The Books Interview: Etgar Keret

You say that writing is "making something out of something". What do you mean?
When I started writing, I didn't know anybody who wrote. I came from a very suburban town. When I later met other writers, I realised that most people write differently. They come up with an idea and they do some sort of construction [on it]. With me, writing is very much a process of letting go; it's like a trust fall. I fall backwards, hoping the story will catch me. When I write a story, I have no idea what I'm doing. All I know is that I want to share something with my readers. The whole idea of writing is this place where you lose control, where you're irresponsible - it's a very liberating place.

There is a careful rhythm to your stories. Does that guide you?
In translation, it's trickier - but, for me, when I write a story, because I don't know where a story is going to take me, the backbone of the story is always the tone, the rhythm. Writing a story is kind of like surfing, as opposed to the novel, where you use a GPS to get somewhere. With surfing, you kind of jump. I once had a story translated into English and it didn't feel right. I said to the translator: "You should ignore the text. You just have to keep with the rhythm and the flow."

You've said you would never write a New Yorker-style story. In what sense?
For me, it's a question of hierarchy. The moment that form and craftsmanship are at the centre, it means that the content or story or the passion to tell it comes second. A story comes from the passion to tell it. When I talk to young writers, I always say: "First, don't think about the story you think people want to hear - think of the story you want to tell and the rest will come out of that."

Your stories play with reality. Does writing allow you to do things you can't do in life?
For me, there is almost no ontological difference between doing something and writing about it. Generally, all my life, I have had strong friction with life - I was a problematic soldier, I was kicked out of the army, I was in fights. There was something about writing that was a way of experimenting with this emotion. My wife told that in my last collection there were so many stories about husbands cheating on their wives and I said: "Would you prefer me to write about it or cheat on you?" There is something about it that is liberating, because it's not harmful. When I was young, before
I started writing, I used to stutter. I wanted to say something but at the same time I knew it was inappropriate. There was something in writing that was legitimising those things, because suddenly they were in a story.

Characters often lose touch with the world in your stories. Is this partly your own struggle?
I have a very difficult time living. Things are never simple for me. If you ask me what the easiest thing for me to do in life is - easier than taking a piss - then I would say that probably it's playing with my son and writing stories. These are the two easiest things I know. I wish all of life was as easy as them. The thing that makes them easy is that you do stuff in a space that accepts it. There are no consequences - I can do anything. Most of the time, I try to stay out of trouble, I try to keep myself together, but it's on the surface.

Do you seek to destabilise some of the stories that Israel tells about itself?
In Israel, the role of the writer is dictated by the language in which you write. Writers see themselves as cultural prophets. I think that this role was needed because people felt very lost and confused, living in a country that is unlike any other. The thing about Israel is that it's a country based on the novel. It's almost like a Harry Potter movie. The last thing that people want is for you to go and deconstruct the already broken world. What I've written is completely outside the Israeli tradition and I've also written in a colloquial language. It's not about destabilising the world around us but about admitting that it's not as stable as it looks.

Your stories often deal with suicide. Why do you keep returning to the subject?
It's a very strong metaphor when you talk about suicide. You have to acknowledge that your life is a choice. When my best friend shot himself and died in my arms, I thought I could take his gun and do this. But I don't - I choose life. I write a lot about suicide but I am a very pro-life sort of writer.

Etgar Keret's latest book, "Suddenly, a Knock On the Door", is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis