Literary City: Etgar Keret’s Tel Aviv
If, at random, you picked an Etgar Keret short story to read, you would likely come across one of a few things: humor, sex, and, or an urban Israeli setting.
The 46-year-old Keret’s work remains a guiding force for contemporary Israeli literature, and his more recent success in film has since introduced him to a whole new generation of admirers. He is also currently a part of Miranda July’s We Think Alone, a project that has allowed us to be privy to his, and others, personal correspondence. It’s a selection of emails ranging from advice on writing to an amusing recollection of a dream, and Keret’s are, perhaps predictably, both touching and hilarious.
Here, the Tel Avivian native talks about what it means to live in the city known to outsiders as “the Bubble.”
Where are you now?
My mother fell. I’m at my mother’s place, but she’s fine, she hit her shoulder but nothing’s broken.
I’m sorry to hear that. In the We Think Alone emails that you’re taking part in you said you see your mother “every two days, old school style,” so are you particularly close? Do you live in the same neighborhood?
Yeah, yeah, my mother lives very close to me. I don’t know, it’s like 5km. It’s like 10, 15 minutes. I’ve lived in the same apartment for twenty years now. When I looked for a place the only two things that were important for me was that it would be in a quiet street and in walking distance from the beach. The particular area I live in is called "the Old North," and it is one of the older neighborhoods in this young city. The thing I love about my street and apartment building is that it gives you this little town feeling, and me and three other neighbors meet almost every night at the entrance to our building to gossip about other neighbors and argue about politics like in an old Italian film.
You’ve written a lot about your parents, and it seems to me like you have a really strong sense of family. Are you a very deep-rooted person?
I don’t know, often with families that are very small I think that the connections become much stronger. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors and we didn’t have many relatives, so the family was only my parents and me and my two siblings.
Would you consider yourself a Tel Avivian?
Yes, very much so. Many people say that, you know, particularly the radical right wing, they say that Tel Aviv is a bubble. For me it’s a strong point of living in Tel Aviv. I live in a place that is unique in its perspective. I think it’s much more tolerant, much more liberal. Living in this city, amongst other things, is almost a political choice.
Does this explain, to some degree, why in several interviews you’ve defined yourself as Jewish rather than Israeli?
Yes, well, the way I see it nationality doesn’t play a strong part in my identity. I think my connection is to community, to language, to people, you know, to the beach, which is five minutes walk from where I live. These are things that keep me here. I have a sense of heritage, and I can speak to my sister who is ultra-Orthodox and feel, even though I’m agnostic, some of my roots, and I can speak to my brother who is a social activist who lives in Thailand, you know, and I can feel that we share this thing. And this is true for all the people I know and like and communicate with and create with, but the idea of a country is something I think about less and less. I’m saying, I don’t necessarily have a prime minister that represents me, or a government that necessarily represents me, but I do feel that I’m very strongly rooted in the place in which I live. So, lets say, I don’t believe in being an Israeli, but I’m less ambiguous about being Tel Avivian.
In that case, let’s go back to your mother, and that she once said to you, “You’re not an Israeli writer, you’re an expatriate Polish writer.” Does she still think that, and do you agree with her?
I think to read me in a mother tongue has an effect. I think when you read something in the mother tongue it resonates more strongly. I think that what she was talking about is some sort of sensibility and I use a lot of Jewish humor and I think many of my influences were Jewish writers: Kafka, Sholem Aleichem, Bashevis Singer, or Isaak Babel. In that sense it’s easier for me to place myself in the diaspora of the Jewish writerly traditions than in the Israeli ones. By the way I admire Israeli literature, but I always feel that it’s kind of a literature in which the writer is put on some sort of pedestal, you know, there’s always some sort of moral conscience, a spiritual leader. While for me, the Jewish writers I grew up on, they were like the guys you meet on the train. When you read Kafka, you know, you don’t feel as if you talk to somebody who offers you an alternative, rather, somebody who poses you a more difficult question than the one that you woke up with in the morning. For me, this kind of tradition is very much connected to community and very cosmopolitan in nature.
Your work, as I see it, doesn’t push for an ideological position. Are you conscious of remaining politically aloof throughout your writing process?
I do think there is ideology in my writing. Ideology is based, I would say, on something that is very ambiguous. I like to see myself as a humanist and a moral writer, but you know, I’m maybe the only one who reads my stories this way.
