“Fly Already”
by Etgar Keret
translated from the Hebrew by Sondar Silverson
from the May 15, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

I first encountered Etgar Keret in 2012 when The New Yorker published his story “Creative Writing” (our thoughts here). Over the years he’s published a few other stories, and I’ve generally been a fan. But then, last fall, The New Yorker published his story “To the Moon and Back (our thoughts here), and many here were very disappointed. While we were discussing some of the stories failings, I jumped in and said the story was simply a lame story, even if the problems were sorted. Thankfully there were those who disagreed!

So what do we have in store for us this time around? I’m not sure from the interview with Deborah Treisman (here). I’m excited to see!

Please feel free to share any and all thoughts below.

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By | 2017-06-16T22:07:08+00:00 May 8th, 2017|Categories: Etgar Keret, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. David May 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    When I saw that this week’s story was by Keret, I immediately had an “Oh no. Not again!” moment. His previous story was quite awful. Fortunately, this one is a great deal better. It is not perfect (I could have done without the kid being whiny, for example), but it was generally very good. The humour of the initial situation was well done and then the switch where the office worker thinks the father is the one who is going to jump were particular strengths of the story. But actually I am more interested in a different issue than the details of the story.
    .
    The interview suggests that Keret has no difficulty functioning in English. His reading of the story (which I listened to all the way through) reveals a clear accent, but no lack of fluency. I can understand why, despite this, he still might feel more comfortable composing the story in Hebrew, but I am a bit surprised that he used a translator rather than doing it himself. So far as I can tell, this is an original publication of this story, so unless The New Yorker accepted it without reading it or unless they happen to have a Hebrew speaking editor on staff, the story would have had to have been translated before it was even reviewed. It seems doubly odd to me that he would pay to have it translated before knowing if it was even going to be published.
    .
    I am hoping Trevor, with your specific interest in translated works, can shed some light on how this works. I wonder if the translator in a case like this might actually be more of an assistant to the author, who might closely supervise the translator and want to approve of any specific significant phrasing choices. I recall reading an interview with one of Italo Calvino’s translators who talked about having to argue with Calvino about some word choices Calvino liked, but where his lack of full fluency in English meant he did not really understand how it would sound odd to a native speaker. But Keret does not strike me as someone who would have that difficulty. So I am curious why he would surrender any control over the wording of the story to someone else.

  2. Roger May 9, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    This story struck me as heavy-handed. Our main character/narrator reveals early on that he is responsible for his wife’s death in a car accident. And that as a result he now feels obliged to protect people from harm. This feels like a comic book story. You know, Spiderman fails to stop a criminal who goes on to murder his Uncle Ben. So now he must atone by protecting the innocent against evil. Who needs this story when we’ve already got Spiderman?

    Also, dragging the kid up to the building’s roof recklessly risked the kid’s life, which undermined the main character’s supposedly hyper-protective nature. The story in no way suggests an awareness of this inconsistency on the part of the main character or the author. I’m inclined to attribute the inconsistency to poor writing.

    Next.

  3. David May 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

    I agree with Roger that the revelation that the narrator is responsible for the death of his wife is just too much. That later we find out that the crash also put out the eye of his other child made it even worse. Add to that the idea that a father of two young children who just lost their mother was contemplating suicide, which would leave them orphans, and it is way WAY over the top. But rather than view this as a fatal flaw of the story, I saw it as a fixable one. By the time we find out about the car accident (a quarter of the way through the story – which, since it is a very short story, is admittedly not extremely far from the start) I already had read enough to like the story. It made me laugh and seemed to be shaping up to be a good comic piece. But this made the weight of the car accident was even more of a jarring shift than it might have been otherwise.
    .
    I see it as a fixable problem because had he just made the backstory a bit different all would be well. If we suppose the narrator’s suicidal despair had been a situation a lot less grave and one that happened before he had kids (so his suicide would not have orphaned anyone) then it works fine for me. I imagine, for example (and I know the “for example” is dangerous because surely someone will want to take issue with my example – if you don’t like it substitute one of your own) that perhaps before he married the mother of his kids maybe he had been madly in love with someone, got cheated on and dumped, and went through a period of emotional despair that made him think about suicide. If the back story had been something like that it would have much improved the story and removed (for me, anyway) the heavy-handedness.
    .
    I mentioned before that I didn’t like the kid becoming whiny about wanting ice cream. For me it would have worked better if he had just remained excited about the possibility of the man flying rather than becoming more of a negative presence, but that too seems to be a fixable problem. It’s not a great story when there are such problems that need fixing, but it’s still better than a story that is boring or that has problems that can’t be fixed as easily. So I give Keret a passing grade overall.

