Monday, October 1, 2012

On smoking or a book came through the post

The other day I ordered a second hand book from the internet. It was Leonard Michaels' "Collected Stories". When the packet arrived, I unwrapped the book and took it in my hands. It was in good condition but then... there was this distinct cigarette odour that reached my nostrils as soon as I leafed through the first pages. The previous owner must have been a heavy smoker and he surely had been smoking while reading. I felt that the stale smell had permeated every paragraph, sentence or word of the text. As I was cascading the pages to air them a little, I noticed a pencil mark somewhere in the middle of the book highlighting a certain paragraph. It read:

"... That quick efficient feeling in the hands, plucking the shaft free of the pack, dashing a match head to perfection. Fat, seething fire. You pull the point of heat against tobacco leaf and a globe of gas rolls in to the tongue's valley, like a personal planet. Then the consummation, the slithering hairy smoke. Its danger meets the danger we live with in the average street, our lethal food, poisoned air, imminent bomb. In Morocco and Berlin, in Honolulu's sunshine or the black Siberian night, in the cruel salons of urban literati, in the phantasmagoria of brothels, in rain forests full of orchids and wild pigs where women bleed to phases of the moon and men hunt what they eat, in the excremental reek of prison cells, or crouched beside a window with a gun in your lap, or sitting in your car studying a map, or listening to a lecture at the Sorbonne, or waiting for a bus or a phonecall, or just trying to be reasonable, or staying up late, or after a meal in some classy restaurant, hands repeat their ceremony. The shock of fire. The pungent smoke. Disconnection slides across the yellowing eye. True, it's very like but morally superior to masturbation; and you look better, more dignified. We need this pleasing gas. Some of us can claim no possession the way a cigarette is claimed. What wonderful exclusiveness. In company a cigarette strikes the individual note. If it's also public suicide, it's yours. Or in the intenser moment after sexual disintegration, when the old regret, like a carrion bird, finds you naked, leaking into the night, a cigarette redeems the deep being, reintegrates a person's privacy. White wine goes with lobster. What goes with bad news so well as a cigarette? Imagine a common deprivation -- say, a long spell of no sex -- without a cigarette. Life isn't good enough for no cigarette. It doesn't make you godlike, only a little priest of fire and smoke. All those sensations yours, like mystical money. Such a shame they kill. With no regard for who it is..."

Now, I don't know if the previous owner of the book started or quit smoking after having read and appreciated this paragraph. But reading the prose of Leonard Michaels can be highly addictive and at times it feels as if time itself takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth, you pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette...

Listen to:

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