Posts Tagged ‘The Great Lover’

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.

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On eyesight and glasses

August 6, 2016

I was first prescribed reading glasses when I was fifteen. I have always been very long-sighted – the kind who can read a car numberplate from half a mile rather than the prescribed 25 metres or whatever it was; the reading glasses very gradually got stronger until I was about 45, when I moved on to wearing glasses all the time, bifocals in my case. It used to be that I could still, with effort, make out written text without the glasses on: now I can’t, everything is an impossible fuzzy blur. This does alarm me when I think about it.

I love reading, and I normally read a lot, on paper and now onscreen. And if I didn’t have glasses, I’d no longer be able to do this any more. What on earth would I do with myself and my time, and, more importantly, where would I get my constant fix of new ideas? Worse things could have happened, I know; I do still have my sight. But I remember a discussion we used to have at school, when I was trying to introduce students to the possibility of writing their own poetry. We would look at the inputs to our five senses and the pleasures each could bring, having looked at Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover. And then I’d ask the class, ‘If you had to lose one of those five senses, which would you give up?’ We would look at the consequences of each choice together. I’d always point out that I was a teacher and an avid reader and would never give up my sight; choosing which of the other four to do without was incredibly difficult…

Back in the past, readers, writers and other learned people didn’t have the wonders of optical science to help them. There are two telling moments in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Firstly, we discover that the hero, William of Baskerville, has poor eyesight, and a primitive pair of glasses that magnify text to allow him to read: is this apparatus a thing of the devil, some of the monks wonder? And then, later on in the story as he gets closer to solving the mystery and identifying the murderer, that person realises the significance of the eye-glasses and contrives to steal them, leaving William helpless…

My glasses are always on the end of my nose apart from when I’m sleeping, and I have a spare pair in case of emergencies. Attempting to walk without them is somewhat perilous, particularly on stairs: I won’t say I’m helpless without them – nor was William of Baskerville – but activities are seriously circumscribed. And the day will come when I will not be able to manage without them.

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