Something Out of Something: Talking with Etgar Keret
May 1, 2012 | by Rebecca Sacks
In 2006, the great book-blurber and novelist Gary Shteyngart called Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout “the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years—better than Leviticus and nearly as funny.” Keret may indeed be the most loved and widely read Israeli writer working today. He is known for his very short short stories, which are often described as “surreal” and “absurd.” It’s certainly the case that they do not adhere to the laws of the physical universe.
In his most recent collection, Suddenly, a Knock at the Door (published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a talking fish grants wishes; a woman unzips her boyfriend to reveal the German gentile inside; a middle-aged man is kidnapped and taken to his childhood. But at the heart of Keret’s writing is a deep compassion. His characters may be enmeshed in paradoxes unique to Israel—with its fraught borders, fragmented populations, and newly ancient language—but it’s always their humanity that shines through.
Keret is also a filmmaker. With his wife, Shira Geffen, he directed Jellyfish (2009), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and has had his work adapted to film, including Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006). Over the course of two weeks, during which his father passed away from cancer (he has written about his father for Tablet), Keret generously corresponded over e-mail for this interview.
Is it really true that your books are the most shoplifted in Israel?
That’s what they say. I even got a very cute mail once asking me not to publish my books in summer because it is much easier to steal them when you are wearing a coat.
Which writers have had the biggest impact? When you started writing very short stories, were you using any models?
I was first introduced to Kafka’s writing during my compulsory army-service basic training. During that period Kafka’s fiction felt hyperrealistic. I had read a lot of works that had moved me as much before Kafka, but it was only after reading his short stories that I felt that I could try writing, too.
I cannot read Hebrew, so have only read you in translation. What do you think is lost?
A lot. The Hebrew slang in which I write represents a unique language, one that existed exclusively as a written language for two thousand years only to find itself “defrosted” at an arbitrary historical point. This created a spoken language that had preserved its ancient biblical roots on the one end but that was also very open to invented and imported words out of necessity—there were two thousand years worth of words that didn’t exist in the language. This tension between traditional language and a very chaotic and anarchistic one creates a spoken language that is bursting with unique energy and that allows you to switch registers mid-sentence. All of these linguistic aspects can’t pass translation. I have been lucky enough to work with probably the best translators around, and what we do most of the time is cry together and share comforting hugs.
You’ve described your stories as writing themselves, that you don’t know how they will end when you start writing them. Forgive a silly question, but if you didn’t write them down, what do you think would happen to them? Would they find someone else to write them down?
I don't think they’ll find someone else to write them because they come from my very specific fuckups, but I do know that the stories I do not write have the tendency to resurface years later in a different and often surprising context.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door has several stories that explore the act of writing and of storytelling. What is your writing process?
I always have a story in my head that needs to be written, or at least I think I do. But I usually can't find the time to write it. There is some sort of a natural selection process in which the stories that are able to stay there for long enough and to keep nagging are the ones that get written, which is, I feel, a very fair system. I do not have specific times in which I write. I just do it when I can.
What is your approach to teaching creative-writing classes?
I see creative-writing classes as some sort of AA meeting. It is more of a support group for people who write than an actual course in which you learn writing skills. This support group is extremely important because there is something very lonely about writing. Most of the things we do are motivated by some outside demand. It could be from our boss, our doctor, our family or our friends. Nobody demands that we write, so it is something that always seems to be the last priority in our lives, and creative-writing classes can provide the place in which this strange wish to write is seen as important and legitimate and can become a space that provides the perfect acoustics to hear our own texts for the first time. This option isn't good for everyone, but it could be very helpful to some.
“Something out of something” has become a kind of tagline for the book. It comes from the collection’s title story, in which a writer is held at gun and knifepoint by intruders who demand a story. You write, “It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it.” Did this collection end a writer’s block?
It sure did. And that block ended the moment I realized I don’t write my stories out of thin air. They are not something out of nothing but a transformation of an existing emotion and experience transferred to a story form.
This collection has another talking fish! Do you have any sense of where this idea comes from or why it appeals to you? It has a Russian folktale feel to it. Though now I realize I could just be saying that because of the Russian character in “What of This Goldfish, Would You Wish.”
The talking fish that grants wishes does come from a Russian tale, written by Pushkin, I think. There is something very powerful in a talking fish. He can’t speak when he is in the water and a fish can’t live outside of it. So in some suppressed way for a talking fish, expressing yourself is a very difficult and mortally dangerous task. I think writing is a little bit like that. I can’t speak for all writers but I, for one, am a talking fish for sure.
There’s a reoccurring image in your stories of characters leaving the cemetery and putting back the cardboard yarmulke in a box by the gate. What about this image is powerful image to you?
For me, a yarmulke is a symbol of Jewish identity. A cardboard one represents an identity that doesn’t completely belong to you—you take it when you enter the cemetery and return it before you leave. Made out of cardboard, it is also temporary and short lived in its nature. The cardboard yarmulke represents for me the complicated relationship I have as an agnostic person with my Jewish identity. The term “secular Jew” is often used in a very matter-of-fact kind of tone, but there is a lot of ambiguity and complexity behind it.
Do you think of your writing as surreal?
The difference between the real and the surreal exists only in the objective plane. In the subjective one, the important differentiation would be between true and untrue. Our subjective experience can be surreal and true just as it can often be realistic and completely false. I write subjective stories—there is no way I know to write objective ones—and once I write them I am only interested that they represent what I feel and think and not if they are scientifically correct.
Is your work still controversial in Israel? In the past, people have been angered at your treatment of certain taboos—for instance, the Holocaust—but now you’re on the high school curriculum.
I think I’m controversial among some of the people in Israel and accepted by others, but the same can also be said for evolutionary theory. By the way, there is a strong correlation in Israel between anti-evolutionists and people who think I’m controversial, which is a much more comfortable position for me than if it were the other way around.
I love the anecdote about how your breakfast with Derrida resulted in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God being published in Arabic by a Palestinian publishing house. How did it sell? Do you hope your other books will reach Arab readers this way?
Being published in Arabic is a strong and consistent wish I have. I live in the Middle East and want to be in some sort of an unpragmatic dialogue with my neighbors. I would love it to be a pragmatic one, too, but with my country’s current government, even an optimist like me can’t imagine such a scenario. As for sales, after the first week the book was in the stores, my publisher told me that quite a few people were buying it, but he wasn’t really sure if those copies were bought by curious readers or by Hamas people who had burned them.
Do you ever think of moving to another country?
Yes. But they are very much like those starting-to-go-to-the-gym kind of thoughts—even as I think them, I know it will never happen.
Rebecca Sacks lives in Brooklyn. She’s an associate editor at Departures magazine.