Review: Suddenly, A Knock On The Door
We find a radical Israeli writer, in print and in person, even more effective in middle age.
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Keret: 'Writing has same function as when I was single, wild and dirty'
By Etgar Keret
(Trans: Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston and Nathan Englander)
Chatto & Windus, £12.99
These days, Etgar Keret needs little introduction - at 44, and after five best-selling, short-story collections, he is widely recognised as one of Israel's most radical and talented writers. The sixth collection has taken him longer than the others - almost 10 years - while, in the meantime, Keret has been translated into 29 languages, won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for the extraordinary film, Jellyfish, which he made with his wife Shira Geffen, and the Chevalier Medallion of France's Order of Arts and Letters.
The book is worth the wait. Relentlessly absurd, it is rich with Keret's characteristic insight, compassion - and black humour. It exceeds even his own, extraordinary, early promise.
But the stories did not come easily. "A lot changed," he explains. "I got married; my son was born; I got a mortgage. I became a very bourgeois guy. Until then, I always lived a very unstable life. I'd always written about my world, and my world changed. So there was a period in which I didn't know what to do." Inspiration returned when he finished the title story, in which an author is mugged, at gunpoint, for his unwritten tales.
I was unstable and now I am middle class
"Often, my fiction is a way of trying to tell myself something, and this was telling me that I could write about my life as it is now… writing has the same essential function it had when I was single and wild and dirty. Now it is about my cleaner, more middle-class life… It was a long process."
While the subject matter has subtly evolved - now he writes parent-child conflicts from the perspective of the father - fiction, for Keret, has always been a way of understanding himself. His first short story, Pipes, was written two weeks after the suicide of his best friend in the army; much of his subsequent work has been an attempt to make sense of his own feelings. "You have these inner emotions that are so deep, pushed so far in the dark, and you put them out there in a place where people can identify with them. So they can say: 'You're not a freak, because I feel the same way - or perhaps I don't, but I can still empathise."'
In one story from the new collection, a man juggles a distant wife and mocking mistress, and depends on his dog for true emotional communion. When the dog goes missing and is then recovered, he decides to write a book about the experience: "And on page 300, the book would turn into a furry little animal readers could hug and stroke, as a way of coping with their loneliness." Keret's work, like his hero's cuddly novel, is honest, human and consoling. Only connect, as Forster commanded. Great fiction - and Keret writes great fiction - can make us all a little less alone.
Etgar Keret will be appearing at Jewish Book Week 2012 at King's Place, London N1 9AG, on February 23 at 7pm. Francesca Segal's novel, 'The Innocents' will be published in May