Gregor Hens’ Nicotine is not as addictive as one might expect

Despite his excellent eye for detail, Hens' account is not as persuasive as Will Self's forward.

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Real-life tales of addiction occupy an ever-popular, if squalid, space in the literary landscape: squalid not so much because of their subject matter but because of the motivation behind both their composition and their consumption. No matter their literary worth, no matter the noblest of intentions, any such writer knows that a good prop­ortion of the readership is motivated by voyeurism: “straights” wanting vicariously to experience the swelling, blooming highs and the guttering, stinking lows without ever having to turn to Anna Kavan’s heroin or Charles Bukowski’s morning beer. It’s a trade-off, a literary contract: I’ll spill what it’s like, if you’re willing to follow me to wherever I might wander.

It is a contract that works well for the Four Horsemen of addiction – sex, booze, drugs, gambling. For other addictions, the returns are rather small: they lack dirt. For the reader, the short-term risks appear too small; the desperation for another hit not desperate enough. This is perhaps the reason why the most read and probably most important account of cigarette addiction is not contained in a memoir or novel – not even one as consistently inventive as Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience – but in a self-help book. Allen Carr’s necessarily visceral tale of his addiction to tobacco in his bestseller The Easy Way to Stop Smoking is totemic in the literature of smoking. No other description has been read more often, nor written with such a clear-eyed understanding of the precepts of real-life tales of addiction. It has a moment of rock bottom and a road to recovery. It has sympathy for fellow addicts and it offers real hope.

There is a similar story recounted by Gregor Hens in Nicotine – a memoiristic essay, finely translated by Jen Calleja – that plunders his obsession with smoking. Hens père is an 80-a-day man, “a cigarette with a body attached to it”, to borrow Raymond Carver’s striking self-portrait. One day, he is lighting up when looks down and sees that he already has a cigarette burning in the ashtray. “He understood,” Hens writes, “that he no longer had his cigarette consumption in hand, control had slipped away from him.” He passes from one state of being to another.

“I’ve always either smoked or done intensive endurance sport,” Hens rather smugly points out, as if this is a commonality between all smokers. Later, he hits on something far more universal: “Whether I actually smoke or not,” he writes, “my personality is a smoker’s personality.” It’s the kind of spare, insightful line that Hens is excellent at teasing out. Unfortunately, there are rather fewer of them than one might hope.

Although Hens does not smoke now – he tells us this repeatedly, a leitmotif that many a reformed smoker will recognise – he seldom examines the decades that he spent smoking. He does not go deep enough into the smoker’s psyche, into the self-delusion of smoking, into how it affects the way one’s life is lived: when smoking becomes not just the punctuation but the grammar of day-to-day existence.

Hens is more concerned with beginnings – how he became hooked, the cigarettes he first sucked on. This gives the essay the feeling of a loose assortment of recollections on a theme rather than a cohesive whole. There is no doubt that Hens is a hugely talented writer with an exceptional eye for the telling detail – his description of his first night in the US, for example, is a masterclass in concise and vivid language – but Nicotine doesn’t quite convince as a whole. I couldn’t help but feel that he is, despite his protestations, more of a dilettante than an addict.

The foreword by Will Self does more to address a life of addiction and obsession in 12 pages than Hens manages in more than ten times that number. Hens’s family history, trips to hypnotherapists and relapses feel like mere vapes in comparison to Self’s lungfuls of Gauloises Disque Bleu. While Fitzcarraldo Editions is probably the most exciting publishing house in the UK right now, Nicotine is not as addictive as one might expect – nor quite as persuasive as its foreword.

Stuart Evers’s books include “Ten Stories About Smoking” (Picador)

Nicotine by Gregor Hens, translated by Jen Calleja, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (159pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming