While many see Israel as a real-life Theater of the Absurd, it takes touring with a guide like writer Etgar Keret, whose absurdist flash fiction has made him an international literary star, to bring the characters out into plain sight.
That’s what artist Maira Kalman is doing as she journeys across the country with Keret in the spirit of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.” They’re visiting out-of-the-way places and meeting characters along the way, fodder for a future collaborative work with texts by Keret and illustrations by Kalman.
The two have a similar appreciation of the absurd, visiting an astronomer friend of Keret’s in the Arava desert, who has a telescope that showed the 53 rings of Saturn, and meeting a bookstore owner who could easily be a character in a Keret story.
“Well, what more do we need to do?” Kalman asked Tuesday night during a discussion with Keret in Jerusalem moderated by writer Evan Fallenberg.
“You need to be humbled a few times a day,” she added, reflecting on the awesomeness of the celestial phenomena.
While she remarked on images seen on their journey, Keret poked fun at the people they met, including that small-town bookseller who had planned to sell plastic chairs but switched to books, even though he doesn’t like to read. His specialty is books in Romanian.
“He’s like the Romanian empire of Romanian books,” said Keret.
The two artists are currently participating in the Marie Residency, dedicated to the life of Marie Brandolini, the daughter of Béatrice Rosenberg de Rothschild. Brandolini was a glass artist who lived in Venice, Italy, and visited Jerusalem often. The residency, based at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center, which also hosted the talk, invites writers for extended stays to Jerusalem and Venice to work, lecture and experience each cities.
It isn’t the first time Kalman, born in Israel but raised in the US, and Keret are collaborating; they initially met to work on a New Yorker piece called “To Be A Dancer” in November 2016, an illustrated, one-page text about “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” a surrealist fable performed by Pilobolus Dance Theatre, produced in collaboration with Keret and his wife, filmmaker Shira Geffen.
“I yell at Maira all the time,” said Keret. “I put her in her place. These Americans, they come here and they think they own the place.”
Aside from the traveling, Kalman is working on a slew of other projects, including “The Principles of Uncertainty,” her collaboration with choreographer John Heginbotham inspired by Kalman’s written and visual art of the same name premiering this summer at Massachusetts dance festival Jacob’s Pillow; an illustrated book about Alice B. Toklas; and a recently completed wall mural in the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing Illustration Library.
But much of her thoughts, she said, are devoted to cakes, the subject of an illustrated cookbook she is working on.
She even talked about cakes when meeting Keret’s sister in Jerusalem.
Keret, who just won the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize and is finishing a book of short stories as well as working on two TV series — something he does “to offset the loneliness of writing books” — commented, “I don’t think about cakes, ever. I would never talk to my sister about cakes.”
“We look at different things,” said Kalman, following a particularly amusing thread about Keret’s brother’s voice, a characteristic that Keret said he’d never noticed in his “very smart brother” in all the years of his “very intimate relations” with his family.
Cakes were also on her mind when Kalman, without Keret, visited the Banksy Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, built next to the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank with interiors decorated by the graffiti artist. A nearby section of the wall is used as a kind of graffiti canvas for visitors, and Kalman said she chose her contribution, a list of cakes, after asking passersby to name their favorite confections.
“I call it ‘Cake Peace,'” quipped Kalman.
“I think you may have found a way to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” answered Keret.
Fallenberg, a skillful moderator, pulled out a list of characteristics typical of accomplished people culled from “Wired to Create,” a book by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire.
He handed a printed list of the “10 Things Highly Creative People Do Differently” to both Kalman and Keret and asked them to reflect on which characteristics typified them.
“I never feel that I work,” said Keret. “Everything I do is an attempt to escape something else. I’m trying not to do something.”
“Doing without doing and will get done,” answered Kalman, evoking the Tao concept of non-action.
Asked by Fallenberg about their work methods, they poked fun at any work ethics they may or may not possess.
In the morning, said Kalman, “my mind goes to coffee and the obits and walking.”
“You should walk over the obit page with takeout coffee,” quipped Keret.
Keret, who began writing during long hours he spent on guard duty while in the army, said he doesn’t have any particular writing times.
“I write when I’m done with errands,” he said. “I always wake up with ideas, and if an idea lasts a long time, then I write it down.”
Toward the end, Fallenberg asked the two to reflect on their celebrity status and the experience of being successful, well-known cultural figures.
Keret joked that he liked being famous, given that he’s married to Shira Geffen, daughter of poet Yonatan Geffen and brother of rock star Aviv Geffen.
Keret’s brother-in-law, he said, currently a very popular mentor on the Israeli version of “The Voice,” deals with the kind of fame in which fans ask him for selfies at cafes.
“I experience a very contained kind of fame,” he said. “People who read books have empathy. With art, if people don’t like it, it’s irrelevant to them. Especially in Israel where life is so stressful.”
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