Literature makes you bang your head against the wall a little bit less

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Todd Zuniga (left) and Etgar Keret. (Image from video.)

Known for work that is both heart wrenching and funny, Israeli writer Etgar Keret says he uses humor like a defense mechanism. An evening hosted by the Y&S Nazarian Center on October 1st featured readings of his short stories and an absorbing interview of the author.

When people say they find Keret's work funny and entertaining, he is surprised, almost offended. “It's kind of like the feeling when you slip on a banana peel and people are laughing. And then you say, call an ambulance! Why are you laughing?”

International Institute, October 9, 2013 — Etgar Keret writes poignant, absurdist and almost always very funny short stories. And short for Keret means three to seven pages long.

“Etgar Keret with audience member. (Photo: Todd Cheney/UCLA.)

The acclaimed Israeli author-screenwriter-director spoke at the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies on Ocotber 1st. Moderated by Adrian Todd Zuniga, host and co-creator of Literary Death Match, the evening featured readings of Keret’s stories and an absorbing interview led by Zuniga.

In an age when agents and publishers push short story writers to turn to the more popular form of novels, Keret said his success — he is a best-selling author in Israel whose works have been translated into 22 languages — was both unexpected and, in many ways, inexplicable to him. “Success is something that surprises you, failure seems so natural,” he said.

His publications include ”Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” (2010), “Girl on the Fridge” (2008), “Missing Kissinger” (2007), “Gaza Blues” (2007) and “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” (2004).

There is no normal

In person, Keret is a wonderful story teller — warm, luminous and intelligent, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Because he writes fiction, he emphasized, when he narrates something that actually happened, he doesn’t exaggerate or embellish. “I never lie when I tell stories,” he said, “This is like a religion for me.”

“Suddenly, A Knock on the Door.” (Photo: Todd Cheney/ UCLA.)

Writing stories, however, is another matter. “When I write a story about someone, it’s not that I write about something that has happened, I write about something that moves me,” he said.

“So basically I only write stories about people I like a lot and usually, they come out bad in those stories.” (That might be an understatement for a man who wrote a story about his wife entitled “Fatso.”) He insisted, however, “That doesn’t mean I don’t like them!”

Keret began writing during his compulsory military service. At the time, he noted, “I kept feeling that I was different from other people. . .  Basically when you’re a solider, they want you to conform. . . I kept feeling that I was saying the wrong thing, that I was feeling the wrong feeling.”

At first, he shared his stories with only three people: his brother and two of his best friends. Other than those three people, it never occurred to him that other people would be able to relate to his work.

“The humanizing thing was when people read a story and would say, ‘We get it,’” said Keret. “I realized that they were just as @#$#! up as me, but they were much better at hiding it. Writing made me understand that it’s not about people who are normal and not normal — there are no normal people, there are people who pass as normal.“

The art of writing

Keret said he had learned that “the more specific you become, the more universal you become. . . . There’s something universal about human emotion, about human vulnerability.” When he was in Norway to do a reading, for example, two Norwegian sisters approached him and asked if the story, “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God” (also the name of a collection of stories) was based on the driver of the No. 14 bus in Oslo, because they knew him!

Keret dismissed the idea that he consciously uses allegory. “A narrative is like a cat, it’s something you run after to try to catch, “ he explained. “For me, it’s an emotion. So for me, whatever is true for that emotion is true for a story.”

“The Girl on the Fridge.” (Photo: Todd Cheney/ UCLA.)

Known for work that is both heart wrenching and funny, Keret said he uses humor like a defense mechanism. “It’s like an air bag in your car. If everything is ok, then it doesn’t inflate,” he said. “Only if you hit someone or if you’re in danger, it works. . . . I only use humor when I’m in a place that is volatile and painful and dangerous.”

“When you write, [humor] is not an effect that you intend — it’s not what you are experiencing yourself,” Keret remarked. When people say they find his work funny and entertaining, he confessed he is surprised, almost offended. “It’s kind of like the feeling when you slip on a banana peel and people are laughing. And then you say, call an ambulance! Why are you laughing?”

The writer claimed the power of literature was its ability to awaken compassion for other people, as it enables readers to get into someone else’s head and see how they experience life. Essentially, he said, “It helps you bang your head against the wall a little less.”

The resonance of Israel and the Holocaust

Keret lives in Tel Aviv and teaches at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, but considers himself more a Jewish than an Israeli writer. Yet, as Zuniga noted, he lives in Israel, so it must give him something.

“Well, I often say,” responded Keret, “it’s debatable whether Israel is a good place to live in, but it’s certainly a good place to write in because writing is all about conflict and friction and tension.

“[Israel is ] a place that is extremely interesting because you have people coming from different backgrounds. Almost everybody has a very, very strong agenda and is willing to give everything to serve that agenda,” he said.

“So everybody is looking for something, trying to transcend [life] and ‘get’ what life is about, trying to make it better — according to their own agenda. And I feel that this has something to do with Israeli intensity. It’s a kind of intense situation and you feel many times that people go for what they think counts — they don’t have this kind of nonchalance that I’m always jealous of,” he observed.

Nevertheless, being reduced to an “Israeli” writer and the attendant extreme reactions this label provokes mystifies Keret. “Being Israeli, you automatically get people who like you and who hate you,” he explained. “And usually the ones who hate you are good-looking girls from Berkeley and the ones that like you are overweight girls from the Midwest, and you kind of wish it was the other way around.”

Etgar Keret, right, and Adrian Todd Zuniga. (Photo:Todd Cheney/UCLA.)

More than his nationality or his multicultural background (his father was from Belarus, his mother, from Poland), the fact that his parents were both Holocaust survivors has greatly influenced his work. “My parents were children during the Holocaust, they weren’t born into the Holocaust,” said Keret, noting that they first saw order, then saw the world transformed.

He recounted a story about eating at a restaurant with his mother as a child. At one point, she said to him, “Every time that you sit at a table and the other people use their knives and forks to eat from their plates and not from yours, and they don’t use them to attack you but just to eat their food, then you should say thank you, because this is a good day.”

“I internalized this feeling very strongly as a child, “said Keret. “I learned that I cannot take anything for granted. Something about this resonates in my stories. Because many of my stories start in very non-sane situations — they tell a story that is not regular, not normal. I think that with the experience of my wife’s parents and my parents and family, it became a kind of reflex. . . In my stomach I feel know that we are now living in a moment, but the next moment could be something else.”

In addition to writing short stories, Etgar Keret writes feature screenplays. They include “Skin Deep” (1996), which won the Israeli Oscar, and “Wrist Cutters” (2007), with Tom Waits. Keret and his wife Shira Geffen co-directed “Jellyfish” (2007), a screenplay written by Geffen; the film won the coveted Caméra d'Or prize for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival. The animated feature film “$9.99” (2009) was based on several of Keret's stories.

This event was cosponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, Writers Bloc and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

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Published: Wednesday, October 09, 2013