From My Bookshelf: Fiction by Etgar Keret

Confession: I frequently read, admire, and link to Israeli author Etgar Keret’s nonfiction/essays (particularly his columns for Tablet), but I haven’t always been as comfortable with Keret’s fiction. I read The Nimrod Flipout when its U.S. publisher sent me a review copy of the English translation several years back (2006), and although I understood what the fuss was about–Keret is one prodigiously talented, not to mention prolific writer–my own reading tastes just don’t hunger for the sheer strangeness–call it experimentalism, fabulism, magical realism, whatever–that seemed to characterize the collection.

Moreover, back then–around the time of the Second Lebanon War–my nascent interest in attempting to understand contemporary Israel through its literature was intensifying. There was so much about Israel that I, a Diaspora Jew, needed to learn (this remains all too true six years later). Keret’s fables and flash fictions didn’t seem to engage with the seriousness of what the Israelis call hamatzav— “the situation,” namely, the pervasive conflict that suffuses life in their country. It occurred to me only hazily (if at all) that this was a selfish indulgence of my Diaspora self; living within “the situation,” Keret could certainly be excused from spending still more time with it in his fiction.

But last week, a review-essay on The Millions caught my eye. Titled “The Maturation of Etgar Keret” and written by Bezalel Stern, it captivated me. And it sent me hurrying to add two new volumes to my bookshelf: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (Keret’s latest book to be released in English, with translations by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston) and Four Stories, a slim collection I’ll address in greater detail shortly.

First, I have to tell you more about Stern’s essay-review. Stern reminds us that Keret “made his name by writing very short, often proto-fantastical stories with a whimsical yet often tragic tone.” The stories’ protagonists tended to be “children or teenagers…or young lovers who would as soon contemplate jumping off a roof as settling down and having kids.” The new collection “encapsulates the tenor of much of the best of Keret’s short fiction: The striving to chronicle the human situation, to get beyond the partisan politics, anger, and fear of the contemporary Middle East even while struggling (knowingly struggling) within those constraints.”

But some things have changed, as Keret’s own life–he is now a married father in his mid-forties–has changed. And the stories in Suddenly, Stern tells us, have also changed. Now, they “largely revolve around aging couples, parents with children, miserable husbands and wives (or, in some cases, ex-husbands and wives), men obsessed not with scoring attractive mates for a night but with the stock market, particularly with the rise and fall of the Israeli stocks on NASDAQ.” Keret, writes Stern, “has grown up.”

I am a mere two years younger than Keret, and perhaps that helps explain why a more “mature” perspective and focus might appeal to me. But there’s something else that’s new in this work–something that attracts me, even if Stern doesn’t necessarily share my enthusiasm: “What surprised (and, indeed, frightened) me most about these new stories, is how directly a number of them deal with hamatzav.” And even if these stories “are fuller, more mature, than what came before, they also,” in Stern’s view, “lose something in the explicit acknowledgment of the external world. There was something nice, something calming, about picking up [an earlier Keret collection] and knowing that you would not encounter a terrorist.”

Stern’s essay should be read in its entirety–I am not doing it justice here, nor am I conveying fully how it helped reorient me toward Keret’s fiction and rekindle my interest in reading it. And if you follow this advice, you may end up following my example, too: I was so impressed by Stern’s unpacking of one of Keret’s earlier stories, “Siren,” that in addition to buying the new book, I purchased Four Stories simply because Stern made it clear that “Siren” could be found within.

“Siren” is, indeed, an extraordinary story, one that I know I will reread many times. But what I didn’t fully appreciate when I ordered my copy of Four Stories was this: The super-slim volume (a booklet, really) was published as part of a Syracuse University series, The B.G. Rudolph Lectures in Judaic Studies.

Keret delivered his Rudolph Lecture in October 2009. He was introduced by George Saunders, whose comments are reprinted in the booklet and compose one of the loveliest introductions I’ve ever encountered–and I’ve attended my share of events that include author introductions. A brief excerpt: “Etgar’s stories are a reminder of that rude intangible that often goes unspoken in creative writing workshops: a great work of art is often just residual evidence of a great human soul. There is sweetheartedness and wisdom and eloquence and transcendence in his stories because these exist in abundance in Etgar himself.”

And then there’s the lecture, in which Keret discusses  something he had not addressed much in all the years he was writing and publishing before that visit to Syracuse: his identity as the son of Holocaust survivors. As a part of the “Second Generation.”

I was glued to this text, especially because Keret begins it by explaining his reluctance to identify with–indeed, his rejection of–the “second generation” label. And then, as he explained more and more of his family history, and described his parents, and closed his remarks with a poignant vignette, I was smitten. (I’m deliberately leaving things a little vague so that, if you choose, you can have an “unspoiled” reading experience.)

Between absorbing Bezalel Stern’s essay-review and reading the Four Stories booklet, I haven’t yet found sufficient time to dive into Suddenly, A Knock on the Door. But you can bet that I will do so. Soon.

Update: After she saw this post, a kindly publicist for the Macmillan audio version of Keret’s new collection contacted me and suggested that I add this audio clip of Ira Glass reading the title story from Keret’s new collection. And so I have!

5 thoughts on “From My Bookshelf: Fiction by Etgar Keret

  1. Carol says:

    I had the same reaction to the Nimrod Flipout but a Tablet essay he published this winter opened me up to him. I’m looking forward to this book. Great post.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Carol, I know what you mean. The Tablet essays are terrific.

  2. Barbara Baer says:

    very happy that your blog reached me somehow, don’t know who sent it, and that you re-interest me in Keret…I’ve only read reviews and didn’t look for the books probably because the stories sounded so different from the Israeli writers I’m devoted to, Grossman, Oz, Yehoshua–the very serious, sometimes ponderous but wonderful novelists. Thanks

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks for sharing your comment, Barbara. I’m glad that the blog reached you, too!

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