Etgar Keret’s literary magic on display in new book

Etgar Keret’s literary magic on display in new book

A poetic sleight-of-hand in the Israeli author's new collection of short stories.

Etgar Keret
Etgar Keret

When I meet Etgar Keret downtown, he tells me that he just noticed two guys hauling crates across a street, onto a truck, and one shouts from the middle of the street, “Good morning, everyone.” He goes on to say that outside of Israel, New York is the city in which he feels most at home.

“Not that I necessarily feel safe, or understand what is going on, but there’s something very vivid and interesting here. I like a Faulkner quote from ‘The Wild Palms’: ‘Between grief and nothing, I take grief.’ I really like this. In New York, it’s never nothing. It’s sometimes grief but it’s never nothing.”

There’s something poetic, vibrant, and unpredictable about speaking with Keret; you never know where the ends of his sentences are going to project the conversation. One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, he has just published a collection of stories, “Fly Already” (Riverhead).

The last time we met two years ago, he had just published the memoir “Seven Good Years” about the interval of time between the birth of his son and the death of his beloved father, who had survived the Holocaust in hiding. That book was sad and very funny, in a Keret sort of way, and he seemed to still be mourning his father. 

“When my father died, I felt like I was the victim, that life had a hit-and-run accident with me. I was left bleeding, lying in the street. Now I feel his presence more than his absence.” He references the story in the new collection, “Dad with Mashed Potatoes,” about a father who leaves his family and then returns, as only his kids recognize, as a pet rabbit.

At home, Keret too has a pet rabbit. “When I write stories, my rabbit comes into my study and sits next to me. If I start writing email, he will leave in a minute. When I want to talk to my dad, I talk to my rabbit. I think that my father is with me, in a strange way.

“I always write my own story,” he says. “I’m growing older. I understand life around me less and less.”

For him, writing is more of a reflex than a conscious decision. He says, “I find myself sitting and writing and only notice that I’m writing when I’m in the middle of a story.”

Keret stories begin and end quickly; he creates a world in few pages. Writing with economy and magic, he has an ear for the way people talk to each other and don’t talk to each other. Very often, emotions, actions, and outcomes are different than expected. Things may get bad and then worse, and although Keret can break your heart, he can heal it, too.

Most of the 22 stories in “Fly Already” are set in and around Tel Aviv; one takes place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Among his characters are a cage cleaner for the Romanian circus when it is in town, who is dressed in silver overalls and about to become a human cannonball; a rich woman who helps a homeless man and feels so good about it that she creates an app for others to do the same; and a woman who can’t sleep, whose husband gets up in the middle of the night to smoke and add up his debts as their son dreams, while a goldfish comes out of the fishbowl, puts on the father’s slippers, and watches television without sound so as not to wake anyone up. And in the title story, a father who spots a man atop a building tries to get him not to jump, while his young son, convinced that the man is a superhero, encourages, “Fly Already.”

Keret gets at topics sideways, as he does with love and the loss of memory in “Windows,” where a man who can no longer remember much after an accident is left in a small, windowless apartment to recover and write down memories as they come back to the surface.

Some stories are translated by novelist Nathan Englander; others by noted Hebrew translators like Jessica Cohen and Sondra Silverston. Keret and Englander are friends and he recounts that when they were younger, and both had long hair, people confused the two when Keret would visit
New York.

He says that when he publishes his books in Israel, he gets lots of reactions from readers — there, taxi drivers ask about his characters; people argue with him when he sets stories outside Israel.

“It feels like showing my stories to neighbors or cousins. In the U.S., the perspective is more distant. It functions more like a book. Only the text is out there.”

Keret, 52, has received much acclaim, in Israel and abroad — his books have been published in 46 countries, in 41 languages — for his writing and filmmaking. His long list of honors includes the Prime Minister’s Prize (Israel), the Charles Bronfman Prize, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and Israel’s most prestigious literary award, the Sapir Prize, for “Fly Already” (published in Hebrew last year as “A Glitch at the End of the Galaxy”).

As part of this book tour, he attended the first American screening of “The Middleman,” a French television mini-series based on his stories, which he wrote and directed along with his wife, Shira Geffen. Set in Paris, it’s the story of a real estate agent who can travel in time. French actor Mathieu Amalric, who starred in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Grand Hotel Budapest,” “Munich,” and many other films, plays the agent. Keret and his brother have non-speaking roles as two Polish maintenance workers and his son plays the 10-year-old son of the real estate agent. Keret’s wife had a part, too, but she edited herself out.

“This is the thing I’m happiest with, from all the things I’ve done in my life,” Keret says. He’s hoping that the three-hour series, a French-Belgian co-production filmed in Paris and Belgium, will be picked up by American

“People always ask, ‘When are you going to write your novel?’ This is my novel, with help from my wife and Mathieu Amalric,” he says, adding, “It’s about the relationship of real estate and the human soul.”

“With my stories, I have many fragments of statements, like a collage. A story collection is like a ransom letter — I cut all those different letters and say something,” he says. Working on the television series felt like “something that is a complete statement, written in the same font.”

He’ll return to his Israel later this month, in time for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He spends the holidays with his wife, son, and friends, and he walks a lot in the streets.

His story “Ladder” takes place at this point in the calendar year, a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah. An angel in heaven named Zvi, whose job is raking clouds, feels only a limp sense of happiness about his existence. His previous job, in life, was a casualty assistance officer, responsible for letting families know that their loved one was dead. In heaven he’d prefer delivering messages, as the angels did to the biblical Sarah, but he’s told by Gabriel, his supervisor, that “We don’t do things like that anymore.”

Zvi says it’s not that he misses the world of the living, “just the people.” He feels like a failed angel: “Floating on an ocean of serenity yet missing the pull of the whirlpools and waves.” After a lot of time passes after his conversation with Gabriel — he can’t say how much as there are no clocks in heaven — he realizes he has improved himself, and he is the one put in charge of the garden tools. When he feels a sense of longing, he busies himself in organizing the tools. The story ends with a dream, a ladder, “the sweet, scorched smell of cake left in the oven too long,” and I leave the connecting threads for the reader to discover in the last pages.

Reading a lot of Keret is one way of preparing for the holidays. To read his stories is to see the world a bit differently, to see stories evolving in everyday moments, to begin to perceive the many surprising layers in the people we meet, to feel a bit more empathy.

Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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