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Father's sickness inspires author

By Jonathan Epstein
On May 1, 2012

The Israeli short story writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret spoke in the Mandel Center for the Humanities on Friday afternoon as part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts. He read from the newly published translation of his stories titled, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, and screened his short film What About Me?
Keret spoke in a frank tone that was complemented by his utilitarian look consisting of a black oxford shirt with dark-wash jeans and black New Balance sneakers beneath a full head of unkempt black hair. Keret began by reading "What Animal Are You?," the final story in his new collection. Keret's mannerisms and a knack for gesticulation, combined with a pitched voice and whimsical prose, repeatedly provoked the audience to laughter, but commanded silence when the story abruptly touched on mortality.
The most poignant part of the talk came after the reading, when Keret spoke about his father, a Holocaust survivor who died five weeks ago. He began by relating that he had been unsure if he should go on his current book tour, but that his mother told him his father would have made him go.
Keret told the "Coffee Story," a real-life anecdote of how his father clung to a sense of normalcy, even at the end of his life. Keret's father had a cancerous lump in his throat, making him unable to drink or eat, except through an I.V., but he loved sitting in cafes, and convinced Etgar to take him to one. As the waitress was walking away after taking Etgar's order, his father added a double espresso to the order. After the coffees arrived, "My father would sit back like ... a purse snatcher. He would just sit quietly and then grab the coffee and take it all in," said Keret. This action caused Keret's father to vomit the coffee back up in the middle of the café. Then, "He would sit down again, light a cigarette, say to me, 'What, that was good damn coffee.' That was my dad, you know. He did what he liked," Keret explained.
His father once commented that in half of Etgar's stories "The father character is dumb, and in the other half of the stories he is an asshole, but in all of them I feel that you love me."
In response to a question from the audience about his writing process, Keret contrasted himself with more established authors who wake up early to carve out a paragraph, saying that he has a more free-flowing process. "If you open a Diet Coke bottle, you know it can go 'spizz' and spill on your pants, but when you write a story-it's easy," Keret explained, "because you can just be...all your desires, all your wishes and everything you want to be, and there are no consequences. ... Because in real life, you know, if you say what you want or do what you want you can insult people, you can get into trouble, they can beat you up. But in a story you can do the wildest thing."
He added that his latest metaphor for his writing process is a "trust fall," in which couples in therapy learn to fall backward into each other's arms: "I trust the story to catch me, you know-I don't know what's going to happen next ... and sometimes you wake up on the floor with a bump in back of your head and five pages that do not mean anything," Keret said.
Keret concluded that he cannot force a story, which is why he has never written a full-length novel. Additionally, he criticized American Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing programs for focusing on enforcing the strictures of proper writing, instead of allowing students to develop stories in an unstructured manner.
Asked about his view on realism in art, Keret responded that he finds the concept to be a contradiction, because no artist is objective, and, "Because when you create something you always project something that is extremely subjective. ... A priori is extremely subjective because you write something from your head. You share your experience, you share your view." Keret cited experiences that may be irreconcilable with physical laws, but nevertheless, "we feel them. So if my character, when he kisses a girl he feels that he's levitating, then he levitates, because it's his story."
Keret last visited Brandeis in October 2008, when he conducted a creative writing workshop and screened his film Jellyfish.  

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