You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Literary Review - The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr

At first, I wasn't planning on including book reviews in my blog. So, when I first found myself composing blog posts in my head about the books I was reading, I discarded them and thought about something else. Last night, I finally finished reading The Emperor of Scent - A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses by Chandler Burr. It was a heavy one to get through, so it was with some sense of satisfaction and achievement that I closed it on the last page. My mind was just thronging with thoughts and interpretations which wouldn't be discarded. They just kept typing themselves out on my mental screen, until I was starting to wonder whether book reviews might actually be the right thing for my blog.

Then today I had a visit from a friend who has a dodgy internet connection at home, and hadn't seen my blog yet. I loaded it up on the screen and we scrolled through the pages together. She said ooh, ah, wow, and all such appropriate interjections, and the first proper sentence she said to me was - Is there a section for book reviews? I'd like to see that.

Hmm. I'll take that as a sign. Here we go.

The Emperor of Scent is the story of Luca Turin, a European biologist, general eccentric scientist character, and something of a savant of smells. It's his incredible sense of and memory for smells, his uncanny ability to crack that mysterious code between language and smell and actually describe a scent in writing, that brings him to the attention of the top smell scientists and perfumers after the publication of his book, Parfums: Le Guide. He then goes on to develop a new theory of the sense of smell, but fails to secure a Nobel Prize for his efforts, or very much in the way of accolades at all.

The story is great, unfolding like a whodunnit. The author presents the science in a beautiful armchair-conversational style with only a minimum of diagrams or visual representations, and I found that my memories of high school chemistry classes were quite sufficient to get me through the technical bits. This  made the reading very pleasant and not the top-heavy academia that I was expecting when I first realised that this was, ultimately, a book about science. Still, I found myself alternating between exciting page-turning frenzy and that dragging feeling of forcing yourself to concentrate on something quite boring, just in case you miss out an interesting bit in the middle of it. My issue with the author's style is that too many irrelevant descriptions and inconsequential anecdotes were included. The book came to just over 300 pages. If I were the editor I would have wanted to get it down to about 220 or so. Perhaps Burr was trying to convey a sense of Turin's personality, which devours and hoards every scrap he comes across, a kind of mental magpie with eclectic interests. Turin himself believes that it is often the most insignificant moments that lead to a piece of a puzzle with universal implications. Often this was true, but there were too many such insignificances for which I could find no apparent relevance. It dragged.

I got to around halfway through the book when I had a crisis of faith, triggered by these frustrations. I wondered whether to just skip to the last pages to see how it ends, or possibly even just put it away altogether and not bother to finish reading it. I don't have a problem with 'giving up' on a book if it's just not doing it for me. Life is too short for books that are a chore rather than a joy. At that moment however, I noticed a wee tiny little spider crawling across the cover of the book. I don't have a problem with spiders either. In fact I quite like and admire them if I know they're not a threat to my health. So I took this as a sign, and continued on, pacing myself and slightly skimming over the flowery or bitchy bits. I'm so glad I did, because a little further in, I came across something extraordinary.

In 1995, a woman named Janet Rippard, a retired nurse living in rural Scotland, came to the attention of Dr Glenis Scadding, three years after the onset of cacosmia - a disorder by which just about all smells become vile, putrid and intolerably awful, and, I assume, after absurd waiting lists to see a succession of expensive doctors who just passed her on to another specialist. The top doctors couldn't see any other way to help her than to perform surgery to sever the olfactory nerve in an attempt to relieve the patient's suffering. This was risky and experimental, so I guess they were pretty much willing to give anything a go when Dr Scadding contacted Turin to ask him if he had any ideas about the condition. After a few weeks of telephone conversations, during which Turin asked many very specific and detailed questions about her experiences of smell, and sent her on a few missions to experiment with certain smells, and thought about things in between, Turin contacted Scadding and informed her that her patient had epilepsy of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that interprets smell. She was given a prescription for sodium valproate, a common treatment for epilepsy, and some weeks later, the drug kicked in and she was suddenly completely cured.

During the course of narrating these events, Burr has given one of the best 'layperson' - that is, understandable by people who aren't medical professionals - definitions I have ever heard, neatly and clearly explaining what I often struggle to express - that the term 'epilepsy' refers to a wide range of neurological experiences, not just the convulsive seizures that most people seem to think is the definitive epilepsy. On page 156, this -

'Epilepsy, is, essentially, uncontrollable reverb in the neural system. Normal neural systems absorb a stimulus and respond to it and then (crucially) damp the neural response down so that it doesn't simply go on forever . They wash the signal out of the brain and wait for the next one. The neural systems of epileptics, on the other hand, fail to damp things down. The brain receives the signal, and instead of processing it and then letting it drop, the brain lets it go on and on, even ratchets it up into a hysterical pitch... What most people think of when they think "epilepsy," the bodily convulsions, are [epilepsy of] the part of the brain that controls motor function.'
- parentheses, author's, square brackets mine.

This gem made all the dragging worth it. I went on. Still, something about the author's style and attitude was irritating me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, until I came across the Author's Note, inserted somewhat incongruously in the middle of the narrative, in which Burr told me exactly what his problem was.

In the course of his research for The Emperor of Scent, Burr was very surprised, naively in my opinion, that Turin was met with opposition, suppression, misrepresentation, prejudice, corruption, and general stuffing around during his attempts to develop and communicate his 'new theory of smell.' Burr seemed to have expected that such exciting, original science would be met with at least respect, if not admiration. I don't know where he got this idea from. Things have been going on like this since Socrates and the hemlock, Galileo Galilei and the Pope. Still, Burr writes -

'I began this book as a simple story of the creation of a scientific theory. But I continued it with the growing awareness that it was, in fact, a larger, more complex story of scientific corruption, corruption in the most mundane and systemic and virulent and sadly human sense of jealousy and calcified minds and vested interests. That it was a scientific morality tale.'

- and presents this as his summary -

'"Most laypeople," says Luca Turin, "subscribe devoutly to this lovely little fiction that science is a perfect intellectual market." And indeed, most of us do. We want to believe that science is dispassionate, objective, and (for those who don't have use for a theological god), omniscient. We want to believe that every idea that merits attention will be given it. That the good ideas are kept, the bad ones discarded, the industrious rise, the lazy sink, and that hard work and honest data are rewarded.'
-p. 302

I am dismayed by Burr's naivete. If I were telling this story, I would focus on the biography and not so much on the morality tale. Turin is interesting enough to deserve it.


  1. Thanks so much for dropping by to say hello and for your lovely comment! I'm enjoying reading your blog very much, I particularly like your "About Me" description! I will be visiting regularly! x

    1. Welcome, Wild Fairy! Lovely to see you here! I'm glad you like my 'about me'. To tell the truth, it took me weeks to come up with something to put in that bit that I was happy with.