TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection of personal essays called "Calypso." As many of his fans know, he's very funny. And he writes about very personal subjects, sometimes the kind of subject bound to make readers uncomfortable, like having an intestinal virus, worrying about needing the bathroom while traveling on a book tour and having to be onstage. Alongside his essays in which he describes getting older and how his Fitbit has affected his OCD, he writes about his late mother's alcoholism and his sister's suicide.
After he became famous, he moved from New York to Paris. Now he lives in West Sussex, England, where one of his obsessions is picking up trash from the road, miles of countryside road. It led to a trash truck being named in his honor and to his invitation to Buckingham Palace, where he was honored as a do-gooder. Earlier this month, he received a major literary honor, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Medal for Spoken Language. He's been a regular contributor to This American Life. Now that he lives in England, he's become a contributor to BBC Radio 4. Several essays in "Calypso," his new book, were originally published in The New Yorker.
David Sedaris - so good to talk with you again. So I want you to do a few short readings from your book, but I want you to start with the very first sentence from the very first essay.
DAVID SEDARIS: (Reading) Though there's an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age.
GROSS: OK. So I'm going to mention your age. You're 61. What are some of the things you are not enjoying about getting older?
SEDARIS: Well, I feel like if I robbed a bank...
SEDARIS: ...This would be the perfect time to do it because when the police said - what did he look like? - they'd say, he had gray hair. That's all people see...
SEDARIS: ...After you're a certain age is that you have gray hair. So that's part of it. And then part of it is just general achiness. But then part of it, too, is I feel like - you know when all those young people took to the streets against gun violence? I wasn't jealous of them, but I just felt kind of happy for them. You know that time in your life when you're young like that and you really believe that you can make a difference? I'm not saying that you can't make a difference when you're older or that a person can't make a difference. There was just a light coming from inside of them - you know? - like they were like lanterns, kind of glowing with their certainty.
And you lose that as you get older. And I had it when I was young, so it's not like I had a chance to have it and then I didn't. That's when you're bitter, when you think - gosh darn it - you know, I didn't take advantage of that when I had it. I did. I just - I guess when you get further away from it, it makes you sad, I suppose.
GROSS: Wisdom is supposed to come with advanced age. But I wonder if it doesn't drive us deeper into the groove of bad habits (laughter) instead. So what's the balance been like for you between feeling like you're learning more as you get older and are becoming wiser versus feeling like all the bad things are just getting more bad?
SEDARIS: Well, I'm giving a commencement address in a few days. And so I tried to put my wisdom down on paper. And I thought - OK, what have I learned? And it was really kind of sad because one of the things I've learned is, you really need to be careful about scented candles. You know...
SEDARIS: That was, like, one of my hard-earned bits of wisdom. Another one was to always have a joke tucked in your back pocket because you - I had to accept an award about two months ago. And I got there, and they said - are you going to read your speech, or do you have it memorized? And I said speech? And they said, yeah. And then I'm looking out into this room. And there all these, you know - it's all of literary New York in this room. And I reached into my back pocket - you know, into my memory, really - and pulled out the filthiest joke that I had at my disposal. And I got onstage, and I told it. And I thought, wow, that's really good advice to have for people - is to keep a good joke in their back pocket.
GROSS: I wish I could ask you to tell that filthy joke. But for obvious reasons, I can't.
SEDARIS: I know, and it's so good. But I just made a list. And I thought, what do I really - what do I know? What has this advanced age gotten me? And it wasn't much really, you know, in terms of wisdom. But I'm not - you know, I might have said this to you before - and I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm not the smartest person. I'm rarely the smartest person in the room. You know, I have other qualities. But that's - like, searing intelligence is not one of them.
GROSS: We've spoken about your OCD before and how it affects your constant cleaning, both of your home and also the cleaning of the road in the British countryside where you live. How has getting older affected that? Is that getting any - is it staying the same? Is it being expressed in different ways?
SEDARIS: Well, when I was young, like, any kind of OCD thing, I would think - oh, what's next? - because I would go from making little noises in my throat like (vocalizing) - and you're in class, and you're making little noises like that. And you can't stop doing it - then to jerking my head or rolling my eyes back. And then I was able to kind of harness it in a way - you know, like the picking up trash - right? I don't know? I do it anywhere, depending on the season, from four to eight hours a day.
