Etgar Keret: Why I Will Never Leave Israel, Despite It All

One of Israel's leading authors explains why his provocative new book will not be published in Hebrew.

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Etgar Keret
Etgar KeretCredit: Kobi Kalmanovitz‬
Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Several days after my meeting with Etgar Keret, his wife – the writer and director Shira Geffen – was at the center of the type of scandal that happens these days in Israel when someone expresses an opinion that is too humanitarian. Geffen drew public criticism for having asked the audience who came to see her new film, “Self Made,” to stand for a moment’s silence in memory of the four children whom Israel mistakenly killed on a beach in Gaza ‬.‬‬

“‪I have a weird feeling,” Keret said, even before the incident at the film screening, “that we’ve already lived through almost every moment that we experience. We’ve been there already. There are always the same processes, the same junctions and always the same supposed solutions that lead nowhere. It’s less pleasant to make the same mistake for the 10th time. There’s an awfully obvious dynamic here, even at the point where we are in the operation. It’s obvious to all the people like Roni Daniel [a political TV commentator] and Yvet [Avigdor] Lieberman that no matter how much we bomb and kill, the moment we stop they’ll say, ‘Why are you stopping just when we were about to win?’ The militant way tells the biggest lie, which is, ‘It’s true that we didn’t agree to negotiate, it’s true that we went into the fight, but we could have reached an agreement and it’s all your fault, you horrible people, you left-wing trash! Bring us a baseball bat and we’ll clean their clocks – because you didn’t let us reach the Promised Land‬.’”‬‬

Do you ever think of leaving? There’s talk like that now‬.‬‬

“‪I’m a son of Holocaust survivors – not at the ideological level, but at the instinctive level. I watched my parents get up in the morning, rejoicing that they lived in a place where they were not persecuted for their origins and could speak in their own language. Where they could be a free people in our land [Keret is quoting from “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem]. Somehow, I absorbed that this was something really essential and important. My parents suffered a lot until they came to this place. Because of that, it’s hard for me, at the reflexive level, to even consider the idea of not living here‬.”‬‬

Keret, who was born in 1967, has been one of Israel’s most popular writers since 1992, when his first collection of short stories, “Pipelines,” was published. He was certainly the voice of a generation and became one of the most successful Israeli writers worldwide. His books have been translated into 30 languages, and Salman Rushdie said of him that he was the voice of the next generation.‬‬

As befits his generation, Keret does far more than write short stories. Over the years he has written screenplays, comic books and films (“Jellyfish,” which he directed together with his wife, won the 2007 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) and he always seems to be working on more than one project at a time.

For example, he has recently been working on two books. One of them, “Tel Aviv Noir,” coedited by Assaf Gavron, is being published in Hebrew now by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan. The second, “The Seven Good Years,” will not be published in Israel, but is already fifth on France’s best-seller list and has been published in Spain, Mexico, Slovakia and Turkey, and will be published in the United States in 2015‬.

“Tel Aviv Noir” is part of a global series of city-centric short stories that will also be published in English as well. The first collection of the series was published in 2004 under the title “Brooklyn Noir.” Since then, more than 30 short-story collections have been published throughout the world. “Tel Aviv Noir” is being published in the United States simultaneously with “Tehran Noir” (Akashic Books, October 2014). The Noir series includes stories featuring suspense, horror, detective fiction, the underworld, and dark or mysterious tales. Keret says that their brief was loose: “Anything that dealt with the more hidden and different sides, and that could go in many directions‬.”

In addition to Keret and Gavron, the writers whose stories appear in the anthology are Gadi Taub, Matan Hermoni, Lavie Tidhar, Deakla Keydar, Gon Ben Ari, Antonio Ungar, Shimon Adaf, Julia Fermentto, Yoav Katz, Alex Epstein and Gai Ad. When Keret was asked to edit the collection, he asked that Gavron be his coeditor‬.‬‬

He had additional demands. “I told them: Look, I get requests from lots of people who are doing anthologies. And then begins the journey deep into the hard drive – you start digging to find things that you didn’t really want to publish, or that you started and never finished, and it all starts giving off an odor of compromise and doing favors. Besides, almost every anthology I’ve seen of Israeli literature in the United States publishes the best-known names. It’s a kind of dynamic: People pick up the book thanks to the well-known writers who appear in it, but those authors don’t need an anthology‬.”‬

Keret wanted to go in the opposite direction. He asked that he not be pressured to bring in big names, and asked that the writers with whom he was going to work write stories specifically for the anthology. Gavron and Keret made no commitment to the authors that they would accept stories they didn’t like. “The best scenario is that we will publish a good book written by highly talented writers and maybe they will be discovered in the United States. That’s the story I tell myself to justify the fact that I’m getting mixed up in something that I don’t really know how to do‬.”‬‬

He likes the idea of being able to give unknown writers exposure in the States. “I often meet some publisher and tell him, ‘You know, I just read something really good.’ But the dynamics of publishing are such that people look for something that will be a proven success, and only then are they willing to think about whether they like it or not. I realized that telling someone ‘Go read a story’ wasn’t a trivial matter – particularly when you come from Israel, which is not the heart of the publishing world. ‬

