos, and Yura writes in his diary:
“We have been lucky. The autumn was dry and warm. It gave us time to dig up the potatoes before the rains and the cold weather. Not counting those we gave back to Mikulitsyn, we had twenty sacks. We put them in the biggest bin in the cellar and covered them with old blankets and hay. We also put down two barrels of salted cucumbers and two of sauerkraut prepared by Tonia. Fresh cabbages hang in pairs from the beams. There are carrots buried in dry sand, and radishes and beets and turnips, and plenty of peas and beans are stored in the loft. There is enough firewood in the shed to last us till spring.
“I love the warm, dry winter breath of the cellar, the smell of earth, roots, and snow that hits you the moment you raise the trap door as you go down in the early hours before the winter dawn, a weak, flickering light in your hand.
“You come out; it is still dark. The door creaks or perhaps you sneeze or the snow crunches under your foot, and hares start up from the far cabbage patch and hop away, leaving the snow crisscrossed with tracks. In the distance dogs begin to bark and it is a long time before they quiet down. The cocks have finished their crowing and have nothing left to say. Then dawn breaks." 2
From Chapter 15, Conclusion, describing the funeral of Yurii Andreievich Zhivago, poet and doctor:
He was surrounded by a great many flowers, whole bushes of white lilac, hard to find at this season, cyclamen and cineraria in pots and baskets. The flowers screened the light from the windows. The light filtered thinly through the banked flowers to the waxen face and hands of the corpse and the wood and lining of the coffin. Shadows lay on the table in a pattern of leaves and branches as if they had just stopped swaying.
. . . .
In these hours when the silence, unaccompanied by any ceremony, became oppressive as if it were an almost tangible privation, only the flowers
compensated for the absence of the ritual and the chant.
They did more than blossom and smell sweet. Perhaps hastening the return to dust, they poured forth their scent as in a choir and, steeping everything in their exhalation, seemed to take over the function of the Office of the Dead.
The vegetable kingdom can easily be thought of as the nearest neighbor of the kingdom of death. Perhaps the mysteries of evolution and the riddles of life that so puzzle us are contained in the green of the earth, among the trees and the flowers of graveyards. Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus risen from the grave, “supposing Him to be the gardener. ...” 3
1. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 84.
2. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 279.3. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), pp. 492-493.
Jams and perfumes. Coffee and ambergris?
Scented Reading: A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden
I’ve always loved reading cookbooks, as cookbook authors tend to be a nostalgic and passionate lot, so much so that the very best of these authors can be likened to cultural historians. Take, for instance, Claudia Roden, the London-based author who grew up in Cairo, Egypt, where she was born in 1936. In her classic 1968 cookbook, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, she begins by documenting the origins and influences of the cuisine; its social aspects (“Hospitality is a stringent duty all over the Middle East,” she explains while laying out the strict code of etiquette that both host and guest must heed); the traditional table setting and how to properly navigate it; and lastly, the cuisine’s “general features,” which describes certain fats and spices and cooking methods that are used throughout the Middle East, but which vary from country to country. What brings the book to life, though, is that her writing is lovingly informed by her childhood memories of being entertained at holidays and weddings or just ordinary visits to the homes of friends and relatives. For example, in her introduction to the section on Murabbiyat (jams and preserves), in which she describes the partaking of these sweets at the homes of her aunts in Cairo, her evocative description opens a window through which we witness how perfume and food in the Middle East are intimately intertwined:
Like the pastries, jams remind me vividly of my childhood, of visiting relatives, of sitting on low sofas surrounded with bright silk cushions, of being enveloped by perfumes, faint and delicate or rich and overpowering.
My father’s sisters, whom we visited regularly, were always fragrant with their favorite homemade soaps perfumed with violets, rose water, orange blossom, and jasmine. Their homes were intoxicating with the frankincense which they used in every room—bakhoor el barr, benzoin or aloes wood—with musk and ambergris, and the jasmine, orange blossom, and rose petals which were left soaking in water in little china or crystal bowls.
Candied orange peel, quince paste, coconut, fig, date, rose, tangerine, and strawberry jams would be brought in as soon as we arrived, together with pyramids of little pastries, and accompanied by the tinkling of tiny silver spoons, trembling on their stands like drops on a chandelier. Delicately engraved and inlaid silver trays carried small crystal or silver bowls filled with the shiny jams: orange, brilliantly white, mauve, rich brown, deep rose, or sienna red. They were arranged around the spoon stand, next to which was placed a glass of water, ornate with white or gold arabesques.
The trays were brought around to each of us in turn as the coffee was served, for us to savor a spoonful of each jam, or more of our favorite one, with one of the little spoons, which was then dropped directly into the glass of water.
At our beautiful Aunt Régine’s we would be served the best date jam in existence, our favorite rose jam was made by our gentle Aunt Rahèle, and Camille made an inimitable wishna. Harroset and coconut jam were traditionally made for our Passover celebrations by my mother. We ate them all the more rapturously because they appeared so rarely.
Although they can be eaten with bread, these jams and preserves are at their best savored on their own with black coffee or a glass of ice-cold water, or as a dessert with thick cream. †
Deepening the link between perfume and food even further, in her pages devoted to Turkish Coffee, Roden mentions “an excellent account of how coffee was made in Egypt in the last century” that was given by the author E. W. Lane in his book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. She goes on to quote him:
In preparing the coffee, the water is first made to boil; the coffee (freshly roasted and powdered) is then put in and stirred; after which the pot is again placed on the fire, once or twice, until the coffee begins to simmer, when it is taken off, and its contents are poured out into the cups while the surface is yet creamy. The Egyptians are excessively fond of pure and strong coffee thus prepared, and very seldom add sugar to it (though some do when they are unwell) and never milk or cream; but a little cardamom seed is often added to it. It is a common custom, also, to fumigate the cup with the smoke of mastic; and the wealthy sometimes impregnate the coffee with the delicious fragrance of ambergris. The most general mode of doing this is to put about a carat weight of ambergris in a coffee-pot and melt it over a fire; then make the coffee in another pot, in the manner before described, and when it has settled a little, pour it into the pot which contains the ambergris. Some persons make use of the ambergris, for the same purpose in a different way—sticking a piece of it, of the weight of about two carats, in the bottom of the cup, and then pouring in the coffee: a piece of the weight above mentioned will serve for two or three weeks.
Hmmm, I wonder what a carat-weight worth of ambergris goes for these days? I have a small bottle of ambergris tincture that I purchased from The Perfumer’s Apprentice a couple years back, but since it’s tinctured in 190-proof grain alcohol (not to mention that ambergris is, essentially, cured whale vomit), I won’t be trying it in my own cup of joe. But were I invited to a very wealthy Egyptian home? Well, you know, when in Cairo.…
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