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A Family History of Smoking by Andrew Riemer

Smoking is a source of shame in our era, with workers expelled from their glass towers to puff furtively in the street, and party guests sent to smoke outside. How different it all was, just a few decades ago, when smoking and sophistication went hand in hand, when the heroines of screwball comedies flicked ash as nonchalantly as they dispensed wisecracks.

Andrew Riemer has chosen smoking as the linking motif of an absorbing and elegiac family memoir. He pays tribute to his parents and their Hungarian forebears, while finding parallels to their lives in many central European literary works. He depicts his family’s smokers and non-smokers, their preferred brands and paraphernalia, the solace of their habit. These entertaining details enliven his portrait of a world that was swept away by the cataclysm of the Second World War, the bourgeois society which looked to Budapest and especially Vienna as the centre of civilisation. This is not Riemer’s first book of memoirs, but it is the most original and the most deeply felt.

In an early episode in this book, he witnesses his mother’s distress at being taken to task by her husband’s godfather, not just for the unseemly habit of smoking, but for painting her nails. Smoking and painted nails had overtones of Hollywood for her, but not for this powerful older man who felt entitled to criticise her in front of others, including her son. In an ironic twist, it turns out that an elegant cigarette case now in the author’s possession once belonged to the man who ticked his mother off—a hypocrite who smoked himself, but never in public.

In the prosperous, socially anxious society of Riemer’s grandparents, hypocrisy was not unusual. Appearance and respectability were all important. Ruin could occur overnight, with outcasts shunned for business failure or social faux pas. Turning for parallels to the satirical portrait of the Habsburg world in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Riemer interro-gates the family legend that the Emperor himself gave his blessing to his great-grandfather’s dairy business.

As a loyal subject of the Emperor Franz Joseph, Riemer’s great-grandfather saw the Austro-Hungarian empire as a place with opportunities for all, whatever their ethnic, religious or national background. A non-practising, secular Jew, he had no inkling of the violent disintegration that awaited the world he knew. The dairy business was destroyed when the violent Bolshevik uprising of 1919 forced the family to shelter in the cellar. They emerged to find their world in tatters, all their possessions borne off by looters. This episode prefigures the months that Andrew Riemer and his mother had to spend sheltering in cellars during the bombing of Budapest during the Second World War. His great-grandfather, financially ruined, survived as a pipe-smoking citizen of Budapest, until, old and frail, he was run down by a tram in 1950. As a successful businessman he had smoked cigars.

Throughout this memoir, certain moments and images—the fatal tramline, the status difference between pipes and cigars, attitudes to women who smoke— recur between literary interpretations of central European novels of the period and discussions of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the growing menace of Nazi Germany. Like thousands of others, including the Dresden philologist and memoirist Victor Klemperer, Riemer’s parents saw no immediate cause to leave Europe. They had considered migrating to Australia in the 1930s, but instead bought a small modern villa on the outskirts of Budapest. This house was the venue for many small, elegant parties, where women wore slim, Hollywood-style satin gowns, and smoked cigarettes. Everyone played poker and sipped hectically coloured liqueurs from special glasses. Riemer, who would sneak onto top of the stairs to observe these occasions, describes them brilliantly. The good times ended dramatically, with a bombing raid that led his panicked mother to soothe herself with cigarettes instead of comforting her son.

Elisabeth Riemer was extremely remorseful about that lapse, but she was to show her true colours as the war progressed, saving her own life and her son’s on more than one occasion, and heroically nursing her husband, who was close to death after his release from labour camp. It would be a travesty to try to summarise this part of the book, which is extraordinarily moving. The wartime experiences are told in episodic fashion, in a few vivid scenes, with many gaps. Weeks spent in the dark, or living under assumed identities, add to the confusion and horror of these jerky memories, which include the arrival of Russian troops breaking through from one cellar to the next.

The sulpha drugs needed by Riemer’s father were almost miraculously procured by a neighbour who was conducting a brothel for Americans. This neighbour was also the source of a most extravagant gift in those black market days—an entire carton of American cigarettes. Mrs Riemer, who did not yet speak English, called them Lurky Streakers.

Many of Andrew Riemer’s family did not survive the war, but his parents, changed forever by trauma, left Europe for Australia and struggled to make their way in a new land. His father commented that it was refreshing to be cordially disliked for being undeniably foreign rather than subjected to outright anti-Semitism.

A smoker for fifty years, Riemer writes lyrically of the pleasures of smoking:

“I loved the way the first wisp of smoke curled up towards my eyes. I loved the sense of well-being and peace that flooded over me as the first puff filled my lungs. I felt ready to face the day ahead, whatever it might have brought. My wonderful memories of smoking are numberless, like the grains of sand.”

When he finally succumbed to the health propaganda and tried to abandon his habit, there were inevitably episodes of backsliding. Worse, there were blissful dreams of smoking, journeys of seamless elegance and beauty, filled with gleaming glass, glamorous smokers and monumental architecture. The tobacco industry lost a peerless potential copywriter when Andrew Riemer chose an academic career. He is a poet of the smoking habit.

I, too, have a family history of smoking. My mother, a contemporary of Elisabeth Riemer’s, was seldom seen without her cigarette holder and her packet of Craven A. Like Mrs Riemer, she painted her nails. Nightclub photographs from the 1930s show her dressed in similar, Hollywood-inspired evening dresses. She did not give up smoking even when emphysema was diagnosed, refused to have an oxygen machine in the house, and died in her late sixties after years of breathlessness. Poetic tributes to the joys of cigarettes are beyond me, but then I have never been a smoker.

Even when she was dangerously ill, Andrew Riemer’s mother refused to have her chest x-rayed. She knew that she was dying and had no need for details or pointless lectures. This book is a marvellous tribute to her spirit.

Death and grief are never far away in this memoir, but it is an absolute pleasure to read. Rhythm and tone are beautifully sustained, and the literary digressions made me resolve to read several of the books mentioned, including Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo. Apart from a few stray mementoes, a monogrammed cigarette case and a couple of sepia photographs, the milieu and the way of life depicted in A Family History of Smoking have totally vanished. That makes this memoir all the more valuable.

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