BOOK REVIEW / Smoke signals: Cigarettes are sublime by Richard Klein: Duke University Press, pounds 19.95

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A LEADING Soho poet and litterateur was once, within my hearing, at his usual opening-time post on the bar-stool. Joined by an old acquaintance, he was shocked to hear the latter call for a Virgin Mary or some such nonsense. 'Well,' said the reformed character rather defensively, 'I just didn't like it any more. The hangovers, the fights, the remorse, the amnesia, the heartburn . . . I just found I didn't like it any more.' With a curl of the lip, and the look of a deacon reproving a backslider, the Soho stalwart returned: 'None of us likes it.'

As Richard Klein points out in this languorous meditation on humanity's most futile and wasteful habit, 'no one has ever liked cigarettes the first time they tried them'. The same applies to booze, of course, but it's possible even for an amateur to overdo the drink while, for the reflective inhaler, an extra packet will not make anything like the same difference as an extra bottle. 'A smoker' is something you are, not something you do. The idea of a smoking-jacket is faintly absurd, but not as absurd as a drinking-jacket (though, come to think of it . . .)

'The only vice not known to the Romans', as someone smartly noticed, the indulgence in tobacco might have done better to originate with the Greeks. Every smoker knows that he is a dead man on leave (or on leaf, if you'll allow me) and this sits better with the Stoic temperament than it does with the Saturnalian. People have smoked to stay cool, to remain detached, to achieve the contemplative or at worst the world-weary mode. A smoking debauch, though theoretically feasible, is antithetical to the main scheme. Wreathed in faint blue-grey rings, one can idly and even pleasurably reflect upon one's own insignificance. Klein's essay captures this essence very finely. Borrowing from Greece, or perhaps better say from Crete, he devotes an entire section to the magnificent work of Italo Svevo, whose last novel (published in English as The Last Cigarette) was in the original entitled Il fumo. From the adopted perspective of an analysand, Svevo set out the splendours and miseries of a life devoted to giving up smoking. By the conclusion, it is easy to see why the English rendition of the title is in fact the superior one. Svevo established once and for all the deep, latent connection between the final puff and the coup de grace. As he put it:

I think that the cigarette has a more intense taste when it is the last. The others, too, have a special taste, but less intense. The last one acquires its savour from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of a near future of strength and health. The others have their importance since lighting them up protests on behalf of the freedom to do what you want, and the future of health and strength does not go away, though it has moved a little further off.

Yes, I think that just about covers everything. Smokers want it both ways, but at least they know that they want it both ways. They also know that what they want is impossible - like the ambition to live each day as if it were your last, the aim of smoking each cigarette as if it were a farewell is heroically contradictory. Photographs dotted through the book - of Vaclav Havel taking a good, strong drag, and of Sartre and Cocteau married to their slim, tubular appendages - reinforce the identity between smoking and the absurd.

The 'fit' between smoking and a sort of dandyism is not by any means perfect, as Richard Klein illustrates in his chapters on cigarettes and soldiers, and cigarettes and gypsies. For the luckless grunt and footsoldier with the stub in the mouth, and for the head-tossing knife-flourishing Bohemian, the cigarette is an ally in action and an auxiliary in combat. (You can see this any day in places like Beirut and Sarajevo, where every gesture is a smouldering one and all the signs inscribed in illegible characters appear to read: 'Thank you for smoking'. But here, too, the pungent tang of fate and finality can be detected beneath the gorgeous, dissipating scent of the Gitane).

Immanuel Kant's definition of the sublime was shrewd and capacious enough to include the negative and the melancholy; the awareness that even the most ecstatic moment contains a warning. One may grandly disregard the admonitions placed by a hypocritical state on cigarette packets. But when one descends from a nicotine Nirvana and surveys the brimming ashtray, there is the abrupt realisation that, like the adored object itself, one must 'consign to this, and come to dust'. We do have, however, more banal means of arriving at this sensible conclusion - a conclusion which is often eased by that last gasper.

Christopher Hitchens is critic-at-large for Vanity Fair.