The acclaimed Israeli writer explains why his latest collection of short stories took him 10 years to write
You wouldn’t mistake an Etgar Keret short story for the work of anyone else. A typical piece will run to just a few pages, will be colloquial in style, and will juxtapose everyday life with some bizarre turn of events. In “Unzipping”, from his new collection Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (his first for 10 years), a woman discovers, while her boyfriend is sleeping, a “teensy zip” under his tongue: “When she pulled at it, her whole Tsiki opened up like an oyster and inside was Jurgen.” In “Pudding”, a man is dragged from his home by thugs, stripped, dressed in school uniform and then deposited at his parents’ house, whereupon he finds he has regressed to his childhood.
Keret’s stories often read like bar-room anecdotes or surreal jokes that break off before their punchlines. They are at once sophisticated and anti-literary, extremely funny and slyly serious. While invariably set in contemporary Israel, and full of sex and violence, they also hark back to older storytelling traditions, such as the parable, the folk tale and the absurdist fictions of Gogol and Kafka.
Keret, who was born in 1967 and grew up in Tel Aviv, is sometimes described as being at the forefront of a “new” kind of Israeli writing, one that eschews head-on engagement with politics. While the region’s turmoil saturates his work, his stories convey no clear message or ideological position. Keret explains this by telling me that, as a writer, he feels more Jewish than Israeli. “Most of the Jewish writer friends I have are American and I feel closer to them because they’re always obsessed with one issue – identity: what does it mean to be an American Jew?” Israelis, he says, rarely deal with the question of what it means to be Israeli. “Maybe it’s too difficult, but they tend to suppress it. There is something about Jewish writing that’s very reflective, while Israeli writing is more active and epic in nature.”
Keret attributes his adherence to a Jewish outlook to the fact that he grew up with a “dual identity”: a sense of being European as well as Israeli. “I’m the son of Holocaust survivors. It was important for my parents to pass as Israeli-born Jews. But when I would go to sleep, my mum would recite Polish poems and they would listen to Wagner.”
In person, Keret is relaxed, charming and very funny. Spending time with him is like entering the world of his stories: suddenly, everything seems slightly off-kilter, full of comic potential. We meet at a private members’ club, and before we sit down there’s some kerfuffle over tables. “People are so territorial here,” he says. “It’s worse than the Middle East.” Keret says that stories often begin for him with an observation: a scene on a street, a snatch of conversation. “I don’t think in terms of ideas. I have some sort of starting point. And I never know where the story is heading.” He likens the process to driving: “The first thing I have to do is press the gas pedal and take my hands off the wheel. If I crash, maybe I’ll get to somewhere interesting. It can’t be premeditated.”
One of the funniest stories in Keret’s new collection is “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately”, about a businessman who’s having an affair with a colleague. The thing that satisfies the man most about this arrangement is that, when he takes his mistress for a “candlelit dinner”, the cost is tax-deductible. Keret says the story was triggered by overhearing someone use the title phrase in a cafe.
“It struck me as such an amazing sentence. What’s interesting is the word ‘actually’ and the word ‘hard-on’ used together. Because there’s something about ‘hard-on’ that’s so primal, so instinctive, while ‘actually’ is such a meta, linguistic kind of word.” The resulting story was a kind of imaginative working out of this clash. “The cheating is the ‘hard-on’ bit, while the tax is the ‘actually’,” he explains.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door took a decade to write, partly because of Keret’s increasing involvement with the world of film and partly due to writer’s block. “What happened was that my life changed a lot: I got married, I had a kid, a mortgage. I kept having ideas for stories, but they were about bachelors living in a dirty apartments, trying to get laid.” It took time, he says, to find a way to write that was relevant to his new circumstances. Although Keret now makes light of this period of non-productivity (“The funny thing was that no one gave a fuck”), the title story of his new collection is eloquent testament to how difficult it must have been. It describes a writer being held hostage in his living room by a gunman, a pollster and a pizza delivery man, all clamouring for him to tell them a story. The writer can’t think of any opening, other than: “It began with a knock on the door.”
The story is vintage Keret, a parable about creativity that blends his travails with larger questions about the status of writers in Israel. Happily, it ends well: the writer finds a new way to begin.
from William Skidelsky