Dedicated to fiction

The multitalented Etgar Keret revels in public signings as Matt Nesvisky discovers at a talk on the author’s memoirs.

Etgar Keret and his wife Shira Geffen hold the Camera D’Or prize for their film ‘Jellyfish’ at the 60th Cannes Film Festival in 2007 (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
Etgar Keret and his wife Shira Geffen hold the Camera D’Or prize for their film ‘Jellyfish’ at the 60th Cannes Film Festival in 2007
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
ETGAR KERET excels in numerous arenas.
First and foremost, if not still quite the enfant terrible of Israeli literature – Keret is closing in on 50 – he remains a best seller at home and is arguably one of the best-known Israeli writers of fiction on the international scene.
His books have been translated into 37 languages. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and in such top literary journals as The Paris Review, Zootrope and Guernica. He’s been acclaimed by such fellow fabulists as Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Safran Foer. Among his many awards are Israel’s Prime Minister’s Prize and the Chevalier Medallion of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Keret, however, has hardly neglected other media. He directed (with his wife, Shira Geffen) the 2007 prize-winning film “Jellyfish,” and several of his stories have been adapted for movies and television.
He’s written and directed for television and the stage, collaborated on musicals, produced graphic novels, written a children’s book, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “This American Life” series. Somehow, Keret also teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
But if any activity seems especially close to Keret’s heart it’s one that many other writers abhor and often refuse to pursue – the public book signing. Frequently considered by scribes as a grim publicity duty, Keret claims in his new memoir, “The Seven Good Years,” to relish meeting readers, and writing them notes and drawing cartoons on their freshly purchased flyleaves.
Indeed, he’s traveled the globe, everywhere from Germany and Poland (where he sells particularly well) to North America and the Far East, just to sign books.
Keret’s pal Gur Bentwich documented the author’s delight in book signings in New York in a 2013 film titled, “What Animal Are You?” (In the film, Keret’s writer-friend Nathan Englander stumbles for the Hebrew word for challenge; Keret reminds him it is “etgar.”) And, to my mind, the funniest riff in “The Seven Good Years” is about dedications he writes in his books.
“What can you write in the book of a total stranger who may be anything from a serial killer to a Righteous Gentile? ‘In friendship’ borders on falsehood; ‘With admiration’ doesn’t hold water; ‘Best wishes’ sounds too avuncular… [So] I created my own genre – fictitious books dedications. If the books themselves are pure fiction, why should the dedications be true? “‘To Danny, who saved my life on the Litani. If you hadn’t tied that tourniquet, there’d be no me and no book…’ “‘To Sinai, I’ll be home late tonight, but I left some cholent in the fridge...’ “‘To Avram, I don’t care what the lab tests show. To me, you’ll always be my dad…’” “The Seven Good Years” covers the period from the birth of Keret’s son to the death of his father. Unlike the wry surrealism of Keret’s fiction, as seen in such collections as “The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God,” “The Nimrod Flipout” and “Suddenly, a Knock at the Door,” much of the memoir relies on the kind of time-tested, unthreatening and even bourgeois jocularity churned out by newspaper humorists like Dave Barry and the late Ephraim Kishon.
This includes such topics as the tribulations of fatherhood, rants against telemarketers, encounters with cranky cab drivers, and the trials of airline travel. Portions of the memoir also teeter on the sentimental, especially when Keret discusses his beloved parents, both Holocaust survivors.
Oh, and then there’re the other members of the family, namely a genius of an older brother, a marijuana campaigner who for years lived in a tree house in Thailand. (In one chapter, Keret tells of showing his first short story to his brother as they’re walking the family dog. The brother praises the story, then after determining that Etgar has a spare copy, the brother uses the manuscript to clean up after the pooch.) The sister, meanwhile, turned ultra-Orthodox and, although just a few years older than Keret, now has 11 children and several grandchildren.
Keret published a children’s book inspired by her kids, but sis still wouldn’t allow the book in the house – too secular.
TO BE sure, “The Seven Good Years” is not all giggles and guffaws. Keret, for example, laments the corruption scandals among Israeli officials. He evokes nightmares brought on by the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Iranians. And he discusses his repeated confrontations with anti-Semitism on his travels. (At a literary festival in Poland, someone in the audience abruptly asks, “Aren’t you ashamed of being Jewish?”) I caught Keret at one of his cherished readings cum interviews at the start of his recent tour of the US in support of the new memoir. The diminutive writer proved to be a captivating raconteur, a sparkling sit-down comedian, a self-effacing fellow with an excellent English vocabulary and a charmingly maladroit accent, and a passionate but reasoned advocate for the State of Israel.
Fielding questions from his sizeable audience, Keret revealed that he received his challenging first name from his mother, who was determined that he would survive his premature birth at six months, at a weight of 900 grams, and with the umbilical cord around his neck.
He told another audience member that he credited his father’s improbable bedtime stories (about gun-running for the Irgun out of a Mafia brothel in Sicily) with inspiring his own storytelling talents. Surely most gratifying was the woman in the auditorium who said she had never read any of his work, but having heard him speak, she now wanted to read all of it. (“I fooled another one!” Keret crowed.) I couldn’t resist lining up after the talk with all the other groupies for the book signing.
Bearing in mind Keret’s delight in fictitious dedications (“Bosmat, even though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end”), I suggested a dedication for my copy of “The Seven Good Years.” Sure enough, Keret complied “To Matt, thanks for launching my literary career.”
Untrue, of course. But I’m happy to help it along.