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The Borders of Language: An Interview with Etgar Keret

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Etgar Keret in Florence, Italy, 2016. Photograph by Jessie Chaffee.

Etgar Keret is a fiction and nonfiction writer, graphic novelist, and playwright from Israel. He is the author of several short story collections, including The Girl on the Fridge and The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God, and the memoir The Seven Good Years. His work has been translated into thirty-seven languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, among many other publications.

He gave the keynote lecture, entitled “Stories We Tell,” at the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, Italy. I caught up with him the day after the lecture to discuss storytelling, politics, and the borders of language.

Word Without Borders (WWB): In your lecture, you spoke about the importance of storytelling in your childhood and your own early stories as a writer. Can you speak a bit about that history and your relationship to storytelling? 

Etgar Keret (EK): I think that for me there is something about storytelling—it has this feeling of intimacy. The closest that I can find to it in the world is the idea of friendship. There is also something misleading and maybe deluding about this because it’s not symmetrical—when somebody reads my stories, he may know me, but I don’t know him as well. I came from a town in which I didn’t know any artists. So I was a reader, but for me there was a gap between being a reader and being a writer. It seemed like people were born writers—they were kind of stamped as “writers” at birth or were being raised to be writers—but they were not people I knew. So, basically when I started writing, every time I would write a story, I would print out three copies of my story and give one to my brother and two to my best friends, and this would be the entire print run for years.

When I published my first book, it sold 800 copies. And whenever I would give interviews, I would say, “And my book sold 800 copies.” And at some stage my publicist called me and said, “Please stop staying that, because it’s really embarrassing.” And I said to her, “Why?” And she said to me, “800 copies is very little.” And I said, “No, no, no. It’s a lot!” And she said to me, “What do you mean it’s a lot?” And I said, “You know, I went to an elementary school in which there were 520 students, and I didn’t know all of them by name. So it’s even more than that—so it’s a lot.”

It’s strange because I think we live in a world in which an artist is a public figure and everything is measured in a capitalistic way. One of my friends is a very successful author, and he felt that a book that he’d published “didn’t sell well,” as he said, and when I asked him how many readers the book had, he said that it only had a couple of hundred thousand. And I realized that there is some kind of a reflex that we have to measure things, to make a comparison. But when it comes to sharing an emotion, it’s not an Olympic competition. Whenever I write a story, I imagine a big hall with people sitting in it, reading it together, and it always seems a lot.

He says, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Do you have any proof of that?”

WWB: Was there a moment in which you felt that you became a “writer,” that you could claim it as an identity?

EK: The truth is that I still don’t feel I’m a writer, in the sense that when I have to write my occupation, I always write “professor.” In William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, he describes a moment in which he reaches this roadblock, and they say to him, “What is your name?” He says, “William Burroughs,” and they say, “What is your occupation?” He says, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Do you have any proof of that?” And he thinks and then takes a pen out and says, “I carry a writing device.” And I think there’s something about it that tells the entire story. Because if you say you’re a carpenter, and somebody says, “No, you’re not,” then you can construct a chair. And if someone sits on it and it doesn’t break, then you’re a carpenter.

But when you’re a writer, I think it’s something that only other people can decide. It’s like people telling you that they’re “spontaneous” or that they’re “kind.” You can’t say that about yourself, only other people can say that about you. For me, writing is an action—sometimes I’m able to do it and sometimes I can’t do it. And when it happens, I’m a “writer,” and when it doesn’t, I’m not. My son sometimes says to me: “Father, can you do me a favor? Be funny.” And I say to him, “It doesn’t work this way.” I don’t believe that there are funny people; I believe that there are people who are sometimes funny. It is something that exists in the moment.

WWB: You’ve written in different forms—short stories, children’s books, plays, screenplays, song lyrics. What has it been like working in different mediums and how do you decide on the form that a narrative will take?

EK: I think that by reflex, I’m a writer—that’s the thing that’s most natural to me. But at the same time, I’m a very social person, and there is this kind of great solitude to being a writer. When I started writing, I had a day job, and at some stage, I became successful, so it seemed like I had to quit my day job. And I reached this position where all my friends would go to work, and I would sit at home, supposedly writing about human beings, but I was in a room, you know? And I would go to have coffee to speak with the waiter or I would start asking people things in the street to have some kind of human interaction.

So I think that I’m always attracted to storytelling forms that allow for some kind of collaboration, and that also creates a challenge because they take you outside of your comfort zone. When you write the lyrics for songs, you learn much more about writing in meter. The latest project that I did with my wife was for a dance, and it was the first time I had to tell stories without using words and dialogue. When I worked on film, I suddenly became aware of the idea of mise en scène, because when you write a story, there is dialogue and there is space and there are people who perform actions, but you never ask yourself, “Is this guy sitting, or is he standing?” So I feel that whenever I go and work with people, I kind of learn from them personally, first of all, but I also learn from the medium something else that I bring back to my writing. It’s like if writing fiction is the love of my life, I go out into the world, and sometimes I return with flowers, and sometimes I return with chocolate. I’m able to bring something new to the relationship.

Image: Etgar Keret delivers the keynote lecture in the Pazzi Chapel at the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori. Photograph by Jessie Chaffee.

WWB: Your most recent book, The Seven Good Years, is a memoir. Was there a reason that you shifted to memoir at that particular moment in your life and career?

EK: When I began writing, the idea of nonfiction seemed to me like an unnecessary constraint. Why write about things as they are when you can tell them as they could be? It’s enough that we’re constrained by gravity and illness. Why should we write about that when our imagination can to take us as far as we want? Having said that, memoirs even seem trickier in the sense that if you want to learn anything about anybody, the last person who you should ask is that person. If you go to a store and the owner says, “My products are the best,” you don’t believe him because he’s anything but objective, you know? I think if you told me even ten years ago that I would write a memoir, it would seem to me really silly. It would make as much sense as if you said I would open a frozen yogurt place.

The way that I always dealt with reality was that whenever I would be moved, I would transform the emotion into some kind of an allegory. So I could say to you, “I feel like an anorexic elephant on a culinary trip to Florence.” And I would write a story about that elephant, and that would be me. But I think the first time I was unable to do that was when my son was born during a terrorist attack, which is the opening chapter of my book. I was so overwhelmed when I sat down to write—I was trying to think what is this like?, and it was like nothing. My imagination was unfunctional in that moment. And that was the first time I wrote memoir—I wrote that piece and I remember I had such a strong resistance to writing about myself and my life that I convinced myself that the only reason I was doing it was that my son would read it when he’s older. (Now he’s ten—he’ll never read it.) But at the time, it was the reason to do it.

I have never kept a diary in my life, and so when I would write those pieces I would sometimes publish them somewhere just out of some kind of need of justification, so that I would feel that there was a reason for what I was doing. But I never thought I’d make a book out of it. And it was only when my father was dying that I had this kind of urge—which was very childish, I think. Sometimes when you’re a kid, you want to tell the other kids that “My father is stronger than your father.” So there was this kind of urge to tell the world about my father. And I think the logic behind this book was that it was supposed to be a kind of a literary tombstone for my father and the values that he sees in family.

And I must say that when I approached my publishers with the book, I was apologetic. I was so convinced that this was a strange and personal and uncommercial book, that I think that while I was asking them to publish it, I convinced them that it would be a failure. My agent said, “Please do me a favor: don’t speak before we sign a contract.” Because I felt on the one hand that it was a necessity to publish it, but on the other hand, I had such a strong belief that nobody would want to read it. And strangely I think that it became—I wouldn’t say it became my greatest success, but it succeeded in reaching a kind of public that I was never able to reach with fiction, both because I write short fictions and this is the only work that I have written that feels like a novel because you continue with the characters and it creates an arc; and also because it is the first thing I wrote which was overtly Israeli. I think that Israel was always in the background of my stories, but with this book, the reality of compulsory army service and the recent attacks and the terrorist bombing and the fear of genocide and the Holocaust—all those things that are very deeply engrained in the psyche of Israel were there in the open.

If writing fiction is the love of my life, I go out into the world, and sometimes I return with flowers, and sometimes I return with chocolate. I’m able to bring something new to the relationship.

WWB: Do you consider yourself to be a political writer?

I think it’s good to want your work to have a political effect. But it can’t be the purpose of your writing. I always feel that the dialogue with the reader should be ambiguous enough so that you give the reader space to take the story in many ways. The truth is that in Israel I’m very known—famous or infamous, it depends who you ask—for my left-wing, liberal political views because I write essays and op-eds. I once published in a newspaper a story called “Cocked and Locked” about an IDF soldier in the Territories, and the editor showed me two letters that he got: one said “we’ve had enough of these bleeding heart, self-hating, left-wingers”; and the other letter said that this was “a fascist, right-wing, racist text.”

This is the kind of dialogue I want to have with my reader. I want them to think and rethink and take a position. But I’m not teaching them a lesson. I wrote a story called “Crazy Glue” about a couple in a relationship that is falling apart. You know they used to have a Crazy Glue commercial with this guy glued from the ceiling? In the story, the couple argue about this commercial, but they’re really talking about their relationship. When the man comes home from work, he finds that his wife is naked, glued to the ceiling by the soles of her feet. And suddenly he falls in love with her again. And he stands on a bunch of books and kisses her, and then he feels the books are falling, and he finds himself hanging in the air, held only by her lips. The story was adapted to a few short films, and the amazing thing was that one of them was a romantic comedy, and the other was a horror film. And I felt that both those readings by the directors were totally legitimate, because it was about what most relationships are like in real life—both amazing and scary.

I don’t like the phrase “political writer,” because it always seems that there’s something very pragmatic about politics. “Political” comes from the word “polis,” city, and it’s about how you use the resources of the city. Should we have a bigger square? Should we have a sewer system? And people argue about those very pragmatic things. While I think that the power of literature is in the fact that it’s not pragmatic. There’s nothing pragmatic you can do with a book—you can’t cut bread with it, you can’t dig a hole with it, and at least my books are not good weapons because they’re very thin. But I think that’s what makes books omnipotent, you know?

