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Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”

The cover of Gregor Hens’ non-proselyting memoir, Nicotine, shows a bisected cigarette, complete with filter, and cut down the middle so the tobacco is visible. The book itself is neither a warning about the consequences of smoking, nor a diatribe aimed at either side of the issue. Rather, Nicotine is simply one former addict’s account of his smoking, from the first cigarette when he was a child, until the last one after previous attempts to stop. The writing of the memoir was, hopefully, cathartic; but we don’t know if Hens has remained clean. We all know that stopping smoking is never easy and many smokers lapse, yet in recent years there’s pretty remarkable evidence that a decisive number of people have managed to stop.

Will Self, one of Hens’ friends who wrote the introduction to the volume, comments on his own smoking life, mentioning—among other things—the enormous expense. “Ridiculous, I know—but that’s how I ended up with a £15 per day Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto [cigar] habit on top of the cigarettes.” He also recalls the years when smoking was permitted virtually everywhere. In 1987, after he hopped off the London underground, a fellow smoker “dropped his still smoldering cigarette in the grooves of a tread [part of the floor of a carriage], nicotine1and it was carried into the oily, fluffy, highly combustible netherworld. The ensuing fire killed thirty-one, injured a further one hundred, and put a stop to smoking on the London underground forever.”

If you’re of a certain age and a non-smoker, you can probably remember a time when it appeared as if everyone else did. I recall teaching creative writing classes in the 1970s when it seemed as if almost everyone smoked, and I remember, also, a couple of students who sat in the hall in order to avoid the classroom fog.

And I certainly have vivid memories of the several occasions when I lit up a cigarette itself.  Especially the time I let a bidi in Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan, one night, and immediately felt as if I might fly right off the fort. Jaisalmer is such a magical place that I wouldn’t have been surprised if a flying carpet had passed by. I was flying myself, and hadn’t been able to stop the temptation to purchase a package of bidis for about three cents. But one was enough. I think I brought the rest of the cigarettes back to the United States, but I never smoked another one.

Hens’ first experience with a cigarette was one New Year’s Eve when he was about five or six. His mother (a smoker) handed him a lit cigarette so that he could use it to light the fuse of one of the rockets his father purchased to celebrate the occasion. When the cigarette appeared as if it would burn out, his mother told him to take a puff on it. At the time, he considered the lit cigarette the greatest gift that one person could give another. After initially coughing and then another puff, he tells us, “I felt a mental tingling, as delirium, and I remember that my brothers and the adults present, even my parents, appeared strange to me. Triggered by the nicotine penetrating the mucous membranes in my mouth and nose, entering my bloodstream and within a few seconds shooting into my young, malleable brain, I felt and saw, perhaps for the first time, a great experiential context.”

Afterwards, he could hardly wait until the next New Year’s Eve.

He grew up in a family of smokers. His aunt worked for a cigarette manufacturer in Bremen. When she retired, in addition to her retirement, she received a weekly stipend of cartons of cigarettes guaranteed for a hundred years. His father smoked so much that Hens believed that smoking was his father’s job. The secondary smoke in their house was overwhelming but even worse when they were in the family car. His father would chain smoke, his mother would also puff away, and the windows of the car, of course, were closed. Riding with the family, he would “routinely feel ill.” Sometimes the smoke was so thick that he would get out of the car and throw up. But, then, one day his father abruptly stopped smoking. Cold turkey. Well, not exactly. His office had caught on fire.

Much later, Hens would also stop, but this was way after smoking—by his estimation—100,000 cigarettes and his truthful observation that “Every cigarette I’ve ever smoked was a good cigarette.” That’s why it’s so difficult for most people to stop. When Hens was at boarding school, all he wanted to do was read books and smoke. Ideally, at the same time, “a dominating factor in my life.” Once when he tried to stop, with the aid of a hypnotist, he was asked how often he thought about smoking. Here’s his answer, which I assume is typical of addicted people:

“Every time I see a smoker, every time I smell cigarette smoke, when my neighbor steps out onto his balcony to have a break from his many children and lights up…. Every form of cigarette ad gives me a pang of longing, every scrunched-up, carelessly thrown away cigarette packet at a bus stop, every trod-on cigarette butt, every beautiful woman holding a cigarette between her fingers or just looking like she could be holding one…. When I’m working I feel a compulsion, when I hold a pen between my fingers, when I’m hungry, when I’ve just eaten, when I drink coffee or tea or when I’m only thinking about drinking coffee or tea….” That’s only part of Hens’ list.

But he stopped.

There were two reasons, the first because he has always been a runner, entering triathlons, and the smoking was clearly inhibiting his breathing. But the other explanation is more interesting. Hens writes of a book by Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, and he quotes a passage: “Negating an act is somehow similar to changing the direction of a moving body. A break, a zero velocity, is necessary in between switching from one to the other.” We have control over our habits; we can change them. A learned behavior can be unlearned. What it takes is discovering a new way to circumvent the addiction.

We should all be so lucky. But it worked for Gregor Hens who states that people can find new ways to alter their addictions, especially when the problem is a learned behavior. Still—and I find this quite charming—Hens writes, “”Sometimes I walk around the city and imagine that others are smoking on my behalf. I silently thank the smokers in front of the cafés and office buildings and in smoking areas, imagining they do it for me, for my inner contentment. I have people smoke for me.”

Charming, indeed.

Gregor Hens: Nicotine
Trans by Jen Calleja
Other Press, 176 pp., $16.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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