Fly Already, Etgar Keret’s first story collection for seven years, hits a familiarly outlandish and infectious groove. The title story relates a potential suicide jump as witnessed by a young boy whose innocent, excited observations to his father are set against a backdrop of grief, guilt, recovery and misunderstanding. It typifies the offbeat humour, childlike wonder and grown-up anxieties that populate the whole collection, which brilliantly captures how messed up it can be to be human in the 21st century – and probably ever. The stories date from between 2013 and 2019, during which time Keret also published Seven Good Years, a collection of essays covering the birth and early childhood of his son Lev, the death of his father Efraim from cancer, and surreal observations on daily life and politics in Israel and on his travels. I caught up with him in London the morning after a packed and entertaining event at the Southbank Centre moderated by Devorah Baum. Our wide-ranging chat embraced the new collection and his wider work, including his recent collaboration on the International Emmy Award-winning documentary Etgar Keret: Based on a True Story and the six-part comedy drama The Middleman, written and directed with his wife Shira Geffen for French broadcaster ARTE, which is due to air in spring 2020.

Our opening exchange has added poignancy since our meeting in the light of the recent passing of his mother Orna, who had been living with dementia in a care home.

MR: Parent-child relationships are a strong theme throughout your work. Has your focus on this dynamic shifted since becoming a parent, and with growing awareness that your own parents were entering their last years?

EK: In my first few collections the only thing that interested me was how children experience their parents – usually young children, teenagers, how they look at their parents – and then there was a stage when I became a father and I became really interested in how parents have this anxiety about failing their kids. In The Middleman the main character is mediating between the past and his parents, and the future and his daughter. Things that happened with his parents affect the way he tries to be a father, and things that happen with his daughter reflect on what he feels for his parents.

She’s always herself, but one day it’s her powerful, almost omnipotent self, and another day it could be more like a childlike self… She takes the shape of the present and makes things with it, a little bit like a child playing with clay.”

The biggest changes came about with my father’s terminal cancer – we were very close, and he had always been in a position of responsibility and control, making his own decisions – and with my mother no longer remembering or knowing exactly where she is. Our relationship changed and became something new, as she lives her life completely in the present. I take a lot after my mother in the sense that, being a Holocaust survivor, my mother always had this kind of stressed, anxious side, which she internalised as a kind of dread of the future, always planning an escape. All the time my mother says, “I don’t know a lot about my past, but I think I was a good person because everybody’s nice to me.” In a very abstract and metaphorical way, I’m a little jealous of that sensation of just being able to be in the moment and not to be stressed and anxious. Because before, when she had a full memory, she was stressed most of the time, and now she has no memory, you could say she’s in a very vulnerable spot, she’s dependent on other people, but somehow everything seems to be OK. She’s always herself, but one day it’s her powerful, almost omnipotent self, and another day it could be more like a childlike self and a joking self or a more serious one. She’s very, very funny, and most of the time intentionally funny. She takes the shape of the present and makes things with it, a little bit like a child playing with clay.

I was always like her. I had a mix of my mother and my father in the sense that I had this kind of softer, more trusting and optimistic side of my dad, but always in the family everybody said that my brother took after my father and I took after my mother.

Another recurring theme is the idea of how to be a good citizen – or simply less of an asshole. I’m thinking here of stories like ‘Goodeed’ and ‘Todd’, in which a guy begs the writer to make him a story that will help him get girls into bed.

‘Todd’ came from a person named Todd jokingly asking me to write him this story. When you start writing a story you don’t really know what’s propelling you to write it. The fact is, stories are good for nothing. They can’t help you open a door if you’re locked outside, they will not protect you if somebody attacks you. The moment you try to impose a function on them, they stop working. And I think there was something in this notion that got me to sit down and say, OK, I’m going to write a story for this guy, like a carpenter would make a table or a chair according to instruction, and see what’s going on, and this is how the story came out.

