Joan Acocella at The New Yorker:
The German writer Gregor Hens smoked his first cigarette when he was five. His mother gave it to him. It was New Year’s Eve, and the Hens family, like many Germans, were out in the snow setting up fireworks. But they couldn’t light the fuses, because Gregor’s two older brothers were fighting over the lighter. Frau Hens finally lost patience: “She pulled out a cigarette, lit it and held it out to me.” Little Gregor took this wonderful thing and held it to the fuse of one of the rockets, which shot into the sky. Then he saw that the cigarette’s ember had ceased to glow. “You have to take a drag on it, my mother said out of the half-darkness.” He took a drag, the ember glowed again, and the child suffered a near-collapse from coughing and joy.
As Hens tells us in his memoir, “Nicotine” (Other; translated from the German by Jen Calleja), this experience eventually landed him with a decades-long addiction to nicotine. It also, he believes, gave him the beginnings of a personality: “I became myself for the first time.” He means this literally. In his mind, the entire episode—the coughing fit, his mother’s blue hat, his almost uncontainable pride in the fact that he, not his brothers, detonated the first rocket—comes together into a story, the first memory he has that is a story rather than just an image or a sensation. And, because he is a writer, he sees this birth of a story as the birth of his personality. How nice: to have the emergence of one’s self marked by a rocket exploding!