SEDARIS: Uh-huh. Yeah. Now I go out again after dinner. And I'll go out - I don't know - 11 o'clock at night for another two, three hours. And I wear a headlamp. You know, any kind of (laughter) device you wear on your head just makes you crazier. And so I wear a headlamp 'cause it frees up my hands. So I can have my bag, and I can have my litter picker. And I'm out there on busy roads after midnight because there's not as much traffic. But to me, that's harnessing it for the good. Right? And it can be exciting to me to - because I don't know what's next. You know, something else could come along six months from now.
GROSS: Like, what new compulsion is next?
SEDARIS: Yeah. I mean, for a while, it was feeding spiders. And I knew - and I know by a feeling I get in my chest. And I think, OK, I'm out of control. Right? I'm obsessed, and I'm out of control. And there's a kind of an excitement that I feel. And maybe it's what manic people feel when they're high, you know. It's not exuberance. It's tempered with something. It's - you're not in the driver's seat anymore. Something else is pushing you forward, and you can't stop.
But, like I said, it's not like you can't stop jabbing a butter knife into a light socket. Right? You're feeding spiders, which, you know, that's making them happy. Or you're picking up rubbish. Or you're - like I said, I don't know what could be around the corner. But it's sort of exciting, I mean, that it never stops. It's not like - that doesn't retire. That part of my brain doesn't say, OK, it's retirement age. I'm turning off now.
GROSS: Does that part of your brain ever turn against you into anxiety and obsession about your body, physical ailments, your future, any of the things that plague us?
SEDARIS: You know what I think? I think the iPod has saved me from so much of that because if I'm alone with my own thoughts, then my thoughts can kind of churn like that. But then the iPod came along - or the Walkman before that. And then I'd listen to audiobooks. And now I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. And so I don't have to be alone with my thoughts anymore. I can think about other things. And that's really freed me up a lot because it...
GROSS: So as long as your brain has something worthy to focus on, you're OK?
SEDARIS: Yeah. But I feel bad for people, like, you know, in the Middle Ages or something who didn't have - (laughter) I guess you don't have to go back that far. You know, you can just go back till, like, the 1970s really.
GROSS: So you kind of refer to this in the book. But, you know, your mother died when she was 62, the age that you're going to reach in December. So how do you see her age differently than you did when she died?
SEDARIS: It's interesting to me how much older people used to seem than they seem now. Like, my great-grandmother was maybe 80 when she died. But now I know 80-year-olds. And I'm friends with 80-year-olds, and they wear sneakers. Right? And my grandmother had hair to her waist that she wore in a braid that she turned into a bun. And she had wire-rimmed glasses. Like, if you looked in the dictionary under old lady or under hag...
SEDARIS: ...You would find a picture of her.
SEDARIS: So now it doesn't seem that old to me now. But my mother died when she was 62 years old, and that seemed - I mean, it didn't seem - I knew she was young. But I think one thing with my mom is because she smoked so much, and she didn't get a lot of exercise that walking up the driveway would wear her out, really. And so that was something that made her older, I believe, than she - than 61 - I mean, just her physical limitations. I think if my mother had lived another 10 years, she would have had to have a - drag an oxygen tank behind her.
GROSS: Right, right. You gave up smoking, right?
SEDARIS: Well, I quit - I quit in 2008. I quit, and I never had another cigarette.
GROSS: You just decided to quit and did. You say in the book you're good at quitting things when you need to.
SEDARIS: I am. I am pretty good at it or - so I quit drinking, and then I just quit. And then I quit smoking, and I just quit. But quitting eating is a little bit harder. I don't need to quit. I just need to quit eating for, like, 10 pounds, but that's everybody's story, really. I talked to a friend of mine...
GROSS: Boy, the last time I saw you, you did not need (laughter) to lose any weight.
SEDARIS: Well, now I've gone from being an envelope to a padded envelope and I was talk - complaining about it to a friend of mine recently and he - I said my shirts no longer fit. And he said call me when your socks no longer fit.
SEDARIS: It's true. He gained all of his weight from his knees down, and his socks don't fit him anymore.
GROSS: Oh, that might be edema. That might be swelling as opposed to, like, food weight.
SEDARIS: Well, made me feel good.
GROSS: All right (laughter), I think you might have the wrong idea of what's going wrong.
