Etgar Keret on life, death and corona lockdown.
Etgar Keret was due to visit the Hague in March. But the corona outbreak meant that he has spent the last month at home in Tel Aviv under strict curfew that prevents one from going more than 100 meters from one’s home. He spoke to us yesterday online from his study about his special brand of dark humour and the surreal quality of many of his short stories. The latest collection of which have recently been released in an anthology called ‘ Fly Already’.
‘When I write, I try to break the force of inertia in life’ he tells us. He explains that he sees life largely as a series of routine, often mundane activities, many of which we do without much thought or reflection. But corona, although ‘not good, is interesting’, mainly for its ability to break this inertia. It is forcing people to ask themselves questions that they don’t normally ask themselves. ‘There is something existential about the corona experience’, says Keret. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Israeli writer mentions the work of Franz Kafka as one of his biggest influences. ‘His work opened up a different kind of relationship between writer and reader for me’, he explains. Critics have described Keret’s (literary) universe as absurd. But for Edgar, it is simply the way he sees life.
Edgar’s parents were both Holocaust survivors, of Polish origin and he describes himself as ‘a little talking monkey’ as a child who would sit in his mother’s fabric shop and dedicate himself to ‘recommending life to everybody’, his parents included. Keret explains that for him, writing is a way to face the fears and tragedies of life. ‘When the water is in the swimming pool, and not in your lungs, then it’s ok to have a lot of it’ he explains with typical cynicism. But in spite of this, Keret is reassuringly authentic and essentially positive in person. He is self-deprecating when discussing his own work – ‘most of the time when I write, I fail’ he tells us matter-of-factly. Describing his short story writing as ‘an obscure hobby of mine’, he divides his time between lecturing, screen writing and directing. As a result, his short story collections appear sporadically, once every seven years or so.
His latest collection, ‘Fly Already’ focuses on themes like solitude, isolation and alienation. Although it was written before the outbreak of corona, Keret says that many of these themes resonate with our current situation. However the writer explains that his stories never come from themes but rather from a sudden idea or question. Perhaps a simple sentence which he then follows to see where it will lead, for example, ‘The world is about to end and I’m eating an olive’. Or they arise from a desire to explore something with which the writer himself is grappling. Keret recently wrote a story about how the corona curfew ends – after a few days, people have yet to emerge from their homes. Until finally, they are forced out by the army. He explains that the story was prompted by his own feelings of reluctance to leave the house, now that he has become accustomed to lock down.
‘A good story’ maintains Keret, ‘should be smarter than the person who has written it’. In this sense it should help to illuminate some issue or tension that intrigues its writer. But he admits too that a story is ‘a slippery creature’ that runs around his study which he must ‘catch by the tail’. Keret makes frequent use of animals in his short stories. He admits that he loves animals, partly because they encourage one to live in the moment and accept reality as it is. ‘Unlike humans, they don’t over-think’, he laughs. Perhaps the secret of Edgar Keret’s success lies in his acknowledgement that ‘For me, life is a failure, writing is a miracle’. With this philosophy, he tells us that the writing of his short stories is done ‘from a place of total freedom’. Given the lack of physical freedom that lock down currently entails, freedom of thought and mind is surely of even greater importance. Souwie Buis 8th April 2020