People will connect his book with Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, and I’m sure Hens had that volume in mind, but if Nicotine has a literary progenitor I would say that it is In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust made the material of seven volumes bloom out of one French cookie dunked in a cup of tea. Nicotine is much shorter, only a hundred and fifty-seven pages, but Hens uses a similar alchemy to transform the things of his world—the family in which he grew up, in Cologne; his former home in Columbus, where he taught German literature at Ohio State; his apartment in Berlin, where he lives with his wife, and produces novels and translations—into whole relay stations of poetic force, humming and sparking and chugging ... From page to page, this beloved woman [Hens' mother] is glimpsed only partially. All around her there are silences, empty places, held breaths—an extraordinary act of literary finesse ... [a] dark, lovely, funny book.
...[a] captivating memoir ... this is a wonderfully meandering memoir, beautifully written, in which Mr. Hens recalls formative experiences through the experience of smoking—because cigarettes were always present—while also exploring the psychology of an addict.
...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.
It doesn’t always click. There are passages that, in this translation by Jen Calleja, veer close to psychobabble. But when Nicotine stays dry, earthy and combustible, like a Virginia tobacco blend, it has a lot to say and says it well ... He is especially good on how those who quit become vicarious smokers ... Like any author worth reading, Mr. Hens is sometimes best when he goes off-topic, dispatching obiter dicta. He is brutal about the Midwest. ('The most insignificant city in the United States is Columbus, Ohio.') ... This edition of Nicotine includes an introduction by the English writer Will Self that belongs in the hall of fame of bad introductions. Mr. Self (never has his name seemed so apt) tries to one-up Mr. Hens by bragging at length about his own peerless nicotine addiction. This introduction is profitably torn out, the way smokers of unfiltered cigarettes tear the filters from Marlboros.
...a satisfying wisp of an essay about tobacco, addiction, first cigarettes, last cigarettes, breathing, kissing, hypnosis, literature, memory, and marking time ... Nicotine is a smoke ring, blown perfectly in a single puff, or — better? — a wafting trail of vapor. Will Self contributes a foreword, a rapid monologue punctuated with vigorous little twists, as though he were grinding out a stub with yellow-stained fingers.
It’s a slight and meandering work that essentially recounts the author’s life in cigarettes, but its most vital passages describe how smoking essentially shifted Hens’s reality, allowing him to access a meditative state in which he felt truly connected with himself and the world ... Nicotine is at its most interesting when Hens expounds on his chosen subject as though it’s the magical source of his inspiration ... his writing about smoking is focused, clear, and lyrical, while on other subjects he tends to wander about the page ... For smokers, this description might spark the same rapid heartbeat, the same liminal hit. For ex-smokers, Nicotine should probably come with a trigger warning. Hens writes so fondly of cigarettes and their role in his life that it’s almost difficult to understand why he gave up.
...[an] achingly lucid new memoir ... Hens’ memories — spun as stories, for he is a piquant, enchanting storyteller — follow one after another, though not before they have been surgically dissected for elements of self-discovery lurking in that memory’s cigarette. First, however, Will Self’s introduction is a gloriously mad prelude ... Despite qualms that the last cigarette might extinguish his access to literarily fertile material, Nicotine is proof positive that Hens still has the stuff.
Part of the pleasure of reading Hens’s book is these details, and the way they illustrate how his own life spans a pivotal moment in the history of tobacco ... Nicotine, in this sense, is a time capsule, one that serves not only to illustrate Hens’s conceit that cigarettes served as a fundamental building block to his identity, but also to show how cigarettes have been integral to post-war society as a whole ...it can’t be denied that the book is an addiction memoir. It delves into the process of the author’s recovery, his relapses, his changes of heart; above all, it is a book about the author’s desire to change his habits, never mind that Hens frames it as a change in his identity ...it is entertaining, and Hens manages the addiction narrative with uncommon wit and narrative energy, interspersing his memories with self-deprecatory stabs at pop science, psychology and philosophy.
As far as addiction memoirs go, this one is unique. Instead of just focusing on himself and his relationship to his vice, Hens discusses the cigarette industry, his family, and even cigarettes as cultural/personal/physical objects ... while there is a lot of explaining, remembering, and deconstructing, the writing never becomes preachy. Instead, Hens offers a brutally honest look at his life and addiction that is at once illuminating and very entertaining ... One things that sets Nicotine apart from other books of its kind is that, while firmly planted in the realm of memoirs, it deviates from time to time and becomes a narrative about exploring the self, a story about an entire family and their relationship to smoking, and even turns into something akin to investigative journalism when the author looks at the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes. Throughout all those, the pace is enjoyable, the chapters go by fast, and the writing is always engaging regardless of what the author is discussing at the time ... Perhaps Nicotine's only fault is its introduction, written by author Will Self. Fourteen pages long and only somewhat related to the text that follows it, the introduction, especially once the fast, crisp writing of the memoir itself gets going, is a slightly pompous, self-centered affair that should have been clipped by an editor ... Gritty, funny, multilayered, and rich in diversity of themes explored, this is a memoir that transcends its genre and demands to be read as much more than just a man's look at his lifetime inhaling smoke.