When I write a story, my enemy is not fascism or racism. My enemy is the force of inertia. What I want to do is to confuse my readers enough so they’ll be in an authentic place. And if they’re authentically assholes, then let them be assholes, but I don’t want them to just go through the motions, you know? If life is kind of an obsessive-compulsive behavior, I say a good story is a slap in your face. So that is what I aim for. And for me there’s a huge difference between writing fiction, nonfiction, or an op-ed. I don’t have the same feeling when I sit down to write them. The truth is that when I write fiction I feel like I’m levitating, I feel like I’m weightless, I feel like I’m winning for myself and for humanity, loving the world, you know? When I write an op-ed it feels very much for me like doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. It’s kind of a chore that I have to do as a human being and as a citizen. So I don’t even put them in the same category.

WWB: But regardless of the category, you always want to leave space for your reader—you imagine that there’s a reaction, or a dialogue in which they’re participating?

EK: Well the fascinating thing about an op-ed is that I think it always tries to push you in a certain direction. And so for me, it’s kind of a reduction of literature, which is all about ambiguity. An op-ed is in the end more about saying “do this.” I try to do it in a way that is less overt and that tries not to alienate my so-called enemies. Many times I start my op-eds from a linguistic point of view, and one piece I wrote which got me a lot of bad responses was about how I asked people in my country to stop using the word “peace” and to replace it with the word “compromise,” because I think that there is something about the war in the Middle East that people tend to see it as a force of nature—you know, when there’s a rainy day, what can you do? You buy an umbrella, you wait for the weather to change—but wars are man-made. In Israel, we have a culture in which we feel that we should pray for peace. But the wars are totally in our jurisdiction. The moment you use the word compromise, instead, you assume responsibility. And you also agree to the fact that you have to give up something to get it. So I feel that compromise is a more effective word.

When I write, I always try to help people to rethink rather than just saying to them, “You’re wrong.” But when you live in a place where people feel that their existence is threatened, then many times they see even this idea of rethinking or empathy as some kind of a luxury. They feel like they’re on the Titanic, and empathizing or using their imagination or rethinking is like putting a heavy piano on the sinking ship—they just want to throw everything overboard. They feel that seeing something another way will be the microsecond hesitation that the gunslinger has that gets him shot. It’s funny how many times I’ve encountered people who see an attempt for empathy as an act of treason, as some kind of a sabotage in the fortitude of the walls that are defending us.

And I keep saying the only way you can truly win an ongoing battle is to fight for a worthy cause. So if you feel that you gain a few points by not acknowledging the pain and the suffering that you are causing to people around you, you lose much more by basically losing the more extended struggle together.

They feel like they’re on the Titanic, and empathizing or using their imagination or rethinking is like putting a heavy piano on the sinking ship—they just want to throw everything overboard.

WWB: Do you read your work in other languages, and do you have a sense of what your writing is like in other languages?

Only in English. I think too many people think about translation as if the content of your work is some kind of liquid, and when you translate it, you spill it from one glass to another. But as Wittgenstein said, the borders of the world are the borders of our language, and languages act in different ways. So I think not only cultural connotations can get lost but also the true nature of your story. For example, in Israel we don’t have an “it” form. Everything is masculine or feminine. So I have a story where in which a real estate agent is trying to sell an apartment to a woman who is divorcing her husband because she found out he’s cheating on her. And as he shows her the apartment, he gradually realizes that she didn’t innocently come to him. She came to him because he had rented the lab next to her husband, so while he’s trying to make a sale, she’s fine trying to find out things about her husband’s young lover. At one point she asks him, “Is she beautiful?” He says to her, “Not only is she beautiful, but you’ll have your own parking,” because in Hebrew, an apartment is “she.” And this moment really shows the power struggle between the characters. Now English doesn’t allow for that. So when you when you write it in English, you have to rewrite it.

I see my translators as cowriters, and I always talk about how translators don’t get the respect that they need. Translators are like ninjas—the only time you notice them is when they’re not good. When a person is reading a good translation, they have an illusion of intimacy with the writer and say, “Well, this guy is a genius.” But when something doesn’t work, they say, “Who translated it? It doesn’t seem to work.” I’ve been in situations where there were things that readers complained about in different languages, and they blamed the translator, but they were actually in the text. It’s this kind of good cop, bad cop separation: the talent and imagination go with the writer, and the complaints go with the translator. The most amazing translators that I have are able to rewrite my stories in ways that they can be read so naturally in their languages that when I come to those countries, people insist on speaking to me in that language. You know, because they don’t believe I can’t. Because they’ve heard me speak about my mom in Norwegian, it can’t be that I don’t speak Norwegian.

Read more dispatches from the 2016 Festival degli Scrittori.

Read Etgar Keret’s work on WWB:

Published Jul 20, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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