Magazine article The Spectator

'Orwell's Nose: A Pathological Biography', by John Sutherland - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Orwell's Nose: A Pathological Biography', by John Sutherland - Review

Article excerpt

The Orwellian past is a foreign country; smells are different there. Pipe smoke and carbolic, side notes of horse dung and camphor -- and that most inescapable odour, the 'melancholy smell of boiled cabbage and dishwater' seeping under a parishioner's front door in A Clergyman's Daughter. In Nineteen Eighty-Four , too, the hallway of Victory Mansions 'smelt of boiled cabbage'. That was the quotidian stench of my childhood; long gone now, both the cabbage and the childhood.

When Professor John Sutherland began re-reading Orwell after losing his sense of smell three years ago, the old familiar writings seemed 'interestingly different', their olfactory obsessions suddenly more conspicuous. He isn't the only critic to notice how whiffy Orwell's work is, but certainly the first to muse about it at such length. 'Orwell was born with a singularly diagnostic sense of smell,' he writes. 'He had the beagle's rare ability to particularise and separate out the ingredients that go into any aroma.'

Constructing a 'smell narrative' for A Clergyman's Daughter , Sutherland retells the story purely through its aromas. Dorothy comes downstairs to the chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster and the fried dabs from yesterday's supper, goes to church ('a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust') and encounters the lone midweek communicant, Miss Mayfill, with her 'ethereal scent, analysable as eau-de-cologne, mothballs and a sub-flavour of gin'. And we're still in chapter one.

As a lifelong chain-smoker it's remarkable that Orwell had any sense of smell at all, let alone such an acute one. But why was he so often led by the nose? Here Sutherland swaps his professorial chair for a psychiatrist's couch, none too comfortably: 'One suspects Blair/Orwell was of that sexual group of paraphiliacs for whom Freud could only devise a French term -- renifleurisme ; male erotic gratification from the covert sniff.'

Whence this suspicion? Guilt by association, partly: Orwell read James Joyce, who was a connoisseur of sexual smell. But here's the clincher: Orwell was a keen angler. 'The smell of fish is notoriously erotic for the renifleur -inclined, and there is a vague sexual gratification that one doesn't like to dwell on too much.' Coarse fishing, eh?

Some of Sutherland's speculations sound more like trolling. 'Joyce, an unashamed coprophiliac (as one can conjecture, was Orwell -- hence his recurrent use of the word 'faecal')....' Which prompts another conjecture: 'Was he... a coprophage?' And another: 'Orwell was a flagellophile. …

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