If a German Writer Wrote Like Etgar Keret, He’d Be Booted Out of Town

But when the writer comes from outside, from the realms of the Third World, the lay reader in Europe thinks to himself: What fun! Why don’t our fossilized old authors write with in that kind of fun style?

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Keret, left, with Amos Oz. Thanks to his style, Tel Aviv's landlords can demand thousands of shekels rent for fleabags. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

At a certain point in the career of successful writers, they take one small step too many toward the edge of the cliff they’re standing on. They trip and – oh! Maybe a sprained ankle. They bend down to find out what’s causing the sharp pain, giving those behind them an opportunity to give them a light kick in the posterior. And the slide down the slippery slope begins. Slowly. At first it’s not even felt. They hold on tight with the fingernails. But for how long?

That's when I heard (no one tells me anything in this house) that writer Etgar Keret is extraordinarily admired in Poland and that a house – a museum, actually – was established in his name in the heart of Warsaw, on the site of the former Jewish ghetto there. Here is the very embodiment of the era of globalization and postmodernism. The writer is no longer the “landscape of his homeland,” as poet Shaul Tchernichovsky once wrote, but the landscape of the image of a mischievous fellow – or the mischievous, nonbinding composite of images he creates for himself. In this specific case: the image of the urban Ashkenazi Israeli of Polish-Holocaust origin, who has returned home to that place, as it were, but who also remains in Israel, as it were, and who is ostensibly hesitant about what and who he is, but can also be decisive when the need arises.

I – like Thomas Mann (no comparison intended), who when asked if he’d already read Hemingway, replied, “I am still on Tacitus” – am not into fashion trends. I am still on Francois Mauriac and Andre Gide, and it will take me some time yet to be impressed by the play-dumb childish style of Etgar Keret.

Already a decade ago, a witty Berlin friend summed up the Etgar Keret phenomenon for me like this: If a German or European writer were to write like Keret, he’d be booted out of town and told that the writing was utter kitsch. But when the writer comes from outside, from the realms of the Third World, the lay reader in Europe thinks to himself: Wallah! What fun! Why don’t our fossilized old authors write with in that kind of fun style?

That’s the advantage of belonging to a culturally virginal place like Israel: You build a stylistic start-up by degrees. Let’s call it “Tel Aviv Seinfeld” style. First you try it out on the natives, then you sell it to the world, and you’re set for life. Hundreds of natives try to imitate your style, but they don’t achieve the same level of precision in mixing Seinfeldian New York with Tel Aviv.

Not long ago, at a dinner of intellectuals in Paris with French Academy member Angelo Rinaldi, who is considered the pope of literary criticism there, Etgar Keret came up in conversation. The PR woman of a certain publishing house related that a writer had complained to her that the publisher wasn’t promoting his books properly in France and that he was considering a move to a competitor. The elderly Rinaldi asked: Who was it? “Keret, Keret,” the PR woman told him. Rinaldi had never heard the name before, and went back to talking about how angry he had been at Francois Mauriac for not having had the courage to come out of the closet.

We have the feeling that we and our literature are at the center of the world. We also think that we have successfully upgraded the image of Tel Aviv and branded it such that despite its ugliness, nothingness and filth, it’s considered something more than what it really is. One of those responsible for the imaginary upgrade of Tel Aviv to a sort of mischievous New York is Etgar Keret and his Cameri Quintet television skits, and the young and supposedly biting “Tel Aviv style” he’s created. From this point of view, he’s an asset to the city’s landlords. Thanks to this style, which is hovering in the air, they can demand thousands of shekels rent for fleabags in which herds of nave young people, misled into believing in false images, hope to live in the style of a character from an Etgar Keret story or skit or screenplay.

Last week I was sitting with a young German writer who is in love with Tel Aviv, at a hummus place on the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall. He too admitted that he is slowly discovering how neglected and dirty and expensive Tel Aviv is, and how far it is from the image to which it pretends. He told me he has discovered Warsaw. It’s the new, big thing. I told him next time he’s there he should visit the house – museum – of Etgar Keret.

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