In fact, I can tell you a funny story with [journalist] Dan Ephron. I was with Dan and his partner in Tel Aviv harbor—Dan has much stronger senses and instincts than me—and he said to me, “There is a guy running to you and he carries a pistol.” We are close to the car and I turn around and I see this Orthodox guy, Jewish, and you can guess in a second that he’s a settler, he carries this very big pistol, and he runs and I see that there is no-one around but Dan, his girlfriend, and me. This guy is looking at me and running at me. It’s kind of an awkward moment when somebody runs towards you with a pistol. This guy reached me, and he was sweating, he was breathing very hard and he said to me, ‘You’re Etgar Keret?’ and I said yes—I’m kind of a liberal, left-winger and he knows that and he obviously isn’t a liberal left-winger—and he said, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ and I shook his hand and he said, ‘I’ve read every word you’ve ever written and I don’t agree with even one sentence of it.’ So, I said, ‘I don’t want to be rude, especially with you carrying firearms and all, but why did you run all this distance just to tell me that you don’t agree with me?’ You know, why would he want to shake my hand? And he said, ‘Because I feel that you respect me.’
It was funny, in the evening I went home and the thing that I felt wasn’t that somebody gave me a compliment but I thought to myself, ‘In what kind of place do I live that a guy finds it such a unique experience that somebody disagrees with him and still respects him?’ Like, what kind of fucked up place do I live in? This should be the default.
So, in fact, you do translate this into your work?
I really think, when I try to write a story, then its very important for me to empathize with all the characters that I write. Even those that I feel are a menace to society and should be put away. It’s very important for me to understand them. In the safety of fiction I can allow myself something. Let’s say, I wake up in bed and I see a guy with a knife, you know, I will try to kill him. But if I write a story and there is a guy with a knife, I’m safe enough to try and understand what is going on in his head. I think that this has a double strong moral aspect because at the same time it teaches me something about the other but also it teaches me something about myself. If I’m able to empathize with this guy with the knife then I realize there is this side in me—that I could also become this guy with the knife.
As a fiction writer, what is your role in Israel and how do you think you’re seen in your immediate community?
I think, first of all, they see me as very accessible. I don’t have a day without somebody calling me, or emailing me, or sitting in the empty chair next to me in a café and talking to me as if we’re long lost friends, you know. It’s not always comfortable, but I had it coming. I think that when you write you share some aspect of your personality, or you create a sort of a persona and I think there is something about my writing that is very close to who I am in real life and my writing is accessible and it projects that I am accessible, which most of the time can be pleasant but sometimes its difficult because some people don’t realize that the fact that they shared some intimacy with me by reading my book doesn’t mean that it's symmetrical, that I know something about them. It’s not like they will ask me for an autograph, they ask me for advice about their girlfriend.
What do you do around or in the city when you’re not writing?
I really love going to the beach. I love to go in the summer and in the winter. I often think the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—apart from the history, or in this case the lack of history that saves us from this kind of holy righteousness—that there is something about the ocean. Whenever you look at the ocean, you put some sense of proportion into your feeling. If you’re sad and feeling sorry for yourself, or you feel terribly important or smart, then when you look at the ocean it can give you perspective. So even in the winter, having a look at the beach is a great thing. I walk a lot around the city, I go down to the beach, I like the boulevard.
When I used to work in Tel Aviv, I would have a break, I would go—the beach was only 300 meters away—I would take off my clothes, go in with my underwear, get in the water for 20 minutes, have a shower, take off my underwear, put on my clothes and go back to work without my underwear. It’s this idea of something in a very [close] proximity, you have nature and a city.
Perhaps this is a vast question, but can you describe how Tel Aviv has affected your work?
I think that the strongest effect that the city has had has something to do with the intensity. When I think of other places, let’s say, er, Oslo (I don’t know why I’ve just said Oslo), I think of a novel with long silences. When I think of Tel Aviv, it always felt to me like a short story. Actually, in Israel it’s funny because all the novelists basically have Jerusalem in their history, and Tel Aviv was always the city of poets. I think it’s something to do with the fact that it’s so condensed, you know, so in your face, so here and now, that it’s something I really feel in my stories.
Where do you buy the books you read? Do you make use of Tel Aviv's bookstores?
I buy most of my books in a shop called Books in Basel in Basel Street. I buy there mostly because of the owner who is a real book lover and who seems to have infinite patience for difficult customers who talk too much, like me.
What are your favorite works of literature that are set in or are about Tel Aviv?
Oh, I’m also co-editing, with my friend Assaf Gavron, the Tel Aviv Noir series for Akashic. It’s an interesting process, and now I can read some interesting literature about the city. There is something about this kind of combination that, through those stories, you can understand what a rich and diverse oxymoronic city we live in. I bet this is true for many big cities, but there is something about this place where you’re a camel away from the opera house, you know?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.