Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm always coming late to a party everyone else has been at for 'absolutely ages darling, where have you been' and so it was with David Sedaris. Most days of the week at 6.30pm its time for dinner in our community, the six of us gathering around our grand sized dinning table for some vegetable based dish in a red sauce with chick peas thrown in for added flatulence. For some reason, past recollection, Hubby and I were in our room at 6.25. one evening, when the Radio 4 news slipped seamlessly into the 6.30 comedy half hour, and the deep voiced announcer said 'and next we have Meet David Sedaris.' At first Sedaris's high register voice was an alarming contrast to the bass resonances of the announcer, raised questions; who exactly were you hearing 'is this a woman? a man but transgender, halfway towards an op? no, I don't think so' Once you've adjusted and tuned ino this, his witty gently self deprecating stories do, gradually cast a spell over you. By the end I turned to Hubby and said, 'I've not heard humorous writing of that quality in a long time, its rather rare and unique these days.' His stories, though they remain funny on the page, do become something even greater when you hear him speak them, full of telling inflections, sharp comic timing, and that subtlest of skills, the well judged pause.
And so began our hunt for anything Sedaris related. We scoured You Tube, and Hubby began pestering me for when I'd be finished with 'And when you are engulfed in Flames', so he could read and giggle to himself too. Both of us applied for BBC tickets for live recordings for his Radio 4 show, and both didn't getting any. For some reason I'd thought 'Me talk pretty one day' would be ideal reading matter to take on a largely silent Buddhist retreat. Maybe I just thought a little levity wouldn't hurt. Well, actually it does. Luckily I ended up in a dorm on my own, otherwise I'd have had to actively suppress my guffaws, giggles and hoots a bit more assiduously than I did. Well, I say that, but I still had to bite my knuckles and slap an open hand right over my mouth after 11 o'clock at night. So never ever ake this book on retreat with you, or read it late at night because I guarantee you'll not get to sleep afterwards.
Like the best humorists, Sedaris knows just how far to stretch the truth without breaking credulity. Well judged exaggeration for comic effect is a fine art. There are many excellent stories in this collection but Big Boy, though short, is a particular favourite. He's at dinner with friends and he goes to the loo, finding to his consternation there's a huge turd already floating in the toilet basin. It was a 'long and coiled specimen, as thick as a burrito'. The humour comes from his attempts to get rid of it, and his self consciousness about not leaving it there, in case the next person using the toilet thinks it came from him. It observes in fine detail the ridiculous lengths we go to sometimes, in trying to maintain our dignity in the eyes of others.
A subject matter Sedaris returns to quite frequently are language classes. For someone who doesn't appear to be naturally gifted at learning a language, he attends these a lot. Maybe he holds secret hopes of being a linguist, or simply sees it as a useful source for material, in other words its research. In this book the story Jesus Shaves documents a French class, and how he and his fellow learners struggle with sentence construction, grammar or simply finding the correct word to use, such as in this extract.
'Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food. 'Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb' the Italian nanny explained. "One too eat of the chocolate" " And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked. I knew the word, so I raised my hand saying. " The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate."
His attempts to be an artist, his first job as a teacher, the problems of moving and living in France with his partner Hugh and his teenage difficulties with a speech therapist who tried to cure him of his lisp. All become subject matter to be scrutinised with his wit and a keen observational eye for that telling detail or phrase. We can all recognise ourselves in the human frailties on show here, the ludicrous behaviour, irrational idiosyncrasies, evasions and foibles. Sedaris's relationship with his Mother, Father or siblings, and their evident mild eccentricities make them all the more loveably human, and hence you tend to hold them in affection rather than ridicule. Rarely cruel just to get a laugh, his humour works on recognition rather than the use of gratuitous swearing, personal insults or cruel putdowns. Sedaris is more scathing and honest about himself, lampooning his own behaviour far more than anyone else's. This I think is why its so easy to fall in love with his writing, it has a genuine warmth that rarely panders to sentimentality or loses its frankness or cutting edge.