With ‘Goodeed’, I often find when I read something in a newspaper, I become resentful about the person who wrote the text, or about people portrayed in it. If I start obsessing about it and keep thinking nasty thoughts, I write a story in which the person I resent is the protagonist, and by doing so I cannot alienate from him or her anymore. I’d read about a rich woman who documented how she gave $600 or whatever she had in her wallet to a homeless person, and how this was a very genuine moment, but there was something, maybe the fact that it was published in a newspaper, that made me resent it. Sometimes you get resentful in a disproportionate way, and I thought I’d use that to write a story, then when I finished writing the story I felt for her and I liked her. Of course the character in the story is not the real person, but I think it came from this need not to keep myself distant from this kind of rich person who wants to feel useful in this world.

Seeing both sides is of course something that comes through in the title story, ‘Fly Already’ – which in Hebrew was actually titled from the father’s perspective, not the son’s, as ‘Don’t Do It’.

When I titled it in Hebrew, I did it by instinct. You finish a story and then you pick a title. And when it was translated into English and published in The New Yorker, the editor Deborah Treisman said, “But why do you want it to be from the father’s perspective? Don’t you think it would be more beautiful if it was ‘Fly Already’?” And the moment she said that, I said wow, it’s a much better title, but I never thought of it because in Hebrew ‘Fly already’ kind of means ‘Fuck off’.

There is tension in the story between the fictional world, what’s happening to the characters, and the real world, and in this tension between the two levels the fiction is fighting for its survival,”

Fungus’ is another story that’s about storytelling, in which the narrator is reflecting on why he’s being so cruel to a character he’s created.

Whenever I write a story there is this voice in the back of my head saying, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you sitting down and inventing a character and making him go through a lot of turmoil and conflict, and overcome problems or succumb to them, when this isn’t real, this guy doesn’t exist? What’s the purpose of that?” Many of my stories also say something about storytelling or why I wrote this story, and not only tell the tale.

There is tension in the story between the fictional world, what’s happening to the characters, and the real world, like the writer saying, “Oh, this story is not about this guy” or “We should go there”, and in this tension between the two levels the fiction is fighting for its survival, it needs to find some kind of justification so it won’t be left behind. And in the story in the end I go with my wife to do some useful chore and I leave the story behind. Many times when I write I have this experience, that looking for the story is also looking for some kind of inner justification to write.

‘Tabula Rasa’ has a very striking premise – involving a clone of Hitler…

It’s about the idea of a Holocaust survivor who orders a clone of Hitler so he can have closure by killing the clone. But the clone might share the DNA of Hitler and maybe some of his background – because they try to educate him the way that Hitler was educated – but he’s a different individual. And in the end it’s like the clone is the Jew of the 21st century, the one who is pre-judged by his heritage and not by his actions and his thoughts. It is one of the few stories I’ve written that I had an idea of where I’m heading and what’s going on, and there was this side of me that said that if a clone of Hitler would be able to make different choices, then there is something kind of inspiring and comforting for humanity. That it’s not as if we are stamped with good and evil at birth and can’t escape this fatalism.

Another story that’s unusual in that it names a known individual is ‘Arctic Lizard’. It imagines a Trump third term, by which time young teens are joining up to fight America’s worldwide wars, incentivised by being able to collect action figures…

My son used to collect Pokémon Go, and basically the whole plan behind it is that if you have a business, let’s say you sell ice cream or you build a new shopping mall, you can pay them and they put the rare characters into your place so it makes children go there and drag their parents who will buy stuff, or they can buy things themselves. And when I was young the US Army had this advertisement which basically said, “Join the Army and discover the world: you’ll meet all kinds of people” – they failed to say “and kill them”. So this idea of promoting the army as some kind of children’s adventure where you can fight in real life or fight in video games all kind of merges together.

When you look all around the world – you look at Poland or Brazil and many other places – it seems there is a kind of devolution of communality. Trump is the strongest symbol of it, the most extreme example.”