GROSS: So just one more thing about being 61 - I asked you a lot of questions about it. Are you OK - are you comfortable with talking about age? Because we've been through so many periods where that was a kind of taboo subject. You had to appear younger, you know, and if you got past a certain age, you were considered kind of, like, obsolete or something. Of course, with Wikipedia (laughter) like, everybody's age is out there. Like, you know, you don't - you can't cover up your age.
So are you into, like, just, you know, owning and accepting whatever age you are? Or is it something that you're uncomfortable at all accepting to yourself or talking about with other people? And I have to - I'll preface this by saying 61 does not seem very old to me, but I know it does to some people. And it is - 60, for a lot of us, it's such a turning point in life because it used to be - it's a big number. It used to be, I think, a bigger number.
SEDARIS: Well, I feel like just in terms of writing - right? - anything that I thought, well, maybe I'll keep that, maybe I won't mention that, that's the sort of thing that more people can relate to when you do mention it. And it seems kind of - I don't know - pathetic to try to hide it or cover it up, right? I mean, I can think of so many actors and actresses who were older than me. And then they were my age and now they're younger than me, right? Like, if you look at their - you know, when there are articles written about them. So no, I don't have a problem with it.
I mean, I guess - I remember when my first book came out, there was some quote on the back that said young comic - you know, America's prickliest young comic. And I thought, young? I was 35, and I thought young is, like, 20. You know, it's not 35 - so no. And you know one other thing I realized - it's just - someone said to me a while ago, like, oh, what's the secret to getting older? And you know what it is? It's being rich. That's the secret.
GROSS: Let's all try that. (Laughter) Let's all do that.
SEDARIS: Because it's just the indignity of getting older and then having to stand in line, say, you know what I mean? Like, to beg, to be at the mercy of people at that age. That - that's bad, right? But - so I have it - I have it easy.
I mean, no matter how - another thing - I was in Chicago a few weeks ago. And I bought these new shoes, and they put these inserts in the shoes. And they said wear them for two hours and then switch them out. So I was with my friend Dawn (ph), and we're in Chicago. And Dawn says, oh, look, there's a little park, and you can sit on that bench and swap those things out of your shoes. So we open the gate, and we go in this park, and then this woman says, get out. You can't be there. You can't be there. And we turn around, and she's walking - she has a walker, and she's with an aide. That's private property. That's a nursing home. You can't be there. You can't be there. And it's like - and so I put my - all right, I stopped what I was doing. And I left the little park. And then I have to pass this woman, and she says, you're not allowed to be in there.
You can't - and she's an old person. You don't want to be rude to an old person, right? But I just got up to her and I said, just leave me alone. And it's nothing to be proud of, and then I thought, well, what? She's 20 years older than me - all right? - 20 years older than me, so I'm not going to feel that bad about - and plus I didn't - I didn't call her any names or I didn't say leave me the blank alone or whatever. I just - leave me alone. And so that's a good thing about getting old too is old people now are just open targets for me. I can...
SEDARIS: ...Talk back to them as much as I want.
GROSS: All right (laughter). So I think we should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of essays just published is called "Calypso." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection of essays called "Calypso." It's just been published.
So I want you to do another short reading from the book, and this is about, when you have guests coming over to visit, what it's like for your relationship with your partner, Hugh, when there's somebody else there observing you both.
SEDARIS: (Reading) Guests usually take the train from London, and before we pick them up at the station, I remind Hugh that for the duration of their visit, he and I will be playing the role of a perfect couple. This means no bickering and no contradicting each other. If I am seated at the kitchen table and he is standing behind me, he is to place a hand on my shoulder right on the spot where a parrot would perch if I were a pirate instead of the ideal boyfriend. When I tell a story he has heard so often he could lip sync it, he is to pretend to be hearing it for the first time and to be appreciating it as much or more than our guests are. I'm to do the same and to feign delight when he serves something I hate, like fish with little bones in it. I really blew this a few years back when his friend Sue (ph) came for the night, and he poached what might as well have been a hairbrush.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. I think I understand that need to, like, not disagree or quarrel in front of some - anybody else. What is it about that that makes you so uncomfortable to show that you disagree with Hugh on something, or he disagrees with you on something, or that you're not laughing at his joke or appreciating his story or vice versa, he's not appreciating yours?
SEDARIS: I've been around other couples when they're bickering, and it just looks so bad. And you leave, and you think, oh, my God, that's what their marriage is like? That's what their relationship is like? And so I don't want people to leave the house knowing the truth. I want them...
SEDARIS: ...Thinking - we - a write - there's a writer, a fiction writer, named Rick Bass - a short story writer - who came to our house in England a while ago. He was traveling around the world, and he was cooking dinners for different writers. And so he came to England with his daughter and a friend, and he wrote about it, and he didn't miss anything, this guy. Like, Hugh and I would exchange a look, and he said Hugh's look - Hugh looked at David as if to say, what are these people doing here? And it's exactly what Hugh's look was. And I looked back at him, like, we'll get into this later.
SEDARIS: And he - and it was good to read because it reminded me that you're not - people can - it's all right there for an observant person to see. I don't think that we're - we bicker or argue more than most people. It's just sometimes, you're around somebody, and you're comfortable with them, and you let that show. And it - it's a - afterwards, I pull Hugh aside, and I say, that cannot happen again.
GROSS: What's his reaction when you say that?
SEDARIS: You know what Hugh always does when you put him on the spot for something like that - well, I am who I am, and I can't hide it. And it's like, that's - well, you need to learn to because we all need to learn to hide who we are.
SEDARIS: I mean, that's...
GROSS: That sounds like great advice.
SEDARIS: Be yourself.
GROSS: But do you think having other people around can change how you relate to your partner?
SEDARIS: I mean, I think because you've got an audience and you're having to be kinder to each other, and sometimes you - it makes you hear that person. I mean, because sometimes, Hugh doesn't really hear what I have to say. If it's just Hugh and I sitting around, talking, he doesn't hear what I'm saying. That's the secret to being in a long relationship. And so, you know, I think it's important to pretend to listen, you know, to at least look like you're listening. But I don't think that you really have to - after a certain point, I don't think it's fair of me to expect Hugh to listen after 26 years.
GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of personal essays is called "Calypso." After a break, we'll talk about why he and his boyfriend Hugh believe in marriage equality but have decided not to get married. And Lloyd Schwartz will review a new album that he says is one of the best recordings of Bach's partitas and sonatas for solo violin. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Sedaris. He has a new collection of personal essays called "Calypso" that reflects his dark sense of humor and his eccentricities. Among the subjects he writes about is his relationship with his boyfriend of 26 years, Hugh Hamrick, with whom Sedaris now lives in the English countryside.
So I - you know, I've been referring to Hugh as your partner because I can't remember if you're married or not. You have an essay about your accountant telling you that once there was marriage equality in England that you really needed to get married for tax reasons and also for estate reasons, like if one of you dies. And - but it's not concluded at the end. You ask him to marry you 18 times, and he declines, but I don't remember if you actually get married or not.
SEDARIS: No, we're not married. I just - I wanted gay marriage to become legal, and then I wanted nobody to act on it. I thought that would have been perfect - to get the right and then to say, you know what? We don't want that. I mean, we want the right to do it. We want the right not to do it. That's what I want. I want the right not to do it. So I never meant - it never - plus, I just always feel weird when somebody says, this is my husband, Hugh. I don't know. I just think, ugh, when somebody says to me.
GROSS: Well, what do you call him, your partner, your boyfriend, your lover? I mean...
SEDARIS: I like boyfriend. I like boyfriend. And I'll take boyfriend to my grave. I really will. When people say, well, he's kind of too old to be a boyfriend, I think, well, if you're too old to wear shorts, you're not too old to be a boyfriend, I think.
GROSS: Well, here's something. In a society - and I don't know how it is in England, but certainly in the U.S. there's a lot of benefits that you only get if you're married. You can only get the person on your health insurance if you're married. There are certain hospital visiting privileges you only get if you are immediate family, i.e., married, and the aforementioned, like tax and estate issues. And the whole marriage equality Supreme Court case was based on estate issues and all the inequalities when you've been in a relationship for a long time, and it's not in the eyes of the law, like, a legit, you know, relationship. So, like, why not just sign up so you get those advantages?
