Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door: with Etgar Keret at the NAC

I must confess to committing the minor literary sin of omission right here at the start of my review: I have not read any of Etgar Keret’s short stories. As a matter of fact the only thing I knew about the Israeli novelist before seeing him read from his latest book   Suddenly, A Knock on the door  was his co-director’s credit (his collaborator on the project being his wife Shira Geffen) for the critically acclaimed 2007 Israeli independent film Jellyfish.

Truthfully, I was far more interested in seeing Wiretap radio host, novelist, comedian, and Canadian answer to Woody Allen, Jonathan Goldstein. I’ve been religiously downloading the show for many years and I am a massive fan of the eccentric Montreal based cast of characters, some of whom remind me vaguely of certain people I was surrounded with growing up in that crazy city myself. I have also enjoyed the humour of Goldstein’s literary debut; a satirical take on the good book called Ladies and Gentleman: the Bible.

After spending an evening with Goldstein and Keret, however, at last night event at the National Art Centre, I must admit that I came away from the experience with the exact opposite feeling from the one that I had going in. That is to say, I marvelled at the wit, wisdom, intelligence and brilliant sense of humour of Keret, and hardly even noticed Goldstein’s presence at all!


A sample of some of the former’s more side-splitting quotes below.


On using sacred language of scriptures, Hebrew, as language for modern life: “It’s inappropriate to ask about the restroom.”


On writing non-fiction: “It’s for pussies!”


On bigotry: “Right wingers take it out on Arabs. Racists take it out on blacks. I am on the liberal left. I don’t have anyone to take it out on!”


On the question he wishes someone in his audience would ask, but never does: "For someone so good looking, how come you're a writer and not a model?"


Keret opened with a reading from his latest collection of short stories entitled The bus driver who thought he was God.  Like so much of the writer’s work this story was born when he witnessed an incident on the streets of his hometown of Tel Aviv involving an old lady laden with groceries, chasing after a bus. This is a theme that he would return to repeatedly in the course of his one and half hour interview. It seems that many of his best ideas for stories come from his own everyday life experiences living in Israel.  He claims that his writing style is unpretentious, not because he sets out to write in plain language and make his work more accessible, but because he lacks the craft and technical gifts to write like “real writers” do.


Goldstein put several good questions to the author, though often it was Keret who was the lively chatterbox, with firecracker wit to boot. He was content to natter on charmingly on everything from his marriage to his bowel movements. He was amazingly open about his personal life, the creative process and his insights into the way of the world today and the authors place in it. By the end of the evening, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. And we who had been treated to joke after joke - each one funnier than the last - could not help but nod our heads in agreement with Goldstein when he said that it was really fun asking Keret questions. With an author as gregarious and endearing as Keret, the host and crowd don’t need to do much work at all.  Just settle into your chair and brace yourself for the laughs.