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And Now, For Something Completely Expatriate

He's always worked from the outside, but living in Paris is proving to be a fertile source of material for public-radio essayist and author David Sedaris.

November 01, 1998|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is an occasional contributor to Calendar based in Paris

PARIS — If you believe him, David Sedaris has moved to Paris to suffer.

Sure, there are the Luxembourg Gardens, a short walk from the writer's Latin Quarter apartment. Weekends browsing for furniture at the city's flea markets. Trips to the house in Normandy where he and his longtime love Hugh Hamrick have summered for the past six years. His favorite medical curiosities shop just down the street. And, perhaps best of all, the unalienable right to smoke in the bank, the phone store, the airport and virtually every public and private space in the land.

But behind the romantic curtain of expatriate life, as Truman Capote once observed, lurk pitchforks and fire.

In the United States, Sedaris is a best-selling author and a popular public-radio commentator known for his wickedly hilarious satires of everyday life. In France, he is that most lowly of creatures: a foreigner. If he is a subtle master of his native tongue, here he is a linguistic Neanderthal who must struggle--often grunting and pointing--to buy Band-Aids, haggle with the plumber, make himself understood to the butcher. The perfect setting in which to write his first novel.

"I'm more comfortable writing from that viewpoint," Sedaris says one afternoon in early October, in his still sparsely furnished living room on the Rue St. Jacques, making his way through a pack of Kools. "In America, for me right now, things seem to be a little bit different in that I have options--whether I choose to exercise them or not. And I thought it would help to go somewhere where I didn't."

It would be tempting to imagine that Sedaris, like the narrator of one of his stories, would have longed to run with the beautiful people of "One Life to Live." But after he read his now legendary "Santaland Diaries" on National Public Radio one morning in 1992--the dark and sardonic account of working as a Macy's Christmas elf that launched his career--the onetime house cleaner's New York phone began to ring with offers to write for television and to try his luck in Hollywood.

He turned them down then and continues to do so. Nothing, he says, could tempt him away from the typewriter, where he spends most evenings. A boyish-looking 41-year-old of 5-foot-5 with a gap-toothed grin and a wandering eye, Sedaris likes to point out that he thinks he is not very good-looking. He hates to have his photograph taken--the one kind of public appearance Sedaris approves of is a reading, where he gets to test new work on a live audience. When he reads an hour's worth of unpublished material Friday at UCLA's Royce Hall as part of a tour of the U.S., he will include anecdotes based on his first weeks in France.

What audiences won't be hearing is a chapter from his novel. Despite a contract in hand, he hasn't quite gotten to it yet.

"I have no idea how to write a novel," he says. "I never had any inclination to write one." In the meantime, he has been writing short stories and essays for Esquire magazine and NPR's "This American Life" about his first day of French class, house hunting and getting used to how the French do things.

"I don't like any physical contact. When I came to France, I thought, 'Thank God I will never have to hug anyone again.' But then there's the kissing thing," he says with an air of dread. "And if you don't do it, people get really offended. Who wants to be kissed by me? It's really not that much of a treat."

Paris is already proving to be a rich source of material. "It's fun picking and choosing which is the best story about being humiliated," he says. "I would be incapable of writing . . . like, what's a big issue in Paris right now? I mean, I have no idea. I mean, like, personally I have issues. Like to me, the biggest issue in Paris is the butcher on the corner."

All subjects lead back to the butcher this gray afternoon, in the third week of Sedaris' Parisian life.

"You'd think the butcher and I had some long-standing feud that went back generations," he begins. "Every day I go there, he scolds me for something else. And yesterday his wife scolded me" for innocently putting his bag of meat on what was apparently the wrong shelf. "There's always something they can scold me about."

When Sedaris is not being derided by the butcher, there is his French teacher at the Alliance Francaise, a chalk-throwing polyglot who insults her students in their native languages. "Nothing you say or do is right, nothing," he says, shaking his head. "If you have the answer right, then you pronounced the word wrong."

Reign of terror aside, he says, she's a good teacher. "All I do is my homework, that's all I do," he offers, explaining why he doesn't have time to write his novel. "It's frustrating to be a writer, and to work that hard on a sentence like 'Maurice lives alone, but sometimes he dines with his mother.' "

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