SEDARIS: Well, I guess that's the thing 'cause then you can always think, well, I will do it. You know? And you just don't do it. But you think, I will do it. But as far as the hospital visits go, I mean, I saw somebody yesterday and his husband died horribly - they'd been together for a long time - and died horribly for the last 18 months. And I always say to Hugh, like, I don't want - I would love to be forbidden to visit you in the hospital. Like, if he gets like that, I just want to wash my hands of him. I really (laughter) do. I've said that to him so many - from the very beginning. Like, when you get sick or something, or you're in a wheelchair, you are on your own. I just want you to know that. And you are free to abandon me, too.
GROSS: Is that because...
SEDARIS: I mean...
GROSS: ...You're afraid to see someone you care about suffering, or it's just too much of a burden for you?
SEDARIS: I mean, to tell you the truth, like, we have a neighbor in England, and her husband got dementia. And I couldn't believe how long she kept him at home. And that is not an easy thing to do. You know, when you think about the things that, you know, that that really involves, I mean, I was so in awe of how she cared for him at the end. And just, I think it's easier to imagine our deaths than it is our decrepitude. You know, to imagine, like, our serious old age, I just don't think we're able to wrap our minds around that.
GROSS: Well, I certainly think that decrepitude is way more frightening than death is, for me.
SEDARIS: Well, when you think about it, when you think about being in a room and you don't know who you are or who anybody is, and you're not dead for some reason, and you're just sitting there in a room and then somebody puts you into bed and, you know, feeds you and, oh, my goodness. I just - and to think, you know, gee, that's really right around the corner. I couldn't bear to see Hugh. I just couldn't bear to see him, you know, with dementia or Alzheimer's or suffering in a horrible way. I just, I mean, I - and so for somebody to say, well, I'm sorry, it's against the law for you to see it, I'd say, OK. (Laughter). I would say I don't want to see it.
GROSS: Are you afraid to see suffering, especially if it's somebody who you love?
SEDARIS: People in my family, yeah. I mean, even my dad, my dad is 95. And, you know, I have to admire him because he keeps so much to himself. I mean, I would wager that when you're 95 even your hair hurts. And he doesn't ever talk about any of it. You know, and then you'll find something out and you'll say, you had an operation on your shoulder? And he didn't even tell anybody about it. You know? He just does it quietly. And I really have to admire him for that.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. He has a new collection of essays called "Calypso." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is David Sedaris. And he has a new collection of essays, called, "Calypso," and he also just recently won, or, was awarded, I should say, the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal for spoken language, which is a pretty big deal. And, congratulations on that.
SEDARIS: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Yeah. So there's another section of the book I want you to read. And this also has to do with your boyfriend, Hugh, and this essay opens with you both having dinner after having been together for, I don't know, about 22 years or something. You're eating dinner, spaghetti and sausage, that Hugh cooked. And you've chosen this time to ask him how many men he slept with before becoming a couple with you.
SEDARIS: (Reading) Thirty-five, 36 - every man ticked off on his fingers was someone I've been compared to at one point or another. Not overtly. He's anything but cruel. But surely it happened. Someone kissed better than I did. Someone had more stamina, a more seductive voice, bigger muscles. I'm confident enough to compete against a dozen of his exes, but he was moving onto the population of a small town. Thirty-eight, 39. By what miracle had neither of us contracted AIDS? How had we gotten away? I don't just mean later, when people knew to be safe, but back in the days when it didn't have a name and no one understood how it spread. One of the men Hugh had lived with, a professor he had his first year of college, had died of it in the late '80s. And surely there were others on both my side and his. Yet for some reason, we'd escaped, had prospered even. Now here we were, the shadows lengthening, our spaghetti growing cold as he hit the half-hundred mark then blithely sailed beyond it - whore.
GROSS: (Laughing) How are you at dealing with jealousy?
SEDARIS: How am I at dealing with jealousy? I don't think I'm more jealous than the average person. That said, I would rather any other emotion. I would rather deal with any other one than jealousy. But that's a really great thing about Hugh is that Hugh and I both value fidelity equally. It's important to both of us. So we - that's something we don't have to worry about. Like, I've never had to be jealous of another - Hugh with another guy. I've never, never had to worry about that or he with me. And it just takes a lot off your mind, I think.
