The two Israeli editors who brought Etgar Keret to national attention met recently to reminisce for the record about their brief but memorable association with him. Hannan Hever and Moshe Ron had a history of collaboration on various editorial and writing ventures going back to the early 1980s. By 1991, they were co-editing a fiction series for the venerable Israeli publishing company, Am Oved. Their series was meant to serve as a hothouse for new talent and non-mainstream fiction. Etgar Keret was their most notable Israeli discovery. For this conversation, they convened at Café Nehama Vahetzi in Tel Aviv.—Adam Rovner
MR: How did we get to know Etgar?
HH: My friend and colleague, Adi Ophir [professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University] told me about a student of his named Etgar who brought him a bunch of texts to read. He said he couldn't judge their literary merit, but thought it might interest me.
MR: When did this happen?
HH: I guess early in 1991. About the same time, I was approached by a couple of students and asked to give them a special tutorial in contemporary critical theory. One of them was Etgar Keret [Etgar, meaning “Challenge,” is quite an unusual name]. I can't recall the other fellow's name; I know he went on to an academic career in computer science. Anyhow, I agreed, and we met in my office with some regularity during the second semester. It turned out Etgar was the same guy who gave Adi Ophir those texts to read.
HH: So I pretty soon got around to reading them myself. I nearly fell off my seat. I was stunned.
MR: This surely wasn't the first manuscript you'd ever seen. What caused this reaction?
HH: I thought he succeeded in creating a narrator figure that was simply astonishing, like nothing we'd ever seen before in Hebrew literature.
MR: Are you referring to the mold of the short-short story? After all, older writers like Gershon Schoffman, or even S. Y. Agnon did dabble in this form.
HH: No, it was more the tone. The world he presented was so surprising, so acutely curious, a world on the verge of the hallucinatory, yet at the same time quite normal, completely consistent on its own terms. I felt that this fictional world exposed the underlying pattern of our life, that it fleshed out the crazy places we get to by following tightly the paths of our habitual mores and mindset.
MR: When you talk about “our life,” do you have in mind us Israelis, or something more ubiquitous or even universal?
HH: Well, both, I think. His fictions were extremely Israeli—what is more Israeli than “The Son of the Head of the Mossad” [in The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God]? But there was also a sense that they could belong anywhere. The both painful and satirical exposure of macho attitudes was something that people in other places could easily relate to.
MR: By the way, how old was Etgar at that time?
HH: I believe he was about twenty-four.
MR: Can you recall the titles of some of the stories included in that first batch?
HH: Well, several of them went into Tzinorot [Pipelines, Keret's first collection. Many of these stories appear in The Girl on the Fridge.]. I know “The Son of the Head of the Mossad” was there. Also “Vacuum Seal,” “Quanta,” and of course, “Pipelines.”
MR: So you nearly fell off your seat. And then?
HH: I made an appointment with him, and we discussed his stories. I reported to you that I'd found a treasure.
MR: And then?
HH: Well, by then I felt the stories should be collected in book form, an idea that we hadn't at all considered at the outset.
MR: What was Etgar's reaction to the notion that he was to be the author of a book?
HH: Gradually he became quite enthusiastic about it. We would meet every week. He would bring more texts. And I would say: this should go into the book, that shouldn't. I made other editorial suggestions. And so we worked for a couple of months.
MR: How did that go?
HH: Well, as I've said, I'd hand him back his texts with some suggestions. And he kept reworking them.
MR: And this is how the table of contents was established?
HH: We discussed the order of presentation, and the book's title. Etgar was very reluctant to name the book Pipelines. After some debate, I was able to persuade him to go for it.
MR: Can you recall how the book was received at the Am Oved publishing house when we first brought it up?
HH: I guess it was accepted by the powers that be like any other book we came up with. Nor did we get any particular “well done” or “attaboy” when it came out and was a success. One of its first big fans was Noam Schechter, our designer, who fit it with a spectacular bubble-gum-pink cover.
MR: What happened next?
HH: By now Etgar was writing a column for Ha'ir [the Tel Aviv city paper of the Schocken newspaper group.].
MR: But then the book came out, and it was a success.
HH: And, as you may recall, we had a nice little soirée, at the Bograshov art gallery, to launch the book, and Etgar's parents came.
MR: Yes, I remember thinking how young they looked, in fact, just about my age. I was surprised because I knew beforehand they were Holocaust survivors. In what ways would you say the book was a success?
HH: It got nice coverage and good reviews in the press. I can't recall specific reservations, if any. And it sold several, maybe four thousand copies the first year. As you know, it continued selling steadily for years, becoming our series all-time best seller. It has continued to sell well ever since [later the rights were ceded amicably to Zmorah, Keret's subsequent publisher].
MR: And the aftermath?
HH: My personal relationship with Etgar became more distant. And then the two of us, you and I, thought it was time to think of another book. We knew he had more texts and was always writing new ones. We met to talk, I think it was at the Picasso bistro, on Hayarkon Street, overlooking the beach. We expressed our wish to go on working together on his next book. Among other things, we floated, I think, the suggestion that he might prefer working with you. Etgar said he was very grateful for our help and the confidence we put in him, but he thought he'd rather not do that but go over to another publisher.
MR: Actually, I seem to remember that around just that time, perhaps as a result of this particular conversation, during which we often digressed on the subject of our mutual love for the noble game of soccer, I started joining Etgar and his Ramat-Gan buddies on Friday afternoons for a friendly game on the pitch at the Sportheque, the playing field portion of the Yarkon Park. I was often accompanied by my son Adam, then all of six or seven years old. And it was then that I learned that the correct 'hood way to accent Etgar's name was not the standard Hebrew way—et-GÁHR—but as a variant on the first name of that great American advocate of short forms, Edgar Allan Poe.
HH: And then, when we celebrated the fiftieth title of our imprint, which was actually your own collection of stories, Aveidot Kalot [Minor Losses], Etgar showed up and was very friendly and appreciative.
—dialogue conducted and recorded by Moshe Ron
Moshe Ron was a professor of comparative literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem for many years. He is a veteran editor and translator, best known for his Hebrew translations of contemporary American fiction. His short story, “Protection,” appeared in English in Zeek in 2007. With Michal Peled Ginsburg he co-authored the only book-length study in English of David Shahar, Shattered Vessels (SUNY Press, 2004).
Hannan Hever is a professor of Hebrew literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published thirteen books about modern Hebrew literature, including the English language study, Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon (NYU, 2001). Hever serves as the editor for the Black Sheep fiction series of the Hakibutz-Hameuhad Publishing House. He provided editorial oversight and a scholarly afterward for The Collected Poems of Avraham Ben-Yitzhak (Ibis Editions, 2003).
Links to other essays, interviews and features in this series:
Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.
Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.
Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.
Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyperreal.
Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.
Photos from the event.
Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret
The video from the Idlewild Event
Adam Rovner talks about “An Exclusive”
The Art of Big Things: Todd Hasak-Lowy on Reading Keret
My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr
Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret