Gregor Hens: NICOTINE / NIKOTINTranslated by Jen Caleja
When Gregor Hens was five or six years old he was allowed to light the fireworks at his family’s New Year party for the first time. His mother handed him a glimmering cigarette, which he put to the nearest rocket. In order to light the next one, he had to take a drag. It was the beginning of a decades-long love affair with cigarettes that he commemorates in this book.
Nicotine combines personal reflections with broader observations on the role of smoking, the nature of addiction, and the extent of our capacity to change. It is a meditation on smoking and a psychological test. At the start of the book Hens has been smoke-free for several months – cigarettes have been banished from his surroundings, his habits and his mind.
Now he examines the object of temptation in close-up, cutting open a Benson & Hedges to consider its materials, comparing the chemical composition of different brands, entering into dialogue with earlier smoker-writers, reviewing his memories of smoking, and analysing the act of lighting up and its changing symbolism. His reflections and the accompanying black-and-white photographs challenge us to reconsider habitual actions, images and patterns of thought.
These days everyone knows the health risks of cigarettes, but Hens travels back to an earlier era when parents smoked constantly over long journeys with their three young sons in the car. He recalls the yellowed wallpaper of his childhood home, and an aunt whose pension included a monthly allowance of tobacco. Perhaps surprisingly, he regrets nothing and blames no one. Smoking, for Hens, is inseparable from the events of his life and the structure of his psyche.
Exploring theories of addiction and the lasting effects of nicotine on the brain, he considers what it means to have a smoker’s personality: what are the biological limits of our agency and to what extent can compulsive urges be redirected?
By the end of the book, two years have passed since Hens last smoked, but the promise of a relapse cigarette haunts the text. This is possibly not the right book for those in withdrawal, but Hens’s candid account of his own obsession makes smoking fascinating even to a non-smoker.
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015, 168 pp.
About the AuthorGregor Hens was born in 1965 and grew up in Cologne. His autobiographical account of smoking ‘Nicotine’ was preceded by four books of fiction. Hens also translates literature from English to German: his most recent publications include David Ballantyne’s ‘Sydney Bridge Upside Down’, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughter-House 5’ and Will Self’s ‘Shark’.
Jen Calleja is a writer, translator and musician. She edits the Anglo-German literary journal Verfremendungseffekt. Her next translation is Kerstin Hensel’s ‘Dance by the Canal[SS6] ’ to be published by Peirene Press. She describes the process of translating ‘Nicotine’ in an interview with the Goethe-Institut.
Bookshelf / BücherregalThe link between literature and psychoactive substances has been explored from many different perspectives. A recent study by Victoria University’s Richard Millington examines the role of cocaine for three leading German-language poets of the early twentieth century. ‘Snow from Broken Eyes’ considers the use of the drug in the lives and work of Gottfried Benn, Walter Rheiner and Georg Trakl.
Cocaine was employed for medical purposes during the First World War and all three poets are known to have taken the drug: Millington follows their different biographical trajectories and discusses their different aesthetic treatments of addiction and intoxication. Drug references are most explicit in the poems of Gottfried Benn: readers interested in his work can find a selection of his later poetry in ‘Impromptus’, a bilingual edition prepared and translated by Michael Hofmann.
Snow from Broken Eyes: Cocaine in the Lives and Works of Three Expressionist Poets
Peter Lang, 2011
Translated by Michael Hofmann
Faber & Faber, 2014
Text: Sally-Ann Spencer
Copyright: Goethe-Institut New Zealand, 2016