An Afternoon with Etgar Keret

Many of you probably know the name of Etgar Keret. He’s internationally renowned. Routinely published in the New Yorker. Israeli filmmaker and writer. He’s kind of gotten to be known for a lot.

And I got to spend my afternoon focused on his work, and… here’s the really cool part… I GOT TO MEET HIM AND HE SIGNED MY COPY OF A COLLECTION OF HIS STORIES (Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, for anyone interested). Excuse while I fangirl for a moment.

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Okay. Fangirling moment over.

So. Etgar Keret.
The afternoon opened with a viewing of a film, adapted from one of his stories (originally written in Hebrew). The film is titled The Goldfish, and it tells the story of a man who wants to make a documentary about people’s responses to the question, “If you could find a magic goldfish who could grant you three wishes, what would you ask of the goldfish?” The story is a little bit dark, a little bit funny, and very, very off-the-walls weird.

Then, with an introduction from some high-profile rabbis and teachers from the Atlanta area, Etgar entered the room. He read aloud one of his stories- What Animal are You? And he also told a true story to all of us in the audience—about how he learned his storytelling technique, and some of his family history as well.

English is definitely not Etgar’s first language, but he speaks enough to communicate, and enough to tell stories. He discussed this in detail.

We watched two more short films. One was based on the short story—my personal favorite of Etgar’s short stories—“Healthy Start”, in which the main character sits down in a café, and is mistaken for someone else. Rather than correct the other person, he simply goes along with it, just for fun, mentally claiming that it is better than being lonely.

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A main theme in Etgar’s writing is loneliness, and loss. He explained, at one point, that a writer’s life is a lonely one, and that is a large portion of the reason why he picked up filmmaking—it gave him an office to go to, and people to work with. I can identify with that, as a writer. Obviously, I have school and sports and a zillion other commitments, but still: when I write, I am alone. True, I am kept company by my characters. But I am alone. And I think that that could end up being a very lonely existence if writing ever becomes all that I do.

The next film was What Do I Have in My Pockets? It is a sweet story about hypothetics (is that a real word?), and the chance to be able to someday say “yes.”

Etgar’s writing is not-quite-surreal, and not-quite-super-realist, either. He is almost a modern-day Kafka… but not quite. As Jonathan Safran Foer says about Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, “Funny, dark, and poignant. It’s tempting to say that these stories are his most Kafkaesque, but in fact they are his most Keretesque.” Whatever the comparison, Etgar’s work somehow manages to be clever and witty, and he uses what I lovingly call “fiat power” rather often—as in, “I believe that this is possible, so I am going to write the story as if everyone else might believe it too.” I think one of the best examples of Etgar doing this could be found in his story “Unzipping,” in which one character literally unzips her boyfriend to find out that under his skin is someone completely different. I have tried the “fiat” method of writing, but I’ve never been able to pull it off. Etgar manages to do so seemingly effortlessly. That’s probably why he’s internationally renowned.

When we finished watching the films, it was time for a moderated conversation. The most fascinating part about this was in no way the questions that were asked. For the most part, everyone just let Etgar talk, and I’m really, really glad that they did. He spoke of being a parent, and a family member. Of being lonely, and of being in a community. He shared stories of his childhood, and of his adulthood. And he spoke about the beauty of language. He said that every language has some great piece of literature overshadowing it, and everything that is written is, in some way, compared to that great piece of literature. In English, it is Shakespeare. In Spanish, perhaps Borges, perhaps Marquez. In Italian, it is Dante. In Hebrew, it is the Torah, and all of the other pieces of biblical literature that go along with that.

And then, because so much of the Hebrew language is a solid 2,000 years older than the rest of it, there are a ton of other colloquialisms tossed in and mixed around, so every third word is actually Russian or Swedish or Latin but spelled with Hebrew letters, which is how you get something like Yiddish as its own language, kicking around in the world.

Etgar Keret Portrait Session

After the questions were all asked—or, more accurately, when Etgar felt like he wanted to stop talking—we all dispersed. Some left the room altogether. Most, like me, went to go wait in a very long line and get a book signed.

This is the real treasure of the afternoon for me.

Etgar realized very quickly that I speak a little bit of Hebrew. And, on realizing that I do know the meaning of my Hebrew name, he signed my book in Hebrew, as opposed to in English, something that roughly translates to “Stay charming”, which is a play on my Hebrew name Maksima.

I have loved Etgar Keret’s work for a long time, and I am so excited and honored to have had the opportunity to meet and converse with him. I’ve been reading his stories in the New Yorker for a while, and I got to study his story “Creative Writing” over the summer in my BIMA class. I was already blown away by his words when they were on the page.

But out loud, in person, twenty feet away from me, and then just across a signing table?

There might be words to describe that much wonder. But I don’t think I know how to write them. So this will have to do.

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2 thoughts on “An Afternoon with Etgar Keret

  1. He had a short story in The New Yorker this week, and I wasn’t going to read it, but then I remembered you blogged about him so I read it, and I liked it.

    Like

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