It’s not just Trump specifically, it’s a state of mind I recognise in Israel with Netanyahu and here with Boris Johnson, the idea of democracy being weakened and of rising nationalism. At the bottom line the yearning behind the story was really to have a world that transcends nationalism in a way that human beings can live together in peace. When you look all around the world – you look at Poland or Brazil and many other places – it seems there is a kind of devolution of communality. Trump is the strongest symbol of it for the fact that the US is so powerful, and that he’s maybe the most extreme example of it. Many people who practice this politics have a kind of façade, they try to make it look like old-time politics, but Trump doesn’t even try, and it almost makes him a role model to any aspiring politician saying, “Wow, if he can get away with it maybe I can get away with it too.” When I look at Netanyahu and Trump, one thing they have in common is that their families are very much involved in the decisions that they make, which reminds me of old-time kingdoms. Netanyahu gave a lot of credit to his son for campaigning for him, and he has said many times that he changed his mind because his son or his wife told him something. And with Trump you see him taking his daughter into all kinds of meetings without her being an elected official. This rule-breaking resonates with people around the world who see a weakness in liberal democracy and yearn for something that is more clear and powerful and cuts to the chase and makes immediate decisions. But of course the outcome of this can be very, very destructive.

Sondra Silverston has again translated a large part of this collection, but there are four other translators too, and you’ve gathered a number of translators over the years…

Sometimes the stories are published first in magazines and there were a few times because of deadline issues that Sondra couldn’t translate, and I’m very close to and really love the work of Jessica Cohen, so I work with her too, and Nathan Englander is a friend, so once in a while when Nathan has some time he’ll say, “Come on, send me a story and I’ll translate it,” and his attitude is totally different from professional translators in the sense that there’s something about the translation of the piece that is a little more abstract; he clings to the idea without necessarily keeping all the words, it’s a little bit more free.

And what are the particular challenges in translating your original Hebrew into English?

First of all, I think translation in general is super difficult, because different languages don’t function in the same way. Linguistic forms that you have in English, like the present continuous, we don’t have in Hebrew. I often think about the fact that in Hebrew we don’t have a word for ‘mind’. We have ‘brain’ and we have ‘soul’ and we have ‘thought’ but it’s either very clearly rational and physical, or very clearly spiritual and transcendent, and there are other words in Hebrew that do not exist in English. So in a sense translating is always kind of a rewriting. Sometimes in English it can work better, like with ‘Fly Already’, and sometimes it’s the opposite, it’s difficult, but it shows something beautiful about languages, how by using different languages your idea of reality and your emphasis is changed.

There was a fabulous audiobook of Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, read by well-known actors and authors. Are there any plans to do a similar thing with this collection?

With Suddenly, A Knock on the Door, the audiobook was something I worked on for many months, asking all kinds of people who I thought would be perfect readers of the stories, and I was able to get actors like Willem Dafoe and Stanley Tucci, and writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July and Michael Chabon. But it’s unusual for an audiobook recording to have this kind of friendly vibe. I’m sure they’re already recording or have recorded an audiobook, but I was not as involved in it.

In the introduction to your ‘memoir stories’ The Seven Good Years, you said you would not publish the book in Hebrew or in Israel, but “share it only with strangers.” Did you stick to that?

Yes we did. It wasn’t published in Israel, and there was a lot of reaction to that. There was actually fake news going about that I’d stopped writing in Hebrew because of the politics of Israel, and that I’d left Israel, all this kind of stuff. But the simple truth is that when you write fiction you can be very sincere and earnest but still feel protected, because the only thing you expose is your emotion, and when you publish a book like this, it’s different if somebody says, “Your protagonist sucks” or “Your late father is very boring”. This feeling of wanting to be protected also came from my son. I told him he appears in the book and I write things about him – all from a very loving perspective. He was maybe eight at the time, or a little bit over seven, and he said, “I see no advantage that people I know nothing about will know stuff about me.” In the end we compromised, he said I can publish it in other countries but not in Israel, and being very astute, added, “as long as we get paid.” For me it was very natural when he asked not to publish it in Israel.

When it comes to art, I’m really happy with not being in control. Whatever happens, it’s allowed, it’s in the laws of the game and no harm will be done.”

So what else can you tell me about the TV series The Middleman?

When we pitched it, we said it’s David Lynch meets Louis de Funès. It’s drama and can be dark, but also very wild and sometimes very basic comedy – like somebody opens the door and a guy in the bath covers his private parts. The story is about an estate agent and a travelling guy who gets legal advice from his goldfish.

