Sedaris is a humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor, and he writes amusing stories for the New Yorker magazine. He spends a lot of time on the road, travelling from city to city, doing readings from his books. He has written fourteen collections of essays and stories, and though it took me a while to get used to his particular, self-deprecating sense of humour, I did enjoy reading his collection of modern fables, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (2010) and his essay collection, Calypso (2018). (I think his writing is an acquired taste.)
You have to be well-connected or accomplished to have a successful memoir
Piers Morgan, the British writer whose columns appear regularly in the Daily Mail newspaper, has just published The Insider, extracts from his personal diaries since 2006, which documents his meetings with famous and infamous people.
“‘Keep a diary,’ said Mae West, ‘and some day it will keep you.’ I’ve been keeping mine for 30 years, and it’s certainly kept me well in return, providing enough juicy literary fodder for five best-selling books and 630 columns for The Mail On Sunday over the past 15 years.” (From The Insider, by Piers Morgan, for Daily Mail UK, Dec. 17, 2021, rtrvd. Dec. 21, 2021)
Morgan can do that because he is very well-connected. As a social commentator and critic, he has rubbed shoulders and wined and dined with just about everyone who is anyone in the western world. The quoted exchanges between him and celebrities in the book would be accurate and true because they had already been seen in print and because he is a reporter: his quotes are verbatim. Also, in memoirs of this kind, a very real risk is being sued for libel by the subject of the write-up, for which factuality is a defence.
Is it about the celebrities or about the author?
Memoirs, diaries and autobiographies are difficult books to evaluate, since the writing in the book, and the personality and reputation of the author are almost inextricable. Books in these genres are on a sliding scale of literary quality, from accomplished word-smithing to sensationalist gossip, from professional authors to gut-spilling amateurs.
On the one hand they can be like the writing of Dirk Bogarde, who was so skilful (or had such good editors) that he was created a Knight Bachelor in the United Kingdom, was awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and was given two honorary doctorates. And in recognition of his legacy before his death, he donated his annotated, rewritten, and illustrated film scripts to the British Film Institute.
On the opposite end of the sliding scale, there are memoirs that contain mostly name-dropping and descriptions of incidents and meetings, rather than actual narratives and expressive writing. These writings are more about other famous people than about the author. In these cases, it is harder to tease out how authors describe and view themselves, and how they feel about their lives.
The form of the narrative also lends itself to revealing the author to a greater or lesser extent: an autobiography is less intimate, more of a detailed historical record of a life, whereas a memoir is what someone remembers, and is therefore more interpretative, while a diary is the most intimate of all, depending on how much it has been cleaned up and redacted.
Less name-dropping, more narrative
It is interesting how neatly Sedaris’ collected diary entries fit into the middle of this continuum: they are undoubtedly diary entries, therefore brief, concise and chronological – names, places, dates.
On the other hand, the writing is excellent and engages the reader: some entries are worrying, some are sad, some are wickedly funny. Sometimes they are just plain weird.
His voice is distinct, presenting a consistent portrait of his personal life and career even though the events themselves are episodic. He does this by mentioning certain elements, even certain words, consistently, from 2003 to 2020 – which are, one supposes, intrinsic to his inner life. Circumstances change, as time goes on, but the essential “Sedarisness” remains – and visibly so.
Each diary entry is a neat little story (beginning, middle, climax, end), usually concluding with a straightforward statement of fact or something that someone had said, thus leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions about whether the incident was bad, good or strange. He is very good at these potted anecdotes with their often incongruous last lines. Almost every entry is like this, for instance, this last line:
“April 18, 2011 – Gainesville, FloridaA Carnival of Snackery, by David Sedaris, p. 331
The girl with the snake wrapped around her wrist might have argued differently, but she was a sociopath who needed to be killed, just as the owner of the reptile shop needed to be killed along with everything he sold, except for the two leathery frogs, which were adorable.”
Doesn’t that just intrigue you? Don’t you want to know what had happened here? And why Sedaris was suddenly thinking of killing everyone and everything in the reptile shop, except for two frogs? (Two frogs?! Adorable frogs?!) And what was he doing in a reptile shop in Gainesville in the first place?
However, unlike other famous people and best-selling authors, he does not drop many names of celebrities into this anthology. With the exception of one or two famous people, his boyfriend (as he calls his partner), Hugh Hamrick, who is a well-known painter and designer, and his sister Amy, who is a successful comedian and writer, the people he describes are mostly ordinary, working folk. They are his publicists, agents, publishers, drivers, chauffeurs, neighbours, other family members, and especially the very, very strange, random people who queue up to talk to him and get his autograph at his readings and shows.
These ordinary-seeming members of the public say and do the most extraordinary things.
The more I see of people, the better I like dogs
That, in particular, is what I have in common with David Sedaris: I am very often taken aback by people’s behaviour: The fact that they litter, which is evidence of other nasty traits, and that there are too many of them. The Great Unwashed (it is unclear where this unflattering description of the general public came from) has always been there, but with social media exposure, we now know what awful things people can get up to, and what some are like behind closed doors.
I was unsurprised to read, therefore, with soul-deadening regularity, of the horrible behaviour that he has encountered, and documented, in A Carnival of Snackery.
