Long Sorry Short

The "sorriest writer": Israeli author Etgar Keret. (Credit: Moti Kikayor)

The “sorriest writer”: Israeli author Etgar Keret. (Credit: Moti Kikayor)

Etgar Keret has been called the “hippest Israeli writer,” but I think he is Israel’s sorriest writer.

This may come as a surprise. For a long time he has been the darling of the European literati, a sweetheart of American Jewish audiences, and a favorite of students of Hebrew everywhere. His language is easy to decipher with its simple structures and every day vocabulary; he writes about familiar situations and feelings; he includes a lot of sex. And because he tends to approach everything at a slant, students who don’t understand a story can chalk it up to one of Keret’s quirky flights of fancy. As one of Keret’s characters might say, “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Born in Tel Aviv in 1967, Etgar Keret has been called a literary wunderkind, an enfant terrible, and the voice of his generation. At once cutting edge and widely accessible, he has worked in a range of genres, media and venues, writing comedy for television, lecturing at Tel Aviv University’s School of Film, and redefining the direction of contemporary Hebrew prose. His novella Kneller’s Happy Campers about life after suicide has also been published in graphic novel form (Pizzeria Kamikaze) and is the basis for a Sundance-supported film project (Wristcutters). Keret’s own movie Skindeep won him an Israeli Oscar, and his musical Entebbe was awarded the first prize at Akko’s theater festival. Yet he is best known for his short short stories, compact pieces that combine mundane realism with flashes of the absurd, sad-funny fables of modern urban life. The seeming artlessness of his writing belies a huge talent for getting it just right.

But let’s get back to why he is Israel’s Sorriest Writer. Simply this: Etgar Keret has more apologies in his stories than anyone else.

Israeli writers tend not to apologize. Even writers to whom he has compared himself—or at least has his alter ego in the story “Suddenly a Knock at the Door”—Amos Oz and David Grossman—rarely apologize. And they have plenty to apologize for! Oz has written many women characters who have run off from their families, descended into madness, or been killed off. The closest one gets to an apology is his telling of his mother’s story in A Tale of Love and Darkness. But this is only after he has admonished the reader to stop reading for the gossip.

Grossman, while more delicate in his handling of women characters, still pens some of them into betraying their husbands and their professional obligations, makes some overbearing or sex-starved spinsters, or causes others to suffer undue hardship and bereavement.

Other male Israeli writers also ride roughshod over their women characters. Yehoshua keeps them somnolent, makes them crazy, forces them into polygamous marriages, incestuous relationships, and insomnia. Or worse. Sometimes they are pushed so far from the center, they almost fall off the page. He’s not always much nicer to the men characters he creates, cuckolding them, sending them on nonsensical journeys, forcing them to exaggerate their pettiness or engage in sinful behavior of biblical proportions.

They never apologize to these characters. They never apologize.

In contrast, Keret seemingly spends most of his ink in apologies, populating his short fiction with people—and others—who are also quick to say “Sorry.” The boyfriend in “Unzipping” apologizes to the girl when her mouth gets cut kissing him. The writer in “Todd” apologizes to his friend for writing a good story instead of one that will help him pick up girls. The protagonist of “Healthy Start,” Avichai, has at least three people apologize to him over breakfast– for being late, on behalf of someone else, for yelling at him over the phone; in each case they are all strangers. The waitress in “Halibut” apologizes to the customer who ordered the talking fish, although whether for the fish’s silence, or its attitude (“Never mind, forget it,” says the halibut to the customer, “I’m depressed”) remains unclear. In “Creative Writing” the husband apologizes to his wife for yelling at her and apologizes to his teacher for not having an ending to the story he’s writing, a story in which the evil witch repents and attempts to apologize to all she had put under a spell.

Keret’s characters are so quick to express contrition and remorse. We even have a proactive apologist in one story, “What Do We Have In Our Pockets?”

features a character who has his pockets filled with everything from postage stamps to coins, so that he is prepared for every opportunity, so that he is not at a disadvantage, so that he has the best chance of not having to say he is sorry if someone ever asks him for something.

This fall the Israeli newspaper Haaretz asked Keret to write a piece for Yom Kippur. He wrote about the fast day always being his favorite holiday, likening it to the kid in the class who is “a kind of weirdo, a loner, but the most interesting of all.” Instead of choosing a holiday is associated with presents, parties, or pastries, he goes with the day of atonement. The recognition the day demands of human frailty, the private nature of the day, and its very unheroic spirit, all appeal to this writer. He writes about having tripped a girl in his nursery school class, lying to the teacher, and then many years later (although not as many as when he writes about it)—when they are both high school students—apologizing to her, because, “It’s never too late to atone.”

And with that, without a glimmer of compunction, a speck of shame, or an iota of regret, I rest my case.