Grappling with maturity

Jonathan Safran Foer and Etgar Keret speak.

etgar jonathan 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
etgar jonathan 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
When American Jonathan Safran Foer and Israeli Etgar Keret shared the stage at Mishkenot Sha’ananim last week, the usual script for a literary event featuring two young and famous Jewish authors went out the window and into the Jerusalem night.
The two writers avoided a conventional exchange on the similarities of their national experiences or the differences between American and Israeli cultures. Even the normal trope on Jewish identity was absent from the discourse. In its place was a theme playing a major role in the lives of both writers: how to grapple with maturity.
Monday’s event, which was conducted in English, featured a reading of recent work by each author, followed by conversation between them and musical interludes performed by guitarist Eran Tzur.
While the evening was titled “Writing from Here, Writing from There,” Keret admitted at the start that the two authors had not discussed an agenda for the event.
“I would text Jonathan and tell him we should talk about what we’re going to say, and then he never texted me back.” Keret said to laughter.
Safran Foer, 33, who has written two bestselling novels – Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – and most recently the nonfiction book Eating Animals, is in Israel on a Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship with his wife and fellow writer, Nicole Krauss. They live in Park Slope in Brooklyn and have two children.
As Safran Foer took the podium to read his short story Here We Aren’t, So Quickly, he surprised the crowd with a tale whose tone differed from much of his previous work. The story, recently published in The New Yorker, was a series of short sentences and observational non-sequiturs about a couple moving back and forth in time from youth into parenthood and old age.
“It was a story with a bunch of facts, which usually blocks the story. But this time, the facts create the story and then the story erupts,” Keret said following Safran Foer’s reading.
Keret, who turns 43 next month, is the author of a number of graphic novels, scripts and books including The Nimrod Flipout, Missing Kissinger and the novella Kneller’s Happy Campers, which was adapted into the film Wristcutters: A Love Story.
Keret was born in Ramat Gan and lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, writer Shira Geffen, and their son. He is a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva and at Tel Aviv University.
Keret read his story Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, a satire of Israeli aggressiveness and of the country’s collective need to escape the difficult realities of life through fantasy. In the story, Keret is held hostage in his home by three different Israeli characters who threaten to kill him unless he tells them a story.
“It’s harder to find writing that is essential, but through the absurd he [Keret] shows the need for stories,” Safran Foer said of the story.
While the space between American and Israeli culture is a wide expanse, Safran Foer and Keret share common ground in a number of ways.
Having becoming successful writers at an early age, both are known for their unconventional methods of storytelling and idiosyncratic narrators.
As the two men have moved beyond their initial acclaim as writers and entered marriage and fatherhood in their personal lives, their discussion reflected the new obstacles facing each at this stage in their careers.
“For a while I couldn’t write anything,” said Keret.
“I had a wife, medical insurance and a son; things I never had my in my writing.
“What would it even mean to write something good? Does it mean that someone likes it? That would make Dan Brown the greatest writer who ever lived,” Safran Foer added.
Following the event, Safran Foer and Keret held a booksigning.
Mishkenot Sha’ananim hosted another literary event on Wednesday evening featuring Kraus and Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk.