New Year, New Reading

Books

I devoured David Sedaris’s ‘Theft By Finding: Diaries Volume One’ when it first came out. I love American essayists. They’ve successfully made it an art form unique to America (although we used to write them in the pre-war UK) and Sedaris has a unique way about him.

It seems as if he is viewing the world through the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of giving us the essential details he gave us all the non-essential ones. He observes crazy street people, angry passers-by, supermarket clerks, fans and burnouts with the same innocent eye, engaging them in conversation and asking them offbeat questions.

What has always been missing is any context. He’d mention friends and family without explaining who they were, give us glimpses of his life that didn’t entirely make sense, then go on to describe in detail the clothes of a homeless person. It’s a refreshing approach, and through the cracks we could glean information about his life, his boyfriend, his father, the way he lived.

In the right hands, an essay can become a thing of beauty. It resolves a posed question by fusing facts, opinions and personal experience, and brings out something of the writer’s personality to form a hypothesis, but is above all enjoyable to read. A few of my favourites would include The Decline of the English Murder, Why I Write and Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell, JM Barrie’s powerful Courage, ‘The Death of a Moth’ by Virginia Woolf, any number of essays by David Foster Wallace, Christopher Hitchens, Samuel Johnson, and Joan Didion.

I’m not aware of Mr Sedaris in any other version than what we get in the books, but I understand he performs on NPR and is terrific as a stage performer. His publishers apparently send him out on globe-spanning tours. The furthest away I got on the Forgotten Authors tour was Bath. Sedaris’s readers are aware that his descriptions and stories are intentionally exaggerated and manipulated to maximize comic effect. America is very exercised about this, having burned its fingers on a number of high-profile authors who lied in their non-fiction. Sedaris is a humourist and the exaggerated approach works very well. I imagine he’s particularly good live.

But wait – here comes an immense tome, ‘A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries Volume Two’, and something has gone wrong. Sedaris is now mega-famous and travels the world doing signings and shows. I assume so as we get no details at all about why and where he goes, and instead of any perceptive notions about life in other countries we have conversations with chauffeurs and hotel receptionists. We also get visits to his farmhouse in France and his townhouse in a posher part of London, and you can quickly see that the spark has been dimmed. In place of wonder, disillusionment, instead of charm, grumpiness.

What does this tell us about being rich? That the wealthier you are the more short-tempered you become? Or do you simply lose the ability to be amazed and amused? I love the first volume because you sense the author is playing with you. This time around he’s not doing it for effect. By his own admission he’s grown to hate the small talk that made him famous. There are still conversations with strangers that light up the page, just not so many of them.

Melissa Katsoulis in the Times calls him the ‘American Alan Bennett’, but she could not be more wrong. Bennett may overhear conversations, but he’s political charged and alert to changing society. Sedaris is a genuine original, quirky and offbeat in his thought processes. But take him out of his environment and strand him in a series of hotel rooms and his amused banter understandably turns into a series of complaints.

11 comments on “New Year, New Reading”

  1. Jo W says:

    I hadn’t heard of David Sedaris until I happened upon one of his broadcasts on radio four extra. At first I thought it was Woody Allen then checked on the details on the front of the digital wireless thingy.
    It was a very laid back entertainment, listening in on someone’s diaries and was just the thing to get through cake baking and all the washing up that that entails. I looked for his talks in the schedules after that and found more things to do in the kitchen, you know, defrost the freezer, scrape the inside of the oven out etc. He certainly took my mind off them.

  2. Roger says:

    Perhaps David Sedaris would be happier if he went to Bath rather than some of his other destinations.
    If you’ve got a “farmhouse in France and…. townhouse in a posher part of London”, perhaps your perception and definition of wealth changes: merely having a cottage in France and a flat in a less salubrious part of London may look like poverty. Purely as an experiment, if a billionaire would like to check on my theory, I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
    Alan Bennett’s LRB colleagues Neal Ascherson and John Lanchester are also good British essayists. LAnchester tries to find out just what theories inspired economists and bankers and how much they have to do with reality. “We rate our theories highly if we roast people alive for them.” said Montaigne and it looks like the bases for the contemporary economic system are about as well-supported by evidence as the existence of witches.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    Sounds like Mr. Sidaris may be suffering from ‘Norma Desmond Syndrome’ (Sunset Boulevard’):’I am big! It’s the talk that got (too) small.’

  4. Hazel Jackson says:

    I also came across David Sedaris in the last year, reading aloud on Radio 4. I found the first set of readings, about his experiences in the UK and Europe, wryly perceptive and very entertaining. The second set of readings I listened to seemed much darker. He was both explicitly rude and unkind about his relatives and his relationship with his partner (boyfrirend/husband?) if accurately described, seemed borderline abusive, with Sedaris on the receiving end. I didn’t listen to anymore after that.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    It would appear that Sedaris is making his way down the not unknown path from personal, if ‘enhanced,’ observation to disinterested scold. It is not so much a matter of whether his work is simulated reportage (as some of his critics question) — so long as it’s entertaining to his fans. The issue is — will this comic ‘voice’ go from amused to shrill. Unlike composers or fine artists, humorists don’t get to have ‘periods.’

  6. Richard says:

    Anyone who has been reading David Sedaris for the past 30 years knows that he (like Mark Twain) has multiple voices, though I agree with Chris that ‘A Carnival of Snackery’ is persistently and disappointingly grumpy. For a clue to the character behind the comic masks, newcomers might want to read ‘Now We Are Five’ (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/28/now-we-are-five), a New Yorker piece from 2013 on the suicide of his sister Tiffany.

  7. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thank you, Richard. I’ve never read anything by David Sedaris or listened to him on NPR. I did start to read the New Yorker piece and will come back to it. It’s a different type of flow of thoughts than I’m used to, but not uninteresting.
    In reading Mr. Fowler’s post, I was reminded in probably an odd way of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” – the person behind the mask of humor. Thank you again.

  8. Debra Matheney says:

    I’d rather go to Bath than almost anywhere. Not a fan of Sedaris as I enjoy self-deprecating British humor more. America is now the land of monetizing everything. If it sells, let’s sell it. Quality in publishing as with everything else suffers.

  9. Roger says:

    It’s interesting how success (or failure) changes people – how many of his family could completely enjoy the beach house Sedaris casually bought for them?

  10. Paul+C says:

    David Sedaris is touring the UK from July 2022 and tickets are available now.

  11. Bee says:

    The same thing happens with bands. The first albums are all about their lives and different experiences. They usually take years to put together and are full of passion. Band gets sucessful and spends the next two years on the road travelling to exotic places but only seeing hotel rooms and venues. They spend too much time with the same people doing the same things. The songs in this period tend to be self-indulgent and introspective. Sounds like Mr Sedaris needs to step off the celebrity hamster wheel and back into real life again for fresh inspiration

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