The Stench of Orwell, and Other News


On the Shelf

Illustration: Bernd Pohlenz


  • If I had to lodge one complaint against the bulk of literary fiction, I’d say this: not enough smells. Too many writers neglect the olfactory. The fact is this world reeks, and I want to know about it in vivid detail. John Sutherland’s new book Orwell’s Nose makes it clear that the author of 1984—so on trend right now—was always writing with his nostrils. As David Trotter, reviewing the book, explains, “Odor is front and center in Orwell’s work, and Sutherland has provided some helpful ‘smell narratives’ that enable us to follow an oblique path through some of the best-known texts (fiction and documentary) from one hotspot of rankling secretions to another. Unsurprisingly, given the genres Orwell favored, bad smells predominate: ‘sour’ sweat and ‘sweetish’ (or ‘sickly’) excrement top the bill, but there’s an honorable mention, too, for machine-age effluvia such as petroleum vapor. Still, we’re not to suppose that extreme olfaction only ends in nausea. It’s crucial, for example, to the Orientalism of Burmese Days, animating as few other sensations could the embrace in which John Flory wraps his ‘house concubine’, Ma Hla May. ‘A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic, coconut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her. It was a scent that always made his teeth tingle.’ Sutherland devotes considerable attention to the aphrodisiac effect on Orwell of sweet-smelling open spaces. Edenic lovemaking in a ‘golden countryside’ embellished with wild peppermint is George Bowling’s dream in Coming Up for Air; and Winston Smith’s, too, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
  • Singapore reads, but it doesn’t read, you know what I mean? (I mean it has a literacy rate of 98 percent but only 40 percent of its citizens picked up a literary book last year.) Now Singaporean panjandrums hope to persuade more people to read by making tiny books. This will work. People love tiny things. I myself started flossing only when floss was produced in miniscule packages; I started voting only when the ballot shrank and I had to read it through a tiny municipal magnifying glass, which I thought was just the cutest thing. Amanda Erickson writes of Singapore, “Starting this month, public-transportation riders will be able to buy pocket-size tomes for about $10. The ‘ticket books’ are part of a broader campaign to get people reading again. Their launch will coincide with a weekend of book fairs, author meet-and-greets and literature seminars across the city-state … [Reading] will be a hard habit to instill … Student Ang Beng Heng, twenty-four, told Straits Times that he’d rather check his news apps and Facebook feeds in his free time. ‘Current affairs are more often used as a conversation topic,’ he said. ‘It is also more important and related to work and career.’ ”

  • Writing The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer struck up an increasingly warm correspondence with Jack Abbott, a convicted murderer whose accounts of prison life gave Mailer some of his best material. The pair grew so close that Mailer ended up petitioning the state of Utah for Abbott’s parole—which did not end well. Abbott, not long after leaving prison, murdered again, and blood was on Mailer’s hands. Sarah Weinman writes, “Mailer’s name carried weight with the Utah parole board, too, as did his promise that Abbott, if released, would work as his literary assistant. With hindsight, it seems inevitable that Abbott’s freedom—he was released in June 1981—was short-lived. Richard Adan, an actor and writer who had the terrible misfortune to encounter a drunken, raging, vituperative Abbott in the early morning hours of July 18, paid the ultimate price … The signs of Abbott’s doomed post-release life are there … ‘What if I am only justifying myself unconsciously with these words and they are silly excuses to be an asshole?’ Abbott wrote to Mailer, with respect to his hopes for freedom. And later, speaking more directly on the subject, ‘Am I to be content to walk free along the same streets as men who have entered my cell and beaten me to the floor with full knowledge and consent of everyone?’ ”
  • Daniel Brook looks at the almost terrifyingly vast scale of Mexico City’s new airport, a massive project staked to the city’s future in innumerable ways: “Using the airport as a symbol of his mission to end crony capitalism, Peña Nieto announced an open architectural competition. In monopoly-friendly Mexico, open competitions for large, complex infrastructure projects are extremely rare. (In fact, they are not common even in the 122 countries that have less public-sector corruption.) But the president wanted to model a new way of doing business, modern and transparent … The winning team, announced later that year, was a glass-and-steel greenhouse by the octogenarian English architect Norman Foster and his youthful Mexican collaborator, Fernando Romero. Constructed of a gridded lightweight shell, the terminal looked like one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes stretched into the shape of a huge desert spider. Fans said it recaptured the midcentury magic of the megaproyecto. Critics said it was trapped by it.”