OK, that bit sounds familiar…

Yeah, it’s loosely based on a few of my stories, the goldfish story and the piggy-bank story, but it’s very, very loosely based on them. The main thing about it, it very much has to do with family and connecting with your parents and connecting with your child, and learning from your mistakes one way or another. I’m really, really happy with it, I think it’s the best thing I was ever a part of. It was a really big project. We started writing it almost six years ago, and we put all our heart in it. And the actor, Mathieu Amalric, is really really good. He was the lead in The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and he had a role in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Polanski’s Venus in Fur, and he’s been a bad guy in James Bond. He’s an amazing, amazing actor, and I think he and Shira and the editor all contributed in a way that the series became something we didn’t expect, there were things in there that just came from some kind of situation in time and had nothing to do with being scripted.

When it comes to art, I’m really happy with not being in control. I like something about the idea that when someone does an adaptation of one of my stories and I go to a screening or they send me a link I don’t know if it will be amazing or if it will be crap. Whatever happens, it’s allowed, it’s in the laws of the game and no harm will be done. I’ve seen quite a few uninspiring adaptations of my work, and quite a few inspiring ones that made me rethink about the story.

And how did Based on a True Story come about?

Those two Dutch guys (director Stephane Kaas and his co-writer Rutger Lemm) were really amazing – very nice, very innovative. It was their first film, and that was very much to their advantage. They were not just trying to make a good movie, they were living the experience, and I enjoyed it a lot. For many years I avoided documentaries because it seems like a hassle, people going about and waiting for something to happen, something that will make you cry or something that will create a drama. I want my life to be a boring movie, I don’t want anything exciting happening!

They followed me in the US and Europe and in Israel, and they were very, very kind, and it went really, really well for them, it won the International Emmy and quite a few other awards, and it was screened on national public TV in Holland, Italy, Hong Kong, Poland. So for them it was a wonderful experience, and actually for me too. I’ve met quite a few people who have discovered my writing after watching the movie.

Which other Israeli writers are doing interesting things at the moment that we should be aware of?

I really love Assaf Gavron (the author of novels including CrocAttack and The Hilltop and the story collection Sex in the Cemetery), and I’m a longtime fan of Orly Castel-Bloom, who is a really amazing writer. She began publishing a few years before I did, and I would really recommend her book Dolly City. She’s the Israeli writer I feel closest to, I feel like we are from the same world. I think there’s something more masculine in the way I write and more feminine in the way she writes – not the femininity of “I’m going to stay home and tidy up”, something very stressful and anxious and irrational – but she really writes beautifully. And Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is really interesting, there’s something very innovative in her writing, she tells a straight story but in a very special way.

And what are you working on next?

I’m always kind of half-confused. I have many ideas and I don’t really know what I’m going to do next. There is one longer story I’ve been working on. It’s a little bit like a Deliverance story, but with the protagonist being about 13, 14. It’s a lot to do with the feeling of isolation and experiencing a totally different reality of young teenagers, and about video games and about many things that I both know personally and I know through my son. I’m also finishing another TV series just as a writer for Israeli TV, which I’ve done with a friend of mine who used to be my personal assistant. It’s her first project, and it’s about a doctor who saves the life of a patient after a very difficult car crash but the patient is in a coma, and a few years later the doctor is living with the wife of the patient, who seems to be coming out of the coma. Then there is a supernatural aspect, because he doesn’t wake up but something weird happens.

 

© Ania Kaim

Etgar Keret was born in Tel Aviv in 1967 and is a leading voice in Israeli literature and cinema. He is the author of five bestselling story collections, which have been translated into 46 languages. His writing has been published in The New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire. He has also written a number of screenplays, and Jellyfish, his first film as a director alongside his wife Shira Geffen, won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes in 2007. In 2010 he was awarded the Chevalier medallion of France’s Order of Arts and Letters, and in 2016 he won the Charles Bronfman Prize. His memoir The Seven Good Years was published by Granta Books in 2015. Fly Already is out now in hardback, with stories translated by Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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Read the story ‘Fungus’ from Fly Already

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