Book Review

Nicotine by Gregor Hens

If Gregor Hens can give up smoking, I can give up booze.

I’ve gone over three weeks now without a drink, and I’m no happier, successful, confident or affluent than I was before. As a dry man, I am able to drive whenever I want to (so far the only positive I can find in this sober season), but driving doesn’t give me the life-affirming daily black outs I’m used to, so I’m bored out of my fucking mind, with no break (bar sleep) from sober contemplation of my deeply unsatisfying existence. I needed a treat, something that would enter into my mind like only booze or contemporary hipsterish book-length essays can.

I decided to go for a book and stay on the wagon. But if I was going to buy a book as a life belt to hold me off the drinking, it had to a book I knew I’d enjoy, as I was desperate for a temporary, fleeting, happiness, even if it lasted a mere couple of hours. Also, a book costs roughly the same as a bottle of wine, so it felt like an appropriate swop1.

I thought hard and I thought fast, and decided to withdraw to that oh-so-consistently-brilliant independent publishing house, Fitzcarraldo Editions. I was asserting myself like the proactive soberman (isn’t that a dog?) I’d dreamt of being, and I decided I wanted to read their book on eschewing addiction, as a companion piece to my experience eschewing my own – less hip2 – addiction. So, after trying a few book shops that had either sold out or never stocked it, in Islington’s Waterstones I finally got my grubby, sober, hands on a copy of Nicotine by Gregor Hens, seamlessly translated3 from Teutonic German by Jen Calleja.

Gregor Hens has successfully given up nicotine; he is writing from the other side of addiction. Hens is comfortable in the fact that he has moved on from smoking, but he still – at heart – identifies as a smoker. Every dog-end he sees on the floor, every happy smoker, every cigarette in advertising, photographs and the media, every memory of smoking, every place he smoked or bought cigarettes, every person he smoked with and every moment when he would (historically) have smoked all remind him, near constantly, of smoking. He has given up before, gone years without a fag, but this time – he is certain – is the last time, the ultimate cessation of the act. It feels final, for Hens, it feels right and, most significantly, his partner (always referred to as “M.”, which adds a whiff of Bond to the text) has also given up smoking, which means that the temptation will be a further step away. Using first person narration that slides between past and present, Hens explores his relationship with nicotine and the best and most important cigarettes he ever had. Most frequently cited are those smokes that clicked into alignment with significant personal moments, especially ideas around developing sexuality, adult ideas of personhood and a growing understanding of death.

Cigarettes, in Hens’ youth (he was born in 1965), were everywhere in a way that – even then – was becoming unfashionable. His parents both smoked in his childhood, and Hens touches on, though doesn’t explore in detail, the links between his mother’s depressive episodes and her heavier smoking. The reader is led to presume that she killed herself, but no real discussion exists within the book as to the idea of smoking as self-harm. Smoking is bad for you, yes, and some descriptions of the effects of chemicals on “the body” are mentioned, but often to an abstract body: Hens almost implies that by giving up smoking he has negated the negative effects of several decades of smoking, there is almost a cockiness to his success at abstinence, and a scene where he bums a cigarette off a stranger just to cut it up and look inside harks to the infamous closing scene of A Million Little Pieces.

There is a confidence and an absolutism in Hens’ defeat of his addiction that justifies his decision to write what – in many ways – amounts to a love letter to The Cigarette. With Nicotine, Hens is not persuading himself to quit smoking or persuading himself to take up smoking, he is instead seeking to explore why he smoked so much (multiple packets a day), in an attempt to understand the ideological and emotional pull that cigarettes held for him, despite an understanding of their destructive potential and physically addictive properties.

