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Book Club Fri Apr 27 2012

In Case You Missed It: For Etgar Keret Writing is like Trust Falls

Last night authors Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander allowed the audience at Chicago Sinai Congregation Temple in on a conversation between friends. It was precisely the sort of conversation you'd imagine--casual, fluid, at once philosophical and effortless. The two know one another well, and it showed.

The conversation began on the subject of Keret's lost luggage, and the generally grueling book tour schedule. He joked that he began bribing his driver, agreeing to get in the car only in exchange for a pair of clean underwear, and in some cases, socks, too.

The Chicago Humanities Festival organized the event, which was a stop on a long line of lectures Keret is giving around the country to promote his sixth bestselling story collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, translated into English by Englander. In typical Keret fashion many of the stories are a blip in word count terms, coming out to less than three small pages. In impact, they are small worlds, containing characters as real and human as you or me. The audience was privileged to learn how it all comes together.

"For me writing is a place of ultimate freedom," Keret said. "When I write I don't have any idea what I'm writing. It's like trust falls--couples go to counseling and do those trust falls. I close my eyes and fall back and I hope the story will catch me, and when it works, what comes out is me."

For those of us with aspirations of becoming famous enough that our work might one day be translated, this method is a bit overwhelming. It hinges on one's natural abilities and doesn't bode well for what can be learned in class rooms. But that's his point. We all need to let loose a little and just write. Englander was as much in awe as Keret's fans despite his own success as a short story writer, novelist, and playwright.

"The stories I love most are the ones I can't understand why they're working for me, but when I finish I'm filled with such a deep and beautiful sadness, or belief, or love," Englander said of Keret's work. "The rules in his works are impeccable; the emotions are real. It's almost like hyperrealism to me. You can see yourself in the character, just maybe in another dimension."

Keret discussed the way he became a writer, or more accurately realized he could be one while doing his compulsory service in Israeli army in his early twenties. While in training he read Kurt Vonnegut and Franz Kafka, the writers he is often compared to today.

"All these soldiers were much better people, better soldiers, than me," Keret said. "But Slaughterhouse 5 made me think, there are worse than me. I always thought writers have answers, but really they are the hysterical people who say, 'holy shit, what should we do?' That's me."

The act of translation was discussed at length as both Englander and Keret have taken on the project of translating one another's work. Both were equally honored to work with the other.

"The act of translating is unbelievably moving to me," Englander said. "That you can take every word in someone's book and replace it with another and still laugh in the same spot is the most beautiful thing about fiction."

Keret addressed the subject, too, and got laughs from the audience when he noted that in his opinion Englander is not a typical translator, in that he "upgrades" the work.

"The word mind doesn't exists in Hebrew," Keret said. "You have head and brain, but no mind. So the act of translation is reinventing the story and a good translator will ask you, 'in English this word has three meanings, how did you mean it?' It's like having juice in a Hebrew glass and you spill it in another glass. It's the same juice."

To learn about future Chicago Humanities Festival programming check out the event calendar, here.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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