“The advantage of this kind of anthology is that the critics can do the work for you. It’s enough that a critic likes a story and writes in the newspaper, focusing on that story – that’s something that actually can help‬.”‬

How was your dialogue with the writers‬?‬‬

“‪It’s hard to write about the dynamic with the editor of an anthology who tells you, ‘The ending is weak.’ Here, besides the pleasant relationship, the writers had such openness and people made really radical changes to their stories. It felt like a writers’ gathering or a workshop. The whole process had the added value of a hobby, and for a moment nobody felt like anyone just wanted to get the project done and move on‬.”‬‬

Is it hard for you to deal with your own editor’s critiques‬?‬‬

“‪I love being critiqued. I’m not always persuaded, but I’m not insulted. The relationship between the reader and the text is a unique one. It’s a dialogue, a meeting. I have many opportunities to sit down with people who tell me why my latest story is the best one I ever wrote or why it’s the worst. The most important thing in this dialogue is that somebody tells you something and you take it in and manage to do something with their comment. Sometimes, someone can say ‘I didn’t feel anything at the end,’ and I’ll tell myself that I have to change the middle because the middle doesn’t lead properly to the end‬.”‬‬

The world will probably like Keret’s new book, “The Seven Good Years.” It’s a collection of essays describing the seven years between the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, and the death of his father. Some of the stories appeared in newspapers overseas and others were written especially for the book‬.‬‬

Why isn’t the book being published in Hebrew‬?‬‬

“‪It contains highly intimate descriptions that have to do with my father’s illness and also with my son. After my father died, I had a strong need to write this book. But on the other hand, I’m also mature enough to know that something about this exposure could be unpleasant, particularly when you’re talking about your family‬.”‬‬

Are bad reviews in Israel more painful‬?‬‬

“‪Absolutely. In the [1983 version of the] film “Scarface,” the gangster played by Robert Loggia is teaching Al Pacino’s character how to be a drug dealer. He tells him that there’s one rule: Don’t get high on your own supply. My approach to reviews is very clear. If you believe them too much and take them too seriously when they are good, you are also forced to believe them when they’re bad. Sometimes you can learn something from a review and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes they make you happy, and sometimes they don’t. They definitely have an effect on the way the audience connects to the book. Reviews on their own don’t have influence, but the review my mother reads definitely does. And when the neighbor downstairs says in the elevator that he read it, then the buffer between public life and private life is a bit breached. And I’ve had things written about me that were extreme, for better and for worse. I have no problem with that – it’s been written about me that I’m developmentally delayed. I don’t say that I don’t mind, but when I look around, it seems that it matters less to me than it does to other authors‬.”‬‬

How does one of your stories come into being‬?‬‬

“‪The experience of writing fiction and nonfiction are very different. When I write stories, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the story. When you’re writing, you feel that you’re setting out on an adventure. But when you tell about something that happened to you in real life, you feel like you’ve gone on the adventure already and now you’re telling people about it. Unlike many other writers I know, I really enjoy writing. I love to write. You suddenly come and say, ‘Wow! Something’s been created that didn’t exist before.’ But that doesn’t exist with nonfiction, because the story already exists in the world. ‬

“I got the idea for this book when my father died. I had a kind of need – like a millionaire’s need to name a building in Tel Aviv University, or the cafeteria, after someone he loved. A kind of commemoration, but different. Writing was my way to distinguish between what I felt and how I would tell the story‬.”‬

At the same time, Keret has been working on another joint project with Shira Geffen. They were invited to work with the U.S. Pilobolus dance company on a joint dance work, entitled “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” that premiered this week in New York. “The story is about a family with parents, a baby and a grandfather, and there’s a daughter who pedals a bicycle. Her pedaling makes all the lights go on and makes the music play, and that makes everybody go about their lives. The moment she stops pedaling, the people melt‬.”‬‬

Keret says that his parents named him Etgar – “challenge” in Hebrew – “because giving birth to me was a challenge. I was born into a reality where the fact that I was alive was already a kind of wild success. So when my father woke up in the morning to see me jumping on the bed, saying, ‘Father, wake up,’ he was happy even if it was six o’clock in the morning. Besides that, it feels very nice to grow up that way. It also teaches you to love that situation. Today, my son gets up at six in the morning and wakes me up, and when he wakes me up I get up gladly. We can take a bicycle trip or go to the beach, or sit in a café and talk about something‬.‬

“‪Before my son was born, I was a person who was awake at night. I always said that the night was the prime time of the soul. There are no telephone calls, it’s not hot, there’s no noise, nobody interrupts you. I wrote all my books at night, but when my son was born all of that turned upside down. Writing is a need, but it’s always clear to me that life is more important than writing. If you ask me what I would like people to say about me after I die – that I was a good writer, or a good father, good husband, good son or a good man – I would like them to say the other things. I’d also be happy if they said I was a good writer, but I know that life is more important‬.”‬‬

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