Suzanne's Perfume Journal

And farther down on the page, an account from Sammy’s point-of-view of meeting his Czechoslovakian cousin, Josef Kavalier, who has just arrived to the Klaymans’ flat in Brooklyn, where Sammy is forced to share his bed with him just minutes after meeting him:

Sammy had once told him about the capsule that had been buried at the World’s Fair, in which typical items of that time and place—some nylon stockings, a copy of Gone with the Wind, a Mickey Mouse drinking cup—had been buried in the ground, to be recovered and marveled at by the people of some future gleaming New York. Now, as he read through these thousands of words that Rosa had written to him, and her raspy, plaintive voice sounded in his ear, his entombed memories of Rosa were hauled up as from a deep shaft within him. The lock on the capsule was breached, the hasps were thrown, the hatch opened, and with a ghostly whiff of lily of the valley and a fluttering of moths, he remembered—he allowed himself to enjoy a final time—the stickiness and weight of her thigh thrown over his belly in the middle of a hot August night, her breath against the top of his head and the pressure of her breast against his shoulder as she gave his hair a trim in the kitchen of his apartment on Fifth Avenue, the burble and glint of the Trout Quintet playing in the background as the smell of her cunt, rich and faintly smoky like cork, perfumed an idle hour in her father’s house. He recalled the sweet illusion of hope that his love for her had brought him.

Early the next morning, Josef and Kornblum met in the kitchen of Apartment 42. Here they were served coffee in scalloped Herend cups by Trudi, the youngest of the three prostitutes. She was an ample girl, plain and intelligent, studying to be a nurse. After relieving Josef of the burden of his innocence the previous night, in a procedure that required less time than it now took her to brew a pot of coffee, Trudi had pulled on her cherry-pink kimono and gone out to the parlor to study a text on phlebotomy, leaving Josef to the warmth of her goose-down counterpane, the lilac smell of her nape and cheek lingering on the cold pillow, the perfumed darkness of her bedroom, the shame of his contentment.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, copyright © 2000 by Michael Chabon (Picador, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2000, pp. 5-6, 47, 457-458)

Image of the book cover for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one I stole from

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A few years back, a friend and fellow writer recommended that I read Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, an epic, historical novel concerning two young men (cousins, both of them Jewish) whose fateful meeting in a tiny Brooklyn apartment in 1939, where they are forced to share a bed together upon Josef Kavalier’s sudden arrival in New York following his incredible escape from Nazi-invaded Czechoslovakia, leads them to become artistic bedfellows in America’s newest novelty and money-making enterprise—the comic book.

My friend had recommended the novel not only because she loved it, but because she thought it might be helpful to me since I was working on a novel, too, about Depression-era artists working in New York City in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration; I had been trying to get a feel for the New York metropolis of that time period, its sights and sounds. Perhaps if I had taken her advice I would be sitting pretty with a completed novel under my belt rather than one abandoned somewhere near the hundred-page mark; unfortunately, I often seem to be hell-bent on ignoring the wise counsel of the cherished few people who have my best interests at heart. I heard the words “comic books” and was turned off, although I’m not sure why, considering I had read a number of Archie comics as a kid (and can recall being particularly infatuated with the advertisements that littered the back of them—particularly one for Sea Monkeys, which only fear of my mother’s certain disapproval as a “waste of good money” kept me from ordering). Mostly, though, I associated comic books as being the domain of strange pale-faced boys who kept stacks of them in their messy bedrooms, and I quickly dismissed this novel as a resource or, as I only now understand it to be, a profound source of inspiration.

Synchronicity—and perfume blogging—must be credited for finally uniting me with Chabon’s astonishing masterpiece. A couple months ago, in correspondence with a lovely woman who reads my perfume journal, I learned she was the daughter of Joe Simon, co-creator, along with his partner, Jack Kirby, of the famous Captain America comics hero of the 1940s. These two men, as well as a number of other comics book artists and writers (Jerry Siegel, Joseph Shuster, Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, and others), informed and inspired Chabon’s creation of his Kavalier and Clay characters.  Not long after learning of this connection, I was participating in a web poll at Perfume-Smellin’ Things, where blog-mistress Marina was asking everyone what books they were reading, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay got a couple mentions. I took these coincidences as a sign, as if they were the second and third taps on the door of my consciousness—Spirit telling me I’d better read this book—so I did, of course. But what I could not have expected, and the reason I am writing about all of this here, is that Chabon’s book is not only monumental in its story-telling, acutely moving in its accounts of love, loss and the kind of incomprehensible devastation that alters life courses in surreal ways, and dazzling from a purely linguistic standpoint, too—it is chock-full of olfactory descriptions to a degree I’ve not come across in writing anywhere before. (Or at least not in writing that isn’t directly tied to the subject of perfume.)

Scent lovers, I highly urge you to read this book. Chabon’s writing is incredibly detailed and sensual (reading his prose is like eating the most dense and delicious of nougatines that miraculously never weigh down the story, but are digested as easily as if they were an airy meringue), and he draws on the olfactory sense so fully, naturally and often that I can easily believe he is a scentophile both on and off the page. Very early in the book—as early as page five in the first chapter—there are two fabulous olfactive descriptions on the same page, the first dealing with Ethel Klayman, the mother of Sammy Clay:

She had just come home from her last night on a two-week graveyard rotation at Bellevue, where she worked as a psychiatric nurse. The stale breath of the hospital was on her, but the open throat of her uniform gave off a faint whiff of the lavender water in which she bathed her tiny frame. The natural fragrance of her body was a spicy, angry smell like that of fresh pencil shavings.

May 16, 2008:

Chabon provides scented descriptions of the things we consider mundane—cotton pajamas, an office chair, Lifebuoy soap, comic books—as well as those we might label either sacred or profane: male parts, female parts, sex.  As you can tell, I loved all of the descriptions, but the book is so powerful that even if they hadn’t been included, this book would still be an amazing read.  To wit—this final excerpt.  In this passage, Josef Kavalier is recalling the woman he is still in love with, though intense grief has caused him to estrange himself from her: 

His jacket buttons clicked against the back of a chair; his trousers rustled as he stepped out of them; he let fall one shoe, then the other. His wristwatch chimed against the water glass on the nightstand. Then he and a gust of chilly air got in under the covers, bearing with them an odor of cigarette, armpit, damp wool, and something sweet and somehow nostalgic that Sammy presently identified as the smell, on his cousin’s breath, of prunes from the leftover ingot of his mother’s “special” meatloaf—prunes were only a small part of what made it so very special— which he had seen her wrap like a parcel in a sheet of wax paper and set on a plate in the Frigidaire. So she had known that her nephew would be arriving tonight, had even been expecting him for supper, and had said nothing about it to Sammy.

Perfume is mentioned in various places throughout the book, but my favorite reference comes from a scene where Josef Kavalier is remembering the events leading up to his daring escape from Prague, in which his former magic teacher—a retired stage illusionist named Kornblum—plays an instrumental role.  This passage recalls an unexpected night in which the two of them are sheltered by a group of prostitutes.  After an account of the heartbreaking goodbyes between Josef and his family, this scene strikes me as particularly tender and poignant:

Recommended Reading for Scentophiles