This piece of writing is working towards an articulation of the olfactory reading of novels. These ideas are still being developed and applied to my work, and I am still investigating the hybrid nature of this paper.
I dreamt a cave pool attached to an old house
the morocco red of the brick chipping off into the water
the moss and seaweed and moonlight and nakedness
the firecrackers and fish blew bubbles at the swimmers breasts
In the house,
in the second basement
was a second pool
swathed in blue light
shallower and singular with no living creatures
but a basin of salt
each movement echoed in the water
behind a short path leading to a conservatory
all yellowed glass and rusty veins
full of concrete and dying roses.
In the middle a long, rectangle of a pool
bits of algae dotting the surface
Sun filters through honey glass
Stars bounce off the dirty water
Ursa major blinks at me, snorts softly
The algae swim with me,
a part of me.
The constellation moans behind the panes of glass,
tapping on the bell jar.
Behind the conservatory
an old wooden well
filled with whiskey.
a stream and a muddy pond
more mud than water.
system of wombs
Everything led me down
into the groundswell
into warmth and wetness.
Everything but the constellations, clear in the emptiness.
What at first seems strange and unsettling often becomes endearing and liberating, like a dream that you try to resume by going back to sleep. This is the experience of reading and re-reading Marian Engel’s 1976 novel Bear. A book such as this can never be revisited to the same effect. The reader will always find within the pages of this volume something new, and startling, and perhaps what they did not know they were looking for. There are obvious themes in the novel: colonialism (as with all Canadian novels), our relationship with nature, isolation, preservation, and femininity. The novel, which spans only 115 pages, is multifaceted and complex. A “complete” reading would be impossible.
Bear is a mosquito bite in late August. The nights are cool now, but the itch on your ankle won’t leave. Whenever I revisit the text, it enters my dreams in unusual ways, in small ways. In the novel, Lou discovers slips of paper in the pages of novels that combine to form an esoteric and intriguing understanding of Bear, as left by Colonel Cary. Engel leaves notes like this in the reader’s dreams as they navigate the novel again and again.
I approached this paper/ presentation creatively, as this is the only way I know how to interact with such a text. Of course, as all texts do, this one has its faults (could the representation of Lucy been more sympathetic? I do not know, nor do I have any authority to argue for or against her representation), but this text, more than anything, makes me want to write and create with the bevity and dexterity of Engel. Bear’s images are so visceral that the beast visits you in the bath as you submerge your head and slow your breath. You can feel the beast swim above you as you become Lou. He visits you in the library, as you run your fingers along a fresh volume and cut yourself on its edges, the glues aging in time with the pulpy fibres and the spores deep in the pages, migling with the salty metal of blood.
In my second reading of the novel, I found Bear to be an olfactory novel. I approach the novel with the curiosity of a student visiting a perfume factory in France on a school trip. What is it to smell of bear? To smell of man? To smell of yourself? The lake? When writing this, I imagined the female Colonel Cary as a ghost echoing in her bedroom, with a silver platter of perfumes in glass bottles, heavy with dust. Lou, preferring the scent of the island, does not notice her presence. The novel can be distilled into a concoction of thick, wet musk and moss, truffle, smoke, beeswax, salt, pepper, honey; the smell of the wild, the isolated, the bear. An amorphous scent, intoxicating and complex, like the novel.
Scent is the most animal of senses. Other mammals have a heightened sense of smell, often living nose-first. Furthermore, scent is linked heavily to memory. A passing whiff of perfume or the wafting smell of coffee can trigger hidden memories. My childhood is a series of blurred images with strong scents. My grandparents’ house smelled of Chanel, scotch, and leather. My first love of sage and cedar and sweat and wild mint. Every so often, the air beneath the back right wheel of a city bus smells exactly like a trip to London I took with my parents at twelve years old.
