If literature has given us great smokers, it has also given us a few wonderful quitters. Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno" is one of the most precocious novels of this century and for anyone who has ever smoked and tried to quit, one of the funniest. Written in the early 1920s, poor Zeno goes off to a psychiatrist to help him quit smoking. What follows is a lengthy smoker's autobiography and the most intricate contemplation of smoking and quitting ever written. And he finally does quit too. If smoking is the modern vice, quitting is the modern dilemma.
James Barrie, best known as the author of "Peter Pan," also wrote a tasty little volume with the delicious title, "My Lady Nicotine." If Zeno dealt with the psychological, Barrie's narrator dwells on the sensual: the aroma, taste and handling of his favorite pipes and cigars. He doesn't shy away from the corporeal downside either: the sharp pains, breathlessness and fruity cough. But he's forced to decide. It is either his "Lady Nicotine" or his fiancee, who won't marry him unless he quits. And he does quit, amusingly, and with no regrets.
The battle between male smokers and female nonsmokers seems very antique in contemporary society. But it was a theme of much of the early literature on smoking. Perhaps best known is Kipling's poem, "The Betrothed."
"Open the old cigar-box,
get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running
and Maggie and I are out."
If Barrie's character decides in favor of his own betrothed, Kipling's decides otherwise--and gives literature one of its most delightful and ridiculous lines: "And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."
Of course, literature is of small importance in the creation of the cult of smoking in modern times. That honor goes to the movies. Everyone can call to mind Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis and feel all the powerful associations we have with cigarettes. Smoking is a great prop and powerful definition of mood and character. We've learned very well how to pretend to be ourselves.
There is a great scene--a wonderfully sly parody--in the film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," in which David Bowie, imprisoned and without cigarettes, mimes very meticulously the act of smoking to give himself a little solace. Without the subject, the event is seen more clearly and humorously.
I've felt a little like that David Bowie character lately. Or like private eye Lew Archer in the Ross Macdonald mysteries. Archer is always commenting that he reaches for a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, though he quit years ago. There is a laborious, difficult, and sometimes amusing process that has to be gone through in order to give up smoking. Discovering new gestures, new ways of handling space and time. There are lots of things one grows accustomed to doing with cigarettes; learning to live without them takes time.
I know very well the ambivalence Charles Lamb wrote of in his little poem, "A Farewell to Tobacco." I hope I know, too, his resolve. He ended the poem by saying, "For thy sake tobacco, I would do anything but die."