Cigarettes are an addiction unlike most others (except heroin) in that governments have deliberately tried to make it unfashionable. Broadly speaking, Western European Society condemns the smoker, and over the last few decades it has made his or her life considerably harder. One cannot smoke in bars, clubs or pubs now, which was normal even when I was a teenager. One cannot smoke in offices or on public transport, which was normal when Hens was young. As pointed out by Will Self in a characteristically self-indulgent Foreword, smoking still regularly happened on the London Underground until the King’s Cross Fire of 1987, and had only been formally banned in 1984 on trains and 1985 in stations. People could smoke on planes until a similar time, which now sounds like utter fantasy. I was in a bar in Prague a few months ago where people could smoke indoors (or at least did) and it was a strange experience, like being back in time.4

Hens’ discussion of smoking is rooted in personal nostalgia, in the connections that smoking evokes within his memory, this repeated set of actions and sensation. He wonders towards the book’s end if his interest in smoking was merely a passing whim, a part of youth to be grown out of. Nostalgia is certainly a factor in my alcoholism: I drink to be reminded of feeling young and free and happy, drinking reminds me of friendship and excitement and hope, all of which are things I lack. I drink and put on music I used to like and smile and sing, pretend I still have hair, a social life and the possibility of carving out a future I actively want. I drink to displace myself from my present. I drink to find the black-outs and prolong them for as long as possible because happiness is precious, even if it’s fake, even if it’s fake, even if it’s fake.

Hens explores various avenues whilst trying to give up smoking. He has hypnosis, he tries to give up casually, he tries to give up formally, he gives up for years then has a near-fatal cycling accident and takes it up again. He exercises when he doesn’t smoke and takes great pleasure from the expanded lung capacity this affords him, but he also thinks about the pleasure and personal importance of smoking, a habit he began when a very small child. Hens is nostalgic for his smoking, but wants it to be over, is happy it has stopped. There are things that replace smoking in his life – cycling, swimming and mountain climbing. For me, there is nothing that replaces the drinking, for the drinking is a delayed response to the way daytime makes me feel. I firmly believe that only sober will I be able to effect changes necessary to make me not need to drink. But I’m weeks into it now, this is the longest I’ve gone without drinking while in London EVER (and probably the longest I’ve gone without drinking since I was 17, other than my 1,000km walk last Summer) and all I want is booze. I’m typing this at ten am on a Sunday morning, and all I want is to drink until I pass out. I’m not in Hens’ situation w/r/t my addiction. But I think I’m going in the right direction.

Nicotine is engaging, witty and personal. Will Self – who is an unrepentant lover of tobacco – sets the book’s tone of appreciation, but ignores its message of abstinence. Hens loves his memories of smoking, loves the feeling of smoking and the action of smoking, but there is something about it he doesn’t like, he doesn’t want, and is glad to be shot of. I think it’s important to fight any addiction; when anything that rots you from the inside becomes the most important thing in your life, you need to cut it out. I’m trying, but I expect to fail. Every day I get through, I’m proud of myself. No one else is, though, there is literally no one in my life who is willing me to stay sober. And that’s what I need to change, that’s what I need to fix.

Another great book from Fitzcarraldo, though not as good as Zone, the greatest book I’ve read in years. Highly recommended. I’ll be reading Pond soon, too, which I’ve heard great things about. Maybe that will give my life meaning.

Maybe – INSERT PLUG – the forthcoming Triumph of the Now TV web series might give my life purpose. To be honest, though, I doubt it. Here’s the trailer anyway. BYE:

1. Though I was buying one book after three weeks, rather than a bottle and a half of wine a night. Yes, I’ve been drinking that much as a daily average since last Summer. I know I have a problem. I’m engaging with it. 

2. Only gambling is a less cool addiction than booze, isn’t it?  

3. Other than an unnecessary, Londoncentric, translation of “S-Bahn” to “overground”.  

4. Obviously, I’ve been to lock-ins and parties where smoking happens in places where it shouldn’t/normally doesn’t, but that’s because I’m a[n at least for a while] reformed party boy and wherever the indoor smoking was happening there was an illicit vibe. And things far more illegal going on. And some people were probably erotically charged.  

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