Described as having a harsh, coarse, and vulgar scent, privet (“liguster” in German) is a type of shrub commonly found in Europe. It is also the source of the unsettling, “embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness” that prompts Stephen, as an elderly man, to return to the Close (the cul-de-sac where he grew up). Stephen associates privet with his childhood because the privet hedges in front of Miss Durrant’s bombed house held the hiding spot where Keith and Stephen spied on Keith’s mother. Thus, privet symbolizes the tangible memories of that particular time in Stephen’s life. The plant’s smell elicits various emotions that are associated with Stephen’s memories: embarrassment, restlessness, homesickness, lust, and shame. Although, as Stephen says himself, “it seems such a ridiculously banal and inappropriate cue for such powerful feelings,” privet represents the material-ness of memories and the way they can latch onto specific objects that then convey those meanings to an individual and his/her unique experiences. Furthermore, “privet” is Keith’s misspelling of “private” (and a word the young Stephen doesn’t know, but assumes is something shameful to do with the bathroom), which hints at the complexities of language, the shakiness of memory, and Stephen’s constant struggle to deliver an accurate recollection of his ridiculously secretive past that he finds particularly troubling.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Privet / Liguster appears in Spies. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...identify the smell’s source, she guesses that the “vulgar smell” must be “liguster” (German for privet), a dull-looking shrub found commonly in parks. At night, the narrator is pondering over the... (full context)
...and instead Stephen is visited by Barbara, who makes fun of the mistake of the “privet” sign. She teases Stephen for not knowing the meaning of “privet”—though he tries to pretend... (full context)
...Stephen two chocolate biscuits and apologizes that Keith cannot play today. She comments on the “privet” sign and looks through their “logbook—secrit”, laughing when she realizes that both are misspelled (and... (full context)