It’s no wonder that when Etgar Keret’s name is mentioned, the literary adjectives abound. Post-modern, fabulist, surrealist, subversive. But first and foremost, Keret loves all things Hebrew and Israeli. His ardor was in evidence at a recent appearance at Brookline Booksmith where he discussed his new book, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.”
“My parents never read books to me; they made up stories,” Keret said to the standing-room-only crowd. “Reading from a book is what a lazy parent would do.”
Keret’s parents, survivors of the Holocaust, presented an unconventional range of subjects in their bedtime stories. His mother’s tales were fantasies populated with unicorns and fairies and witches. His father’s stories were about drunks and prostitutes – stories that Keret noted were full of “love and warmth and compassion. They were very moral stories.”
‘My stories are much smarter than I am. They are like a dream, which is why it’s difficult to take ownership of them.’
The genesis of the elder Keret’s narratives reflected his peripatetic post-Holocaust experiences. Having been refused entry into Israel after the war, he returned to Europe to acquire arms for the Irgun – Israel’s underground resistance – on the black market. He did business with the Mafia in Sicily by day, and slept in parks at night. His new business associates noticed that he was homeless and offered him an empty room in one of their bordellos.
Keret told his audience “that the people with whom my father associated – mobsters, prostitutes – didn’t care that he was Jewish. He taught me to see a person’s character, not his position. I think that’s why my characters live on society’s margins.”
To that end, Keret’s work remains firmly outside the conventions of literature, and his process is idiosyncratic. “My stories are much smarter than I am,” he said. “They are like a dream, which is why it’s difficult to take ownership of them.”
Keret rarely works from a single idea or has a chronological plot in mind. Rather, he tugs at a thread or explores an image. “It’s all about tone. And the voice is very important. Writing for me is like surfing. I stand on the board, anticipating the next wave, and when it comes I try not to fall off.”
Keret revels in the fact that he writes in a language that was used only for prayer and Torah study for more than 2,000 years, but then updated virtually overnight. This linguistic upheaval, he said, “tells the contemporary story of the country. We needed words to catch up with 2,000 years of social development. So we imported them from other languages, derived them from the Biblical Hebrew or had to make them up. This makes the Hebrew language wild, anachronistic – a combination that is very fundamental to Israeli society.”
Keret told an anecdote from a recent trip to Korea to illustrate Hebrew as a frozen language “microwaved for modern usage.” In trying to explain Israeli society to Koreans, he told them that Jerusalem suspends public transportation on the Sabbath in accordance with Biblical law. His puzzled audience asked if Israel was like Iran? Keret countered that Israel is so liberal that a transgendered singer represented the country in an international contest. Completely confused, the Koreans asked him if Israel was like San Francisco? Keret responded that the answers to both their questions was yes, explaining that Israeli society is distinguished by both religious conservatism and social openness.
He noted that the Hebrew language also reflected these conflicting impulses of old and new – in its use of formal and colloquial speech:
“Hebrew is not exclusively a high-register language. You need to keep switching between registers to move through eras and capture the energy of the country. In my work, I move up and down in sentences, which initially confused my translator. Occasionally a translator calls to ask which register – up or down? I tell him in Hebrew it’s both.” Keret’s written version of colloquial Hebrew is central to his literary identity. During his recent teaching appointment at Wesleyan University, he was confounded when his workshop students talked about skill and craft:
“Engineers build bridges – they craft something. Pilots land planes – they have skill. I’m not a writer by skill. I can’t write ordinary things like birthday cards or a note to my neighbor. My passions overtake my abilities. I think that’s why my stories are so short.”
As for his start in writing, Keret said, “I think I was a writer long before I realized I was a writer.” He began composing stories during his army service to cope with a friend’s suicide. At Hebrew University, he wrote well into the night and was repeatedly late for morning classes. Threatened with the loss of his scholarship, Keret showed his advisor those nocturnal stories as proof that his extracurricular activities were intellectual. He not only salvaged his university career, he also established his literary reputation. A few years later, that same professor edited and published Keret’s first collection of short stories.
And thus his advice to aspiring writers: Wake up late.