A beautiful, if somewhat meandering, series of vignettes on the writer’s lifelong relationship with cigarettes.
Nicotine by Gregor Hens. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. Other Press, 160 pages, $16.95.
By Lucas Spiro
In 1890, William James observed that, “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.” He goes on to claim that, when it comes to people, habit “seems… to be the result of education.” According to James, a habit is learned behavior that becomes automatic, which explains why a habit can be such a difficult thing to break. Now, a habit can be as beneficial as brushing your teeth twice a day, or a big league pitcher throwing his curveball the same way every time. The important thing is that you don’t notice it. Not noticing such things, however, is exactly what troubles German writer Gregor Hens in his new book Nicotine, his first to be translated into English. It is a beautiful, if somewhat meandering, series of vignettes on his lifelong relationship with cigarettes.
Hens smoked his first cigarette on New Year’s Eve, 1970. He was five years old. Since then, he writes, “I’ve smoked well over a hundred thousand cigarettes in my life, and each one of those cigarettes meant something to me.” Still, despite this dedication and expertise, Hens cannot say for sure “whether the paper crackles when you light one like in the old cinema ads.” He just never noticed. The intention behind Nicotine, he claims, is not to romanticize smoking but to “write myself out of my addiction by telling its story.” Over the years he noticed that his life as a smoker and his life as a writer are inextricably linked. In telling the story of his addiction, Hens wants to look at his addiction in a new way, to “relearn” what has become mechanical. To do that, he focuses on how smoking shaped his personality, particularly how cigarettes interfaced with his family background and issues of cultural inheritance.
Nicotine grows into a deeply personal and philosophical meditation that covers a lot of ground in a short number of pages. Hens examines, with clarity and precision, the mysterious interactions of memory, desire, and free will, not so much by remembering every cigarette, but by remembering everything that happened around each cigarette.
It must be said that Nicotine is not a book that will help people quit smoking. I found myself breaking with my own urge to smoke after reading some of Hens’s more rhapsodic ruminations. I didn’t even get past the entertaining introduction by Will Self (who Hens translates into German) without lighting up. Hens admits he has read a number of self-help books, mostly as gifts from relatives or in-laws, so the language of that genre sometimes spills into Nicotine. I suspect that “One pulls oneself free when one is trapped,” is a paraphrase of some maxim of empowerment. But, to his credit, he does not argue that he is out to help others. He even confesses that he is “not concerned with the thing itself,” the thing itself being cigarettes. He has no interest “in servicing the corresponding associations” that smoking has with glamourous Hollywood actors, or pining for the halcyon days before public health strictures were invented. The attraction of Nicotine lies in Hens’s exploration of self-consciousness, how we see ourselves differently when we look carefully at the times when we are least aware of our behavior.
Hens’s writing is at its most powerful when dealing with issues of his family. His first cigarette he smoked was given to him by his mother. It was the first New Year’s that little Gregor was allowed to stay up and light fireworks with the family. He describes the scene lovingly, with many intimate details. He recalls his mother’s “light-colored musk beaver coat, and her midlength blond hair” that “peeked out from under an electric blue hat she’d knitted herself.” His older brothers were fighting over a lighter to set off the first rocket when his mother “pulled out a cigarette, lit up and held it out to me like a treat.” The event and the cigarette take on a mystical quality, a supernatural aura that will recur throughout the book. He “accepted it with a reverence that was felt perhaps more truly and deeply than the humble spirit required of me a few years later at my first Communion.”
It is no wonder that cigarettes hold such a dear place in Hens’s heart. After lighting the rocket, Hens’s mother instructs him to take a drag to keep the cigartte burning. And as his lungs explode in a coughing fit, in sync with the flight of the rocket overhead, Hens writes, “I became myself for the very first time … in this moment I perceived myself for the first time and that the inversion of perspective, this first stepping out from myself, shook me up and fascinated me.” His use of this childhood memory exudes a Proustian power; it has the texture and rhythm of an essential story, a primal touchstone. That first cigarette gave him his first impression of life as an “experiential context,” as something unfolding in time, as “narratable.”
Not all of his family’s stories are as pastoral. Hans balances truly horrendous events with darkly comic observations. In one scene, Hens’ abusive father, a fire-prevention expert whose home office once caught fire, threatens to impale one of Hens’s brothers with a pickax. His brother’s crime? Smoking on the old roof of the Catholic boarding school where their father abandoned them after their mother died after having a psychological breakdown. How she died is only suggested. Hens indicates she “succumbed to her melancholy.” In this sense, the personal gives way to the political. Hens is careful not to overtly moralize on the inheritance of German sins, but he was born into a partitioned Germany, a child of the generation that was part of the war effort. Domestic dysfunction intersects with a festering historical trauma.
To its credit, Nicotine is not your typical addiction memoir. Hens does not cast himself as a hero who overcomes temptation, but as someone who wants to find new ways of asking old questions. For Hens, cigarettes opened up new doors of self perception, but they also obscured certain hard truths. The irony is that, although he must go back to his earliest memories to begin to scrutinize his habits, he believes that what drives his “addiction lurks underneath the surface,” not just in the depths of his subconscious. Inner exploration, for all of its revelations, may only be a defense; the motivations for the habitual may only be skin-deep.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occassionally, he is joyous.