If you don’t know who Etgar Keret is, then you should. A writer of short-stories that are fantastical and funny, but always written with a deep compassion; earlier this year he was awarded the Sapir Prize – Israel’s most prestigious literary award – for his short story collection A Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy.
On 3 September, we welcome Keret to Southbank Centre as he presents his new collection, Fly Already, for a London-exclusive event. Ahead of his visit here’s a chance to get to know the writer a little better.
The author has lived in Tel Aviv all his life. His parents were holocaust survivors from Belarus and Poland, and the holocaust has been a key theme in several of his short stories. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Etgar claimed that compared to his parents suffering, his own sadness never seemed justified and that his stories became his outlet. The ‘idea of not showing emotion is something that is very, very strong...there’s something about writing that releases that.’
Describing himself as a ‘horrible soldier’, Keret was assigned to a basement computer room during his compulsory military service, where he served shifts that would last from 24 to 36 hours. During his service, his best friend committed suicide whilst they were on shift together. Hours later, he began writing.
Keret’s work is strongly influenced by his Israeli heritage and Jewish faith, and he has often discussed his kinship with other Jewish writers. An obvious comparison is Franz Kafka, of whom Keret once told The New York Times that it was a ‘great comfort to discover a writer who seemed to be even more stressed and screwed up than I was.’ According to Keret, Kafka's Metamorphosis wanted ‘only to be true to the emotion that invoked it’, and concerns with plot and believability are secondary.
He is also a fan of many Israeli writers, including Yoel Hoffmann, Orly Castel-Bloom, and Alex Epstein.
Kafkaesque themes can be found throughout many of Etgar’s own short stories. Breaking The Pig tells the story of a young boy in emotional turmoil as he decides whether to smash open his piggy bank, which is secretly a living, breathing creature. In Lieland, Robbie visits a place where all the lies he has ever told exist as a reality, including a paralysed German Shepherd.
Although his work has been translated into many languages, there have been many problems with this. The ‘Hebrew slang’ in which he writes combines an ancient, largely written, biblical language with new words born out of everyday necessity. The traditional combined with the new creates a unique, high-energy language that has proven difficult to translate.
Keret is loyal to the short story form and has spoken out against the publishing world’s commercialisation of it. He has claimed that publishers like to create thematic collections and have tried to make his work more populist. He has also spoken about backlash from other Israeli writers that want to ‘tell the story of the group, of the collective. You have the kibbutz stories, the army stories...’ Etgar doesn’t feed into this tradition and has felt a ‘resentment’ from the older generation.
He is the author of five short-story collections, a children’s book, and co-author of several comic books. His writing has been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire, and has been translated from Hebrew into 46 languages, including Farsi.