When I was a boy, I would plead with my dad to quit smoking — long, tearful entreaties that fell on stiff ears.
“Uh huh,” he’d say. “Maybe later.”
Sometimes, I hid his cigarettes under a potted plant or stashed them in the cupboard under the stairs, behind an old rotary telephone and a box of books.
Funny, then, that years later, a smoker myself, I would buy him a carton of Marlboro Blacks on the way to the hospice where he eventually died of cancer. “Maybe later” came to an urn.
I’ve smoked, by my estimate, 5,023 cigars since my first: a Monte Cristo white label, bought for the name when I was a college freshman. Of all those cigars, I never enjoyed one with my dad.
He asked once, maybe three months into his illness. I was smoking a cigar under a tree in the front yard, reading, when he wobbled out. We sat and chatted, and he asked me for a cigar, or maybe he suggested that he’d like to have one with me one day. I demurred, uncomfortable given his condition. Perhaps I hadn’t accepted that he would be dead so soon. Perhaps he had accepted that he wouldn’t be alive much longer. That was the last chance. I cry just to think of it.
There’s always the person you want to share a smoke with. For the German writer Gregor Hens, it was his grandfather. “He died too soon,” Hens writes in his book “Nicotine.”
“I’m convinced that he died because his cigarettes were taken away from him when he was admitted to hospital after a fall, even though he smoked only five to ten a day for sixty years.”
Hens, though, decided to kick his cigarette addiction once and for all after a close friend’s mother died of cancer.
“My decision owed less to the fear of an early death (what, after all, is too early?) and a lot more to the immediate worry about my quality of life,” he writes. “I wasn’t doing well.”
“Nicotine” is a chronicle of his year overcoming the habit. The book is a slim but plaintive memoria to a lost love — a philosophical meditation on the nature of addiction, the listlessness, the frustration and the sense of grief one feels at the loss of a fix. Its structure is reminiscent of the memoryscapes of W.G. Sebald, including the strange, captionless photographs. This intelligent, literary volume plumbs Mark Twain, Italo Svevo and Van Morrison.
But make no mistake: “Nicotine” isn’t a self-help book. It’s not an anti-smoking screed. Nor is it a love sonnet to tobacco. It’s an honest exposition of the emotional complexity of quitting.
Hens’s chances of kicking the habit are poor. Only about 8 percent of smokers quit permanently, he notes. And this isn’t the first time he’s tried.
The truth is that no matter how long you’ve stopped smoking, you’re never fully recovered — and temptations and reminders abound. Hens recounts such moments with honesty and solemnity. One day he’s strolling through Brooklyn when he sees a young couple lighting a cigarette: “They straighten up and take the first drag. . . . I close my eyes; I know what they’re feeling.”
Hens also remembers the specific locations of his favorite smokes: by lakes, in airports, after a bicycle accident when the smoke salved his pain, shooting fireworks on New Year’s, when he was 5 or 6 years old. That was the first cigarette. He visits a hypnotist to whom he admits that sometimes he wishes he’d have another accident, so he’d have reason to light up again.
“No one, least of all myself, could criticize me, no one would condemn me for it,” he says.
But he’s managing his addiction well enough.
“The craving seldom overpowers me and, when it does, I know how to bypass it,” he notes.
So what of me and cigar 5,024? I plan on smoking it Wednesday night.
Caring friends and overbearing doctors often suggest I quit.
“Uh huh,” I say. “Maybe later.”
I know where that might end, but so does life, and there’s no stopping the inevitable. Why not enjoy it? “There’s peace in a Larranaga, there’s calm in a Henry Clay,” as Kipling put it.
I like Hens’s opinion on the matter: “Light up if you feel like it. . . . Smoke one for me.”
I’ll smoke one for Dad, too.
Timothy R. Smith is on the staff of Book World.
By Gregor Hens
Translated from German by Jen Calleja
Other Press. 176 pp. $16.95