If I could describe Israeli short fiction specialist Etgar Keret in one word then that one word would be ingenius. ‘Ingenius’ simply because he has the ability to come up with the most extraordinary stories. To date, he’s published five short story collections in the English language, and he returns in translation after something of an absence, with another epic collection – the 37 story long Suddenly a Knock on the Door (Chatto & Windus). Before I set off through Keret’s latest creation though, I want to offer a few forethoughts and put you in the know.
To date, I’ve read around a hundred Etgar Keret short stories (you may have seen me review a good few on this very website). This may sound like a lot to some but fact is many of Keret’s stories are less than ten pages in length. They’re the shortest of the short – most are longer than flash, but significantly shorter than other short stories – but they’re no less potent. Why’s that? Well, because Keret is very much a master of the shorter short story form, and in the space of just a few pages he is able to cram in a gargantuan amount, delivering the most incredible of reading experiences. When one reads stories such as Breaking the Pig, Hole in the Wall and The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God, one quickly realises just how much of a gifted storyteller, Etgar Keret is. So if you’ve never read any of the stories of Etgar Keret then now’s a great time to start (you can do so right now, because Etgar links to a couple of his creations on his website).
So, I think you can see already just how excited I am about working my way through Suddenly a Knock on the Door – which incidentally recently shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award – but what makes this collection all the more exciting, is that the stories contained within are the first to be published by Keret in 10 years. Yes, I know Etgar Keret’s collections have been published in translation pretty consistently throughout the ‘naughties’ – The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories in 2004, The Nimrod Flipout in 2006, Missing Kissinger in 2008 etc. – but the stories in these collections were published in Hebrew much earlier. The stories in Suddenly a Knock on the Door are all spanking brand new, and that makes the reading prospect all the more exciting, not least because it’s going to be interesting finding out just how much Mr. Keret’s writing mind has changed over the past decade, and in what direction his storytelling has taken.
Talking of the direction that his storytelling goes in, it seems Keret doesn’t often know himself. In a Guardian interview back in March, he tells interviewer William Skidelsky that he never knows were a story is heading when he begins to write it. “The first thing I have to do is press the gas pedal and take my hands off the wheel,” says Keret. “If I crash, maybe I’ll get to somewhere interesting. It can’t be premeditated.” In this I think, Etgar sums up both himself and his stories perfectly. Most of the time his stories do end up somewhere interesting, and certainly a lot more so than when they start out.
Here then, is the official cover blurb for Suddenly a Knock on the Door:
A man barges into a writer’s house and, holding a gun to his head, demands that he tell him a story, something to take him away from the real world. A pathological liar discovers one day that all the lies he tells comes true. A young woman finds a zip in her boyfriend’s mouth, and when she opens it he unfolds to reveal a completely different man inside.
Exuding a rare combination of depth and accessibility, Keret’s tales overflow with absurdity, humour, longing and compassion, and through their circumstances are often strange and surreal, his characters are defined by a familiar and fierce humanity.
One thing that marks Etgar Keret’s stories is their quirkiness, and I think that this blurb reflects that. I mean have you ever read story about a woman who finds a zip in her boyfriend’s mouth? I know I haven’t, not even from the likes Kelly Link or Alex Burrett, so if Etgar Keret ever needed a middle name (if he hasn’t got one already) then ‘quirky’ would surely be the most befitting.
Got to admit, I was worried that in ten years Keret may have changed his writing drastically – he has after all married and fathered a child in the interim – but it looks, at first glance anyway, as though the ingredients of this master storyteller are still there – the ingenuity, the dry wit and the absurdity. This may only be a short and formulaic blurb (as these things almost always are), but already I’m greatly reassured.
So, for those who don’t know much about Etgar Keret, let me tell you something about him (you can find out a little more in the links at the foot of these forethoughts). He was born in Tel Aviv in 1967, and currently still resides in the city with his poet, playwright and director wife, Shira Geffen, and their young son, Lev. Beginning his writing career in 1993, Keret’s work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope. Known more for his short fiction, Etgar Keret has also written graphic novels, plays and children’s books. In 2010 he was named a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters.
Keret is also a noted filmmaker. Producing his first short film in 1996 (Skin Deep), Keret went on to co-direct his first full feature movie in 2007 with his wife. The film, internationally known as Jellyfish (originally Meduzot in Hebrew), subsequently won the couple the Camera d’Or prize in Cannes, in the same year, for best first feature.
Many of Etgar Keret’s short stories have also been adapted into short films (Zeitgeist Films puts the number at more than 40) with one of the most recent being $9.99, a stop motion animated movie directed by Tatia Rosenthal, which features adaptations of a number of Etgar Keret’s short stories.
Going back to Suddenly a Knock on the Door, and another thing that’s particularly exciting about this new collection from Keret, is that the services of a new translator have been employed, and that translator is a very special one at that. Translations from ‘regulars’ Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston appear in this collection, but the majority of the translation work in this collection (I think) comes courtesy of acclaimed short story writer and recent winner of this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Nathan Englander. It must be a great honour to have a writer such as Englander translate one’s short stories, and for a reader like me it’s nothing short of thrilling.
So it’s on that positive note that I close these brief forethoughts on Suddenly a Knock on the Door. I’m actually going to see both Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 17th August (details below), so I’m aiming to be back with a full review of this collection before then, together with a little surprise for all of my UK readers. Meantime, you can follow my progress through this collection by keeping an eye on the contents listing for Suddenly a Knock on the Door, below. As always, as I tick off each of the stories in this collection I’ll link to each review.
:: Contents of Suddenly a Knock on the Door ::
(links lead to individual reviews of each story, when posted)
Chatto & Windus | 23 February 2012 | £12.99 | HARDBACK | 304 PP | ISBN: 9780701186678
Find out more about Etgar Keret:
- Etgar Keret’s website
- Etgar Keret on Facebook
- Etgar Keret talks to the Guardian about Suddenly a Knock on the Door.
- A Paris Review interview with Etgar Keret
- A series of video clips featuring Etgar Keret in conversation with Nathan Englander in Chicago, in promotion of Suddenly a Knock on the Door.
- Etgar Keret reads Yehuda Amichai’s The Amen Stone on the brilliant Read Me Something You Love website.
Etgar Keret will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in a ‘Masterclass’ event with Nathan Englander, on Friday 17th August 7:00pm – 8:00pm. For ticket information and booking, please visit the event page on the EdBookFest website.
Etgar will also be appearing in an event with Irish writer, Kevin Barry the evening before – Thursday 16th August, 7:00pm – 8:00pm. For ticket information and booking please visit the event page.
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.