Etgar Keret, the celebrated short-story writer, received an insightful bit of feedback recently. His brother—a devoted reader of Keret’s work—had noticed that Keret’s early narratives often took place on buses. Later, the venue shifted to taxis. In his latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, just published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, characters are frequently on planes.
For Keret, the observation captured the paradox of success: it has made life more comfortable but writing more difficult. The 44-year-old had been accustomed to writing about people in rundown apartments and dysfunctional relationships—essentially people like himself. But in the past decade, he got married, had a son, and bought an apartment in the heart of Tel Aviv. “With all the changes, I found that I could write a story about what I used to be but not about what I am now. It’s as if I lacked the vocabulary,” he says. “It took me a lot of time and a leap of faith to accept that I’m living a different kind of life.”
Ensconced in this new life, Keret spent eight years on the new book (it was published in Hebrew in 2010), his sixth collection since 1992. He did plenty else during that time, including codirecting a movie. But the stories that are his trademark—that start out conventionally (“Robbie was seven when he told his first lie”) then veer toward the absurd (a gumball machine transports Robbie to a place where his lies actually transpire)—trickled out more slowly than at any time since he began writing.
That struggle to find inspiration is mirrored in the book’s title piece. A writer is forced at gunpoint to tell a story, but the words don’t come. The gunman is soon joined by a pollster and a pizza deliveryman—all sitting in the writer’s living room and demanding a story. “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman,” the writer quips, referencing the two towering figures of Israeli literature. Finally, the story within a story unspools. “A man is sitting in a room. He’s lonely. He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it. But he draws a blank. No story presents itself. Because the human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now doesn’t seem to be worth a story.” Then, suddenly, a knock on the door. (Go here to hear This American Life’s Ira Glass read the Keret story, produced by Macmillan Audio).
Keret started writing short stories after his best friend committed suicide at the base where they both were serving out their compulsory military duty. His second collection, Missing Kissinger, and his writing for the television comedy The Chamber Quintet in the 1990s, earned him a wide following among young Israelis and a reputation as a writer outside the mold of Oz and Grossman, whose works tend to reflect the meta-struggles of Israeli society.
They also drew widespread criticism. The TV show featured satirical sketches that poked fun at Israel’s sacred institutions, including the way it memorializes the Holocaust. Responding to one sketch, in which two Israeli bureaucrats bully a German referee into giving an Israeli runner a head start by invoking the crimes of the Nazis, a noted Israeli philosopher accused Keret of moral bankruptcy. But Keret bristles at the idea that anyone can dictate the parameters of proper discourse on Jewish tragedy (or Jewish anything). Both his parents survived the Holocaust and both, he says, appreciated his treatment of the issue.
Other critics say Keret’s writing is too colloquial and his themes not Israeli enough. When Keret spoke once in Chicago, he says, a Jewish woman told him the Israel she knew was nothing like the country in his stories. (The last time she’d been to Israel, she admitted, was 1954.) “For many Americans, the Israel story is a story about a camel that gets lost on a kibbutz,” Keret says. “But for me a story about a religious guy who goes into a McDonald’s in some remote shopping mall and asks if the hamburger is kosher is much more Israeli.”
Keret doesn’t rule out the possibility that this could be his last book of short stories. Since Suddenly, a Knock on the Door was first published, he has written just one new story. Keret has had dry spells in the past, usually ending in a burst of inspiration. But he can imagine a happy life without writing. “Writing is a place where I feel comfortable and happy. But it’s not a goal,” he said. “I want to bear things that I sometimes feel difficulty bearing. And this is the best way I found to do those things.”