Lou catalogues Cary’s library, and as she curates Cary’s notes on bears, I curate the scents that the novel evokes. Lou bathes in the lake before visiting Homer, to rid herself of the smell of bear. Bear smells man on Lou and leaves her. In Lou’s in-between world of the humanimal, scent is queen.
Engel understands the world of Bear the way that des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature understands perfume:
“Perfumes, in fact, rarely come from the flowers whose names they bear. The artist who dared to borrow nature’s elements would only produce a bastard work which would have neither authenticity nor style, inasmuch as the essence obtained by the distillation of flowers would bear but a distant and vulgar relation to the odor of the living flower, wafting its fragrance into the air.” (116)
Engel dares not imitate nature, imtimacy, or the humanimal; she births from these ideas something entirely new. In this evaluation of the novel I aim to do the same. In restating the onvious themes of Bear, I only provide an empty imitation of work already written on the book. If I take my nose to the novel, and write instinctively, I stand a chance at creating something new, or at least something interesting.
If scent reigns over this novel, this terrarium of self-discovery, then alchemy, too, must reign. Distilling scents is a practice of alchemy, of potion-making. Lou is the alchemist, the witch, the mermaid, and Bear is her familiar, her muse. The library is not a collection of Victorian novels, but of Victorian sensibilities and transgressions.
In your milky, human wake,
my Menstrual Gutters
glow with the amber tip
of a cigarette.
A woman is like a card catalogue, or a perfumery. A cabinet of curiosities. We distill moments into vials of scents, books onto recipe cards with dates lazily marked in the corners. We understand the natural world through what we can encapsulate in resin or tag and place under glass. This compartmentalization allows us to see ourselves through our perceptions of the natural world. In extracting scents from the novel, I understand it in relation to myself.
We understand ourselves through the creation and use of drawers and bottles, and in this way Lou discovers herself through cataloguing. I discover her through the base notes of musk, the top notes of honey and pepper. In reading Bear, I create a catalogue of scent and tying Cary’s notes on bears to each vial of experience.
Bear is a relic of the Victorian library; an oddity, a product of Victorian occultism. Lou and bear consummate the ideals of the Victorian freak show- the single woman, the witch, the freak. The domesticated bear, the feral relinquished to a wooden shed.
“Bear. I love you, pull my head off.” (90)
Bear is an examination of the animal in woman, in sex, in scent, and in all of us. And the human in the animal. Bear and Lou tiptoe the line of wild and tame, a sort of wary trust reserved for sideshow performers and adulterous lovers. The novel also holds to a sort of playfulness. In this way, it reflects the way niche perfumers address scent.
Lou wonders what Byron did with his bear. She fertilizes the garden with Bear’s feces. She reminisces about screwing the director on old maps, old enough to seem esoteric, but not old enough to cause guilt. She drinks until she laughs naked in the library, until she offers herself to Bear, who she loves because he is the animal in her, the way we are drawn to musk because it is a palatable distillation of the dirty, wet, humanness in us.
Bear unearths desire and strangeness in its readers in the way Lou digs for mushrooms, finding them at first abject and spindly, and then, once cooked and prepared, delicious. In the stuffy, abandoned Victorian library, Lou asserts female desire and sexuality, roaring against the need for man. In the brush and the lake, Lou discovers the natural history of pleasure and oneness, the importance of desire for the self.
The woman and bear as one smells of dust and honey. The woman and bear as one are the woman in oneness with herself. The iron and sweat of bloody intercourse and the stickiness of shame and elation. When Lou is cut by Bear, she sheds her skin, leaves it behind on the bed sheets for Homer to wash.
When Lou sheds the island, she sheds her bear-skin. She sheds her obligations to Cary, to the director, and to Homer. She leaves knowing the only obligations she has are to herself, to experience life sensorially and fully, the way the reader begs to experience this novel.
Scent invokes memory, instinct, and desire. This paper needs no thesis but urges the reader to read nose-first.
Engel, Marian. Bear. Toronto, Ontario: Emblem, McClelland & Stewart, 2009. Print.
Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.