Novelists And Cigars: A Long-Running Romance

Gabriel Garcia MarquezBy *malvenko on 2002-02-07 00:03:42 Like coffee, alcohol and other, somewhat more illicit pleasures, cigars have a longtime fascination for certain kinds of creative folks. Perhaps this...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
By *malvenko on 2002-02-07 00:03:42
Like coffee, alcohol and other, somewhat more illicit pleasures, cigars have a longtime fascination for certain kinds of creative folks. Perhaps this is especially true of novelists, whose work compels them to sit staring at a page for hours a day, typing, looking for any small pleasure to momentarily enliven their bored senses. One of Philip Roth’s characters nails it: “I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch.” No wonder so many writers are also passionate smokers’ and no wonder that devotees of a medium that requires and repays careful, disciplined attention often opt for the most refined and subtle-tasting form of tobacco: the cigar.

Writer Sally Feldman names just a few examples: “The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, former president of the American Humanist Association, was a fanatical chain-smoker until his death earlier this year. Karl Marx sported cigars; Vaclav Havel, reforming literary president of the Czech Republic, is never seen without a cigarette; Jean Cocteau, Mary McCarthy, Dennis Potter and Martin Amis are just a few of an endless litany of freethinkers who have adopted smoking as their prop and their identity.”

Here are a few more who made cigar-smoking, specifically, part of their lives:

Gertrude Stein & Ernest Hemingway

If anyone was ever a “writer’s writer,” that writer was Gertrude Stein; and if anyone ever managed to personify literary glory while connecting with a broad audience, it was her disciple Ernest Hemingway. Stein’s gristly, repetitive, surreal prose has defeated as many intelligent readers as it has influenced, those influencees include Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Paul Bowles, Richard Wright and, of course, Hemingway, her friend during his own Paris years in the 1920s, whose mannered ultra-simplicity represents a break with earlier ideas of style so extreme that it’s hard to imagine without Stein’s example. Both were passionate cigar smokers’ so much so that a brand of cigar named itself in honor of the latter.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about the taste of a good cigar – and about nearly everything else under the sun, including politics, Christianity, logic, fairytales, music, science, and losing one’s hat. His apologetic works made a convert out of C.S. Lewis, among many others, and his mystery stories and fantasy novels left him such literary disciples as Hemingway (surprisingly), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Neil Gaiman, among many others. (He also got props from Orson Welles, Franz Kafka, Dorothy Day, Ingmar Bergman, Gary Wills, Hugh Kenner, Gandhi, and Michael Collins, not to mention his personal friends George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.)

His comment on wine describes his attitude toward tobacco as well: “Let us praise God for beer and wine by not drinking too much of them.”

John Irving

Writer Jerry Janicki describes the author of The Cider House Rules and Until I Find You as a young man: “At Iowa in the early 1970s John Irving would have been in his early 30s. He was partial to long thin cigars. He used to come into class, light up, set his cigar on the edge of the table and then talk about Charles Dickens much as though they were contemporaries, as though they’d had Christmas dinner together, which, in a sense I guess, they did.”

Indeed, if any living American writer deserves to be compared to Dickens, it’s Irving, with his roomy, entertaining, emotionally direct novels, which bypass the metafictional gamesmanship that distinguishes so many of his contemporaries. A former wrestler, Irving attended the Iowa Writers’ Worskshop (where he later taught) and published a handful of well-regarded novels before his The World According to Garp’a long, funny-serious chronicle of a writer’s lunatic life, full of Irving’s acerbic reflections on contemporary feminism, and best described perhaps by one of its own lines: “Life is an X-Rated soap opera.” His next novels continued this tradition, but leavened the X-rated soap operatics with serious reflections on contemporary issues: Abortion (The Cider House Rules), faith (A Prayer For Owen Meany), sexual abuse (Until I Find You). He has continued to sell better than most writers of equal seriousness, often landing on magazine covers’ with cigar in mouth.

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