The link between smoking and self-expression is long-established. The only thing worse than not being able to smoke, says Will Self in his excellent introduction, is ‘not being able to talk about it’.
‘Scriva! Scriva! Vedrà come arriverà a vedersi intero.’ ‘Write! Write! See what happens when you look into yourself.’ That’s the advice given by a psychiatrist in Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno, his 1923 novel about giving up smoking again and again, as per the line apocryphally from Mark Twain about giving up being so easy, he’s done it hundreds of times. ‘That was a very important last cigarette’ is, so to speak, that book’s essential joke, and Gregor Hens acknowledges not only that joke, abbreviating ‘last cigarette’ to LC, but explicitly acknowledges Svevo as (and I use the word advisedly here) an inspiration.
All smokers remember their first cigarette. Me: Benson and Hedges, garden shed, aet. 11. In this elegant, lucid and consistently entertaining memoir (or essay; or prose work; or 150-odd-page long extended plume of smoke; it is punctuated by black-and-white photos, à la W.G. Sebald, which on the page look as though they have been captured through a veil of the stuff), a six-year-old Gregor Hens is handed a glowing Kim by his mother so that he can light one of the fireworks his family traditionally let off for the New Year. ‘It is remarkable how clearly I can remember this night,’ Hens writes, and he’s not kidding: an action that I calculate can have taken no more than five seconds, and that at a stretch, takes six pages to describe. But there’s a good reason for this:
Now that the initial dizziness had subsided my awareness took on a new, never before recognised clarity; it was as if a curtain had been pulled back to let in a breeze, a fog bank had been blown away… I felt and saw, for the first time, a great experiential context… I not only saw images, not only heard single words or sentences, but experienced an inner world. In this manner, I was offered an experience that was narratable for the very first time.
If this strikes you as precious, as something too far removed from the conventionally expressed experience, i.e. ‘I felt sick’, then this book may be wasted on you. I could go so far as to say that smoking is wasted on you. But I suspect that even the most lumpen of smokers has an inkling of the potential nicotine has to increase self-awareness, to create a fermata, a suspension of time, a fag break in which an inner world can awaken. Even the cigarette smoked while performing a task — say, writing a book review — allows for and creates a series of micro-pauses for contemplation. You smoke to think; or to suspend thought. Call it meditation and it’s more or less the same thing.
It is, of course, a disgusting habit. Again, I use the word advisedly: it interferes with the process of taste. Again and again Hens alludes to the way that there is something transgressive, and wrong, about smoking. He spots a smoking area in an airport, ‘a kind of suffocation chamber’. He is, he says, ‘repulsed and overjoyed’. What other habit is going to allow you to ram those two adjectives next to each other? And what other habit allows disgust and desire to work hand in hand? There’s a beautiful scene towards the end of the book when a girl, long-desired, sits on the end of his bed the morning after a party; he realises he is about to be kissed, but at the same time realises his mouth has turned overnight into, basically, an ashtray. So she lights a cigarette herself and then passes it to him. And then takes it back to her own lips.
She bent over me and released the smoke, and the shimmering blue veil that caught the first autumnal sunshine sank over my face and caressed me. A kiss, better than a kiss …
Well, it is. Hens has — so far — been successful in his relinquishing of the smoke; but ‘I envy anyone that can relive this experience’.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 Tel: 08430 600033