He writes in the Author’s Note: “Occasionally in this book I have changed people’s names or altered their physical descriptions. I’ve rewritten things slightly when they were unclear, but mostly everything was left intact.”
Yep. He did. The entries certainly look authentic. Being uncensored, it means that you will read about – and here is a list of what immediately comes to my mind:- horrible, wastrel teenagers; drivers who start off sounding sane and end up saying the most god-awful things; women who take their bras off while they are using public transport (really ?!); people who make meaningless small talk; people leaving their poop in public places; the dirtiest insults and jokes told to him by his readers; perversities and unmentionable body parts; drugs and more drugs; his uncomfortable love-hate-love relationship with his father; the tragic life and death of his drug-addict sister; people’s subtle or raging homophobia; the state of American politics, etc. These are the core things in Sedaris’ life that keep showing up in his diary entries.
It’s a lot to absorb for 566 pages. Is there joy, or anything positive, in the entries?
Yes, he also regularly mentions his relationship with his boyfriend; his sister, Amy and his other funny and likeable siblings; his homes; and the people he met who were funny, kind and smart. Happy moments, beauty, and sympathetic laughter: there are those.
He does not depict Hugh Hamrick, his partner of more than 30 years, as if he were a saint. Hamrick has his off moments too, he can be snide, stubborn, and pedantic. A picture also emerges of Sedaris: “nervous and insecure” (his words), perfectionist, cynical, self-deprecating. But, reading between the lines, I also think he is intelligent, observant, sweet, joyful, loving, and sometimes, content with the hand that life has dealt him. He thinks he is not handsome. He says he is “small”. Yes, he is not as tall as Hamrick, and he sticks out for wearing unusual and strange designer clothes, but he looks quite attractive to me.
If it’s Monday it must be Belgrade…
Page after page in the book depicts his meetings with all sorts of people as he does the rounds to promote his books. Practically every day he is in a different city or country. The sheer scale of his travels makes him different from most people. (Would-be writers who are wondering what is involved in book promotions should read this.) He is like a rock star on a world tour, being driven about, working until unholy hours of the night, standing on a different stage every few days, and sleeping in all sorts of hotels. He reads from his books, which are of course funny (so I assume that his stage shows amount to a kind of stand-up comedy), mostly to audiences of passionate fans – though sometimes they are passionate in ways that are distinctly off-putting!
Listen to Sedaris reading from his books
(Courtesy of his publishers)
“We always seem old in these moments, but not in a dreary way.”
After having vicariously exhausted myself by reading about the promotional tours, I realized that, like many good writers, Sedaris has managed to make me empathize with him.
I saw the similarities between what he feels and observes, and what I have felt and observed – particularly my inability to tolerate uncivilized behaviour such as public pooping, littering, and fly-tipping. While I tend to shudder and complain, Sedaris is known for his habit of walking the streets around his home and actually picking up and removing the trash left by other people. In the UK, he has had a garbage truck named after him.
Every reader will find different aspects that will resonate with them, because Sedaris – while actually being exceptionally talented and accomplished – presents himself as the Everyman. (Except for the picking up trash – that is not typical.) He expresses what many people may think, but do not say. Things the reader might want to know but would never dare ask, he puts down in words.
He is a New Yorker of Greek extraction, and an award-winning, successful writer, living a life that is about as different from mine as is possible, except for his age. Yet, the diary entries remind me, and other readers, of the common traits in humans, the typical struggles, and the ubiquitous dreams.
For example, regardless of culture or location, most people have, like him, a memory of someone they love, being in their element: that snapshot of a perfectly happy moment, which they treasure and hold on to. Here is his favourite memory of Hugh:
“June 6, 2016 – Rackham
I came home from picking up trash last night and found him on the bench beneath the tree drinking a manhattan and surveying his freshly cut lawn. This is my favourite encounter: him at the end of the day, drink in hand, sun-kissed and in a good mood. The house feels like a wonderful decision then – no matter how much trash I’ve picked up, it’s all worth it. We always seem old in these moments, but not in a dreary way. It’s rather like we’re celebrating something that was hard-earned. We were young once, now we have all this.”A Carnival of Snackery, by David Sedaris, p. 394
It puts life into perspective. It’s a good thing to read, this time of year, before 2022 arrives, while we’re still dealing with COVID, but hoping for better times.
Books by David Sedaris
Author, unless indicated otherwise:
- Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays (1994)
- Holidays on Ice (1997)
- Naked (1997)
- Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000)
- Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)
- Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (editor, 2005)
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)
- Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010)
- Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013)
- Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002), (2017)
- Calypso (2018)
- The Best of Me (2020)
- A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries (2003–2020), (2021)
🎶 “Mem-oirs, I’ve read a few, but then again, too few to mention…🎵”
- Anthony Bourdain – he worked with famous chefs but the books are extremely personal. If you wanted a heads-up that he was going to kill himself, you should’ve read Medium Raw. He states his intention on just about every page.
- Dirk Bogarde – he evokes a childhood that can now only be found in films.
- Edmund de Waal – personal but also a piece of history.
- Jenny Lawson – very funny but don’t let that fool you.
- Roger Moore – lots of name-dropping and confirmation that he made the character of “James Bond” into someone like him, not vice versa.
- David Niven – an insane amount of name-dropping, but nowadays, who’d know who those people were? Or who he was?