The subtitle for this event read ‘elevating the short form to fresh heights’, but for anyone who knows the output of these two writers such additional information is unnecessary. Kevin Barry and Etgar Keret are fast becoming demigods of the modern short story, and to have them both in the same room, at the same event, is a vision of literary heaven which many short fictions fans hold in their head.
Half of the event itself was taken up with readings from both authors, which is exactly how it should be. Both of these writers are ambassadors of the form. They write the most perfect stories, and it’s important for the promotion of the form, to hear such masters bringing their stories to life. Barry read part of his riotous tale Fjord of Killary, about a group of residents and staff at a remote hotel who are slowly being flooded out, while Keret read the thought-provoking Healthy Start, about a lonely man who takes on the persona of other people in a cafe. Needless to say, both reading were exquisite, with Barry, as always, putting much energy and vigour into his delivery. As Keret’s fiction is generally shorter, he offered a bonus by telling the audience about the incident that inspired his story, which is as bizarre and as humourous as the story itself is.
After readings, chair Stuart Kelly opened up the questions, asking both authors what benefits surrealism brought to their fiction. Keret replied, saying that when people write they write about subjective experiences, and in an wholly emotional kind of way. “I write about how I feel in relation to a particular experience,” Keret said, “and usually these subjective experiences are kind of surrealistic.”
Responding to the same question, Barry was quick to point out that ’surrealism’ doesn’t really fit in with his kind of fiction. “I like to operate as a writer on the very cusp of believability, said Barry, “stretching and heightening realism to the point where it’s just about becoming unbelievable.” He admitted that writing such a story was difficult, and that most of his stories fail and end up in pieces on the floor, but he solely has the reader in mind when he writes, and a desire to constantly keep them on the borderline between believability and realism.
Moving on, and Kelly suggested that although both books were far from identical to one another, both had a sense of mournfulness about them, where male characters especially were failing to live up to their manliness. Kelly wondered why, despite these failings, that there was still something in their characters that readers could empathise with.
Keret responded saying that although he didn’t plan it, he wanted his stories to offer people some kind of comfort. “I think my stories tell stories about people who are very pathetic because most of us are very pathetic,” he said, “and only when the reader and I have agreed on the fact that we are both pathetic, can I start comforting him or her.”
Barry on the other hand seems to have no interest in comforting the reader. “I write comedies,” he said, but they’re often bleak and twisted and dark because funny is not enough on its own. There has to be some kind of undercurrent with it, and very often the men in my stories are coming to a moment where things are spiralling out of control and going very wrong. But they’re enjoying it, because it’s better than nothing happening, and sometimes they come away from it intact, and sometimes they don’t.”
Talking of the importance of language, Keret was asked why he choses to write specifically in Hebrew. “It’s all about the tension between the traditional and the holy, and the contemporary and the chaotic,” Keret replied. “Hebrew is both a very old language and a very new one, and in colloquial speech it has developed to include words from other languages. And I believe that this is language that best represents the mixed up nature of my country, which to an outsider could perhaps best be described as a mash up between Iran and San Fransisco.
Given that this event was a celebration of the short form, it is wholly appropriate that the final word goes to Barry, who after showing sadness for the brilliant young writers who publish short stories before abandoning the form to move on to novels, said the following: “I always remember the words of Irish writer William Trevor who said that short story writing is a craft, and to get better at it one has to keep writing short stories. I agree, short story writing is a craft, and a sacred one at that. It’s a pure form and a very organic human mode of storytelling, because most stories can be told quickly. And I love writers like Etgar who have published collection after collection and stuck with the form. I too intend to always write short stories, because I think that a lifetime’s dedication to it will be repaid.”