Even Etgar Keret Was Surprised He Won Israel's Most Prestigious Literary Prize

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Israeli writer Etgar Keret, January 2019.
Israeli writer Etgar Keret, January 2019.Credit: מגד גוזני
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

A few minutes before his father’s funeral was due to begin, Etgar Keret was called in to a side room at the cemetery. According to the usual procedure, he was supposed to formally identify the body covered with a sheet, but then the Hevra Kadisha (burial society) worker who led him there discovered that a second worker who was supposed to be there had left the room. Keret was left on his own for a couple of minutes and, as happens to him sometimes, especially at highly emotional moments, he was swept away by an imaginary vision – a hallucination that felt very real.

“When he went to call the other guy, I pictured him returning, pulling down the sheet, asking ‘Is this your father?’ – and me saying, ‘No.’ Then he gets a stern look on his face and starts yelling at the other guy ‘You idiot!’ And then I say, ‘Hey, I was just kidding. It is my father. Excuse me, it’s because I'm overwhelmed by grief.’ And then we go to the funeral and afterward I take my sister aside and I tell her, ‘Listen, that’s not Dad there,’ and she says, ‘So where is Dad?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know. Not dead.’”

His train of thought was interrupted when the missing worker entered the room and pulled down the sheet – and Keret identified his father. Six years later, that moment yielded a new literary effort.

Last week, Keret was awarded the Sapir Prize for his book “A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy” (Kinneret Zmora Bitan, in Hebrew) – a prestigious annual literary award sponsored by the Mifal Hapayis lottery, that comes with a grant of 150,000 shekels ($40,562) and translation of the winning book from Hebrew to Arabic and another language of the author’s choice. But the truth is that right now Keret is busy editing the television show that he and his wife Shira Geffen have created for the French-German ARTE network (“It’s a comedy that evolves into a drama, becomes a thriller, goes to sci-fi and ends up as a fairy tale”), which was filmed over the past months in Belgium and France.

The series, Keret says, is about a failed real estate agent who engages in time travel after his father’s death and gets legal advice from his goldfish. That setup may sound very “Keret-like” – i.e., way out there but somehow possible in his world, which cannot be judged – but it does have a basis in reality.

Israeli writer Etgar Keret, January 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

Keret: “When my father died, he left my mother about one-sixth of a building for which a demolition order had been issued. Something complicated, not worth a lot of money and involving lots of bureaucracy – not something I had the talent or ability to deal with. Everything connected to this building terrified me. I was really bummed out whenever I had to go there. It was a nightmare. They’d call me mean nicknames – ‘Here comes the professor.’ Writing and academia are a way to get away from life, to avoid friction with the world, and then suddenly there was all this aggravation and people and legal stuff to deal with.”

You had to deal with real estate matters?

“I had to go there and a lot of the conversations started with: 'How could someone like your dad have had such a dumb loser for a son?' That’s how it starts, and then the rest would be, ‘Let me tell you something: Your father once came here five years ago…’ and then they’d tell me a great story about my dad. It was as if we’d made a deal: I would go there, they’d dump on me, whatever I wanted to do was wrong, I am supposed to seem threatening or like I understood this stuff and everyone sees that’s not the case – but in the end I get a story. In some way, my father remains alive. A person dies but he is still alive inside you and echoes off all the walls – and suddenly there’s a kind of connection between real estate and time travel.”

Does your book also have to do with this new reality, the experience of losing a parent?

“The book has to do with me being 50 and all the processes that I see speeding up in the world around me. When I was growing up, an ATM was revolutionary – you could take out money in the middle of the night. Now everything’s changing and every week there’s another precedent, something new in technology, or politically and socially. It’s all going to unexpected places and there’s a general feeling of disorientation. Wait, you mean it’s okay for the prime minister to incite against the police and the judicial authorities? It’s okay for the president of the United States to lie? That’s fine from now on? And if someone is unethical, he has to resign? Uhhh, no, only if what he did was illegal? And wait, we’re all brothers, right? Oh, I see, not brothers, the leftists should be burned…

"When I was growing up in Ramat Gan, the rules were clear. You don’t go to friends’ houses between 2 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. On Tuesday afternoon, everything is closed. Now all relationships are hazy and there’s a feeling of chaos and semi-anarchy. The book is about this disorientation and confusion. Good things happen, but everything has bad implications too.”

Etgar Keret speaking at the Sapir Prize ceremony, on Monday, January 21, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

'I didn’t think I’d win'

Keret, 51, has been a prominent author — in Israel and abroad — ever since the publication of his first book, “Pipelines,” in 1992. He has published 15 books, including children’s books and comic books, and his work has been translated into dozens of languages. Salman Rushdie called him “the voice of the next generation”; he has been honored for his contribution to arts and literature in France and other countries; a Polish artist built the “Keret House” in Warsaw – the world’s narrowest house; and a recent Dutch documentary about him won an international Emmy. He and Geffen, both separately and together, are nearly always involved in various artistic endeavors, from movies to choreographed works inspired by his stories, and so on.

In Israel, he has not been showered with acclaim and prizes to the same extent as abroad. The Sapir Prize is the first important literary award he has received here, and even in this case there was some grumbling from the local literary world, where collegiality is not always in abundance. But all that flies over Keret’s head, or at least he acts like it does.

He is very pleasant and funny to talk to, and even when the conversation takes an emotional turn, you always sense a comic moment right around the corner. Right as he greets me, he kicks off his shoes, puts on plaid bedroom slippers, gets down on his knees in search of the rabbit he's adopted and doesn’t miss an opportunity to laugh at himself – even when asked if he thought he’d win the Sapir.

“I’m very happy that I won, but I didn’t think I’d win. I so didn’t think I’d win that when they went up on stage with the envelope, the thought that went through my head was: I see the cameras are trained on the nominees so should I be applauding while sitting or standing when they announce the winner? One the one hand, it’s natural to stand, but who knows – I might be the only one standing. I’ll look too eager.”

Whom did you bet on?

“On Yael Neeman. When I went to that evening, not only did I suddenly win, and not only was I a nominee who hadn’t been ruled out at some earlier stage, but I’d never been to an event like that. I don’t know about this kind of thing, but it was a very pleasant experience.”

It’s been said, in Haaretz too, that you’re less appreciated in Israel because we hate successful types – and that’s what you are.

“I don’t understand the establishment. I don’t really know what awards there are, my general lack of familiarity with it extends to that too. On the personal level, I’ve always felt support and encouragement. Maybe because I write short stories so I’m not perceived as threatening anyone.”

Short stores aren’t perceived as serious literature here.

“That’s so true. But also, there’s something about my personality or my presence. I don’t have the presence of an important person. I have something to say and I’m stubborn, but I don’t feel like I’m ‘from there.’ I know most of the [Israeli] writers, I love many of them and have good relationships with people, but if a writer is also supposed to be some kind of intellectual or spiritual leader – I’m sort of the opposite of the typecast. When you’re a writer, supposedly you should bring with you this whole package of respectability, of eminence. But that’s off-putting.”

Etgar Keret speaking at the Sapir Prize ceremony, on Monday, January 21, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

What do you mean?

“Writing is a desire for intimacy. I want to feel close to the reader. With all the respectability, there’s something distancing you, that keeps the reader from being able to relate. At least that’s how I feel. Sometimes I speak in America at all sorts of gatherings – in the Jewish community, at a university, events with lots of people. It’s happened to me more than once that the person introducing me says something to the audience like, ‘You’re in for a very special evening. You’re going to hear a unique voice that will make you laugh and move you and entertain you.’”

Which gives you stage fright.

“I always feel like it’s hard to talk with the people after that. Most of the important experiences in my life weren’t defined as important from the start. There are no warnings of importance before an important experience. I always feel that I was one step to the side – both in terms of how I write and how I speak. When I would meet Amos Oz, I always felt that if I could give him my kid and he could raise him for five years, he’d come back to me a very sharp thinker – less spoiled, more moral. I have no doubt. I came from the dynasty of Bashevis Singer and Kafka, people I wouldn’t leave my kid with even when I go to the bathroom. Flawed writers whose talent is to illuminate their weaknesses and who have so many weaknesses that they could keep writing about it for 70 years.”

Feeling out of control

“A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy,” Keret’s sixth short story collection (edited by Hila Blum, with assistance from Hamutal Gur), may be his darkest effort to date. In one story, a widowed father and his young son try – and fail – to save a man who is threatening to kill himself. In another, an older man keeps a compressed block of metal in his living room that was once the Mustang his father was driving when he had a fatal crash. And in a third story, a man wants to take his Holocaust-survivor mother to an escape room on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust, a subject that's often found in Keret’s stories, makes another appearance in a story about a Hitler clone who was created to be killed by a Holocaust survivor. The problem is, the cloned Fuehrer isn’t aware of any of this. He hasn’t actually done anything and dreams of being free one day.

In “The Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy,” reality is absurd or frightening or capricious and ever-changing. The very short story that concludes the collection, “The Evolution of Separation,” is a dark gem, a modern Ecclesiastes eulogizing culture, families and humankind.

The cover of the book “A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy” that won Etgar Keret the Sapir PrizeCredit: Etgar Keret

The sadness that was always present in the background in your writing is more conspicuous in this last book. The naïve expectation of a better future has given way to a certain despair about the world.

“For me, writing has always been a source of hope and encouragement. The hope of the condemned – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation is good. What I’m looking for in writing is confirmation that human compassion exists and that people aren’t evil and stupid. They’re scared and they seal themselves off and there’s something underneath that can be and must be reached. Even if it leads to somewhere that's not good, we can still learn something and feel something from it.

“There’s something in this book, the intensity of the feelings in the story is high. In that sense, there is great violence and great hardships, but underneath all those things there is a human compassion whose very existence is a victory. It’s being able to not become totally alienated from the world. Not to say that it’s a mistake, that people are bad, but rather, ‘Something’s not going right here, but maybe it still can’ – that there’s this thing that I believe exists in human beings.”

Keret says he isn’t writing anything at present. He puts out a book about once every seven years or so, and right now, even with all the attention that is coming his way due to the Sapir Prize, he’s busy with other projects. The Cameri Theater is staging a play based on one of his books; the ARTE show is due to air at the end of the year (and will star French actor Mathieu Amalric); Molly Ringwald is narrating a short animated film based on his story “The Evolution of Separation”; and potential collaborations with American film and television companies are also in the works.

At the Sapir Prize ceremony, in the video introducing you and your book, you said that you write a story for yourself, to find out how it ends, and that you’re not thinking about the readers then.

“The story about the man who leaps from the building – I really remember this experience that he runs up the stairs, kicks the door and you understand that the man has jumped. I remember myself writing, ‘He kicks the door. The roof is empty,’ and I was a wreck at that moment, I nearly cried. As if, when I wrote ‘He kicks the door,’ I didn’t know that the roof would be empty. When I write a story, the feeling is of something running in the room and it’s so fast that I can’t see what it is and I catch it by the tail and it drags me along. It’s an experience of being out of control. When I’m writing stories it’s like I’m waking up in a room that’s unfamiliar, opening a door and hoping that in the living room there will be a beautiful, understanding woman, and when I open it sometimes there’s a wolf there that wants to devour me. It’s like dreaming a dream.”  

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