I mean, you know, every gay couple I know has some kind of an arrangement. You know, like their - they can have sex with another person, but they both have to be in on it. Or they can have sex with other people when they're on vacation, but they have to tell each other everything. Or they don't say it. It has to be complete secret, and they don't - and it's - only seems so complicated to me, right? Like, it's all I could do to just have one boyfriend. I really can't - could never imagine - I don't know - the energy it would take to have two or three at the same time. And I don't know. I just - I never wanted that.
GROSS: Do you think that the AIDS epidemic figured at all into your interest in having a monogamous relationship?
SEDARIS: No, I always wanted it. But when AIDS came along, it seemed more important to me to not - it seemed more important to me to find somebody who thought the way that I did. And again, I don't see anything wrong with people - whatever arrangement they want to make for themselves, I don't see anything wrong with that. But I think the important thing is to find somebody - 'cause if you're with somebody and they say, well, I think we should have sex with other people and you don't feel that way, then it's really diminishing to you - right? - to kind of go along with that when it's not in your heart, I think. It really chips away at you as a person. So I think the important thing is to find somebody who wants the same thing.
But I always liked what Chris Rock said about - you know, he's one of those people that you have to get him - if you're going to quote him, you have to quote him exactly, or you're doing him a disservice. But it was something along the lines of, a man's fidelity is in direct correlation to how many opportunities he has, right? If people are throwing themselves at you, it's a lot harder to - strength comes into it, right? You have to be a strong person to resist them. But if no one's throwing themselves at you, then it's not that hard.
GROSS: No, but that's the thing. You're the one who's out there in the relationship. You're the one who goes on tour, who's on stage, who signs a gazillion books every year. And, you know, there's a lot of people who idolize you. I know there's - I would guess that there's a lot of people who would love to have a relationship with you while you're passing through their town.
SEDARIS: Actually, no.
SEDARIS: Actually, no. One person in all these years - one person...
SEDARIS: ...Has propositioned me - one. And maybe it's because I'm very public about being with Hugh, you know? So it's - I'm not a person who's out there and saying, well, it's - you know, reading about being single and being on the hunt for people. And Hugh is - you know, it's not my idea that Hugh is handsome. Hugh was just handsome. Everybody says Hugh is handsome. There's no - not opinion; it's just a fact, right? But he doesn't know it, see? And that's what you want. You want somebody who's handsome but doesn't know it.
And then Hugh is just so - I don't know. He's just a real stand-up person. So I know when people have thrown themselves at Hugh, he just runs, you know? And he runs, you know, back to me. And so, I've been very fortunate that way. But we don't have to - I mean, sometimes in a dream, I'll have sex with somebody else. And then even in my dream, I think, oh, no, I know I'm going to have to tell Hugh. I can't keep it a secret from him. My relationship's over. And I'm asleep. I can't even cheat on Hugh in my sleep.
GROSS: (Laughing) Well, there's something really sweet about that.
SEDARIS: Well, again, I mean, if it's something you both want...
SEDARIS: ...And it's something important to the both of you - you know, that's why I say to young people, you should have as much sex as possible before you get into a relationship because you're going to need that to reflect upon later.
GROSS: So before we have to end, I want you read one more short passage from your new collection "Calypso." And this is in response to a difficult question your boyfriend, Hugh, has asked you, which is - well, I'll let you read the question.
SEDARIS: (Reading) Why do you choose to remember the negative rather than the positive? I don't, I insist, thinking I will never forget your giving me such a hard time over this. Honestly, though, does choice even come into it? Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing or the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story. The plane was delayed. An infection set in. Outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It's also harder to source, much more mysterious in anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly whenever I summon them and remain long after I've begged them to leave.
GROSS: And is that true for you as a writer that - in your diary, do you focus on the negative more than the positive?
SEDARIS: In my diary - I mean, nothing makes me more self-conscious writing in my diary than if I'm writing about something good, right? Like, if I'm writing about something that - a nice thing that somebody said to me or an achievement - right? - I just think, God, if anyone were to find this diary, that would just - I would look so bad, you know, kind of congratulating myself here, whereas if I'm complaining about something, I don't think twice about it. So I guess I usually lead with - (laughing) not the complaint so much as just the, no, I'm going to take that back. I mean, if I see something, I'm more apt to write about bad behavior I witness than good behavior I witness. But I hope - I really hope I don't complain too much. But Hugh and I had a houseguest a while ago, and she said, oh, my God, do you two ever stop complaining?
SEDARIS: And I was shocked. And I just thought, we don't complain. And then we complained about her saying that. But I thought, that's really something to watch, because you don't want to be that person who's just complaining about everything all the time, you know? I don't think I'm a Pollyanna. But, you know, I don't want to bring everybody down all the time, you know, so I try to lift things up a little bit with, you know, looking at the bright side of something that happened.
GROSS: Well, David, it's really been great to talk with you again. I'm so glad we did this. Thank you for coming back to the show, and good luck with the new collection.
SEDARIS: Oh, thanks a million, Terry. Thanks for having me back on.
GROSS: David Sedaris has a new collection of personal essays called "Calypso." After a break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a new recording of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin are as big a test for a violinist as his cello suites are for a solo cellist. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says there are many fine recordings and several great ones of these sonatas and partitas, and now a new one by Johnny Gandelsman takes its place among the very best. Here's Lloyd's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 3 IN E MAJOR, BWV 1006: I. PRELUDIO")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who was born in Russia 40 years ago, has a large following as a member of a popular string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad Ensemble.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 3 IN E MAJOR, BWV 1006: I. PRELUDIO")
SCHWARTZ: He's celebrated for playing a wide variety of music from purely classical to the most inventive contemporary pieces. His new recording of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin made its debut at the top of Billboard's traditional classical music chart. This is unusual for a work as demanding on the audience as it is on the performer, but having heard Gandelsman play them with such liveliness and color at a concert at MIT three years ago, I'm not surprised.
These pieces are relatively early works of Bach. He was only 35 when he completed them, and he never published them in his lifetime. The music consists of three sonatas each followed by a partita, a multimovement series of dances. The sonatas are more formal, with essentially the same four-movement pattern, beginning with a big, slow movement followed by a complex fugue whose overlapping lines make it hard to believe there's only one person playing.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SONATA NO.3 IN C MAJOR, BWV 1005: II. FUGA")
SCHWARTZ: Here, for example, is part of the fugue in the third sonata.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "SONATA NO.3 IN C MAJOR, BWV 1005: II. FUGA")
SCHWARTZ: After the fugue, there's a short, often lyrical slow movement and a final bracing, fast movement. Then comes the partita. The word partita means, among many things, a game. In music, it refers to a set or suite of dances. Bach's three violin partitas range from five to eight movements, and movement is the key word. Among the dances are a courtly minuet, a slow and often solemn saraband and a lively gigue, which gives us our word jig. Gandelsman is especially good on the dance movements, which may have some connection to his partner being the extraordinary Amber Star Merkens, a former leading dancer of the Mark Morris Dance Group.
The most famous and challenging of all these partita movements is the tremendous D-minor chaconne that concludes the second partita. It's the longest movement in the entire set, and it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or more depending on who's playing. In some hands, it can seem more like a soul-searching Shakespeare's soliloquy than any kind of dance. The most moving and ferociously tragic performance I know is the one recorded by the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti in 1950.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH SZIGETI PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1004: V. CIACONNA")
SCHWARTZ: In the chaconne, Gandelsman doesn't compete with Szigeti's gravity. If anything, his performance is more like antigravity. With its speed and buoyancy, his version is three-quarters the length of Szigeti's - more lilting than tragic, more like an actual dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "PARTITA NO. 2 IN D MINOR, BWV 1004: V. CIACONNA")
SCHWARTZ: You may have heard me tell this story before about that concert at MIT three years ago. Gandelsman had finally crossed the finish line, breathless and exhausted after playing all 31 movements of the Bach's sonatas and partitas. But Yo-Yo Ma, who had come to hear his friend, jokingly shouted out, encore. Everyone laughed. But in a split second, Gandelsman picked up his violin and started to play the opening bars of a Bach cello suite, a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. That got an even bigger laugh, especially from the famous cellist himself. If Johnny Gandelsman doesn't plumb Bach's most tragic depths, it's partly because he is so thoroughly infused with Bach's own youthfulness and joy.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book is a collection of poems called "Little Kisses." He reviewed Johnny Gandelsman's recording of Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Iranian journalist, activist and feminist Masih Alinejad, who has led a campaign against the compulsory hijab, or head covering, for women. She grew up in a small Iranian village and now lives in exile in Brooklyn. She has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S SONATAS AND PARTITAS FOR SOLO VIOLIN)
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