I smell a repetition

I’ve been paying attention recently to how fiction authors build up a sensory picture through repetition (also mentioned here in the post about cohesion) and I remembered this wonderful example from the novel Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. Pages 1 and 2 feature a description of the city that introduces you to the focus on smell that pervades the book. This paragraph is very rhythmic and repetitive in structure. The repetition occurs at word, phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph level, but I just want to look here at word level, by seeing how many times the words ‘stench’ and ‘stank’ are used:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumourous disease. The rivers stank, the market-places stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the Queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life, that was not accompanied by stench.

stench: 7                  stank: 12                              TOTAL: 19

Even the usually frequent word ‘and’ occurs only 13 times; ‘of’ occurs 17 times – each of these grammatical ‘glue’ words still occur less often than ‘stench’ and ‘stank’.

The placement of all these ‘stench’ and ‘stank’s is not random: there is a mini-climax and resolution in this paragraph itself (a mini-version of the structure of the book), with the numbers building to a crescendo about three-quarters the way in: the actual climax is the phrase “the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion”. We traced a path that began in the streets, rose through the domestic and then industrial buildings, to the next level of animacy (animals), and so up to the people, and a return to the places they inhabit, from peasants to the King. Once we’re at the King, we are at the top, and as if to underscore his importance, he has two occurrences of the word: ‘stank’ finishes one clause and opens the next. The final rhyming hammer blow of ‘rank’ is like the final nail in the coffin: the matter is sealed. Then we ease off to the Queen (no ‘stank’) and directly back out from the specific to the general again, with a brief respite from that word, but not an escape, for the last word in the paragraph – as if to remind us that we cannot get it out of our noses – is the word we met right at the beginning: stench.

Another interesting thing about word choice in this paragraph is that only three words are used to describe smell, and one of them, ‘aroma’, is used only once. There is an obvious omission of the word ‘smell’. There are other words that could have been used and were not, strong words such as fetor, odour, foulness, malodour and reek. They would have built up the fabric of the piece and made it more three-dimensional than it is. By using just the two words, the author is saying that although there was social richness (from peasantry to the monarchs) and complexity of housing, of clothes, of linen, of food and of work, there was one extreme, non-gradable level of smell, which he describes with one verb (stank) and one noun (stench).

While this technique is not maintained throughout the book (you’d be wanting a whiff of smelling salts every few pages if it were), it serves to hook you in and let you know that you are going to get a rich, textured story, one that assaults your olfactory senses in the beginning, and, hopefully, seduces them by the end. This book did mine.

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