  4. Dennis Lang May 10, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Hey you guys. David, good of you to give the author a passing grade overall!!
    Again, I’m no doubt way out in the weeds here, but there seems to me a tendency to apply some a-priori logic to the story with disregard to the interior logic the writer has given us.
    We question motivation, why there’s a whiny kid, the death of the wife, a child’s loss of an eye., etc, etc,,,,, These are the elements of the story. Why should they be what they aren’t? It’s like viewing a painting and saying, geeze, if the artist only used blue there instead of purple, then it would really work. (You might not say “geeze”.)
    This story had the dream logic of a nightmare: the sustained tension, the climb of the stairs, the resistant child, the PTSD of the past accident resonating, that instant of doubt–are both child and father going over the edge?
    An amazing two pages for me.

  5. David May 10, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    Dennis, I think you are as far out in the weeds as you can get. Yes, the author puts some things in a story and not others. But that does not mean we must accept that everything a writer writes is automatically great and beyond criticism. If you are served a meal and some of it tastes good and some of it tastes awful, you are not wrong for thinking the awful part is awful just because the chef chose it to be like that. If the wine chosen is a poor compliment for the food and a different wine would have been a better one, then that is a valid observation. You don’t just take anything you are given and decide it must be good because that is what you were given. In fact, if we accept your way of looking at the story there is never anything to say other than to praise it for having the content it happened to have. I don’t see any value in doing that.

  6. Dennis Lang May 10, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    David–Good reply!! Thanks for picking up on my being lost in the weeds!

    Although it isn’t my intention by any means to suggest all stories are beyond critical analysis. I probably expressed that poorly.

    I do find interest in what contributes to the thought behind a value judgment. For instance,I remember the first time reading Robbe-Grillet years ago. I learned it required accepting the novels on their own terms. Applying other conventional formula would have been in my view a disservice to where the author was coming from. Therefore, it wasn’t a matter of is this “good” or not. It was the level it might resonate with the reader. The wine he was serving with the fish was totally contrary to expectation, but that doesn’t mean it was inappropriate to his intent. (There how’s that for extending the analogy!?)

  7. David May 10, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    Dennis, when you say “accepting the novels on their own terms” as opposed to “applying other conventional formula” I have no idea what you are talking about, but it sounds like you think I and others read stories with a checklist in our back pocket demanding that a story have elements A, B, C, D, and E (whatever those might be – and I have no idea what you think they might be). That sounds like a thoroughly bizarre way to read a story or to interpret any comments I have made about any stories.
    .
    But then you go on to talk about the authors “intent”. It seems that you think the only way to measure a story is by asking “what did the author try to write about?” and then “did the author write about it?” So in this case, did the author intend to write about suicide? Yes. Did he actually write about suicide? Yes. Victory! Great story! But that seems to measure stories by the lowest bar possible and to ignore whether or not it was any good. To go back to the food analogy, did the chef intend to make a dish with chicken? Yes. Is there chicken on my plate? Yes. Victory! No matter that it tastes awful and I have had a hundred better chicken dishes in the last year. He still scores a win with you. Or to take your case, the wine might have been contrary to expectation and it might be the chef’s intention to confound our expectations, but that does not mean it does not taste like garbage anyway.
    .
    I have told you the ways this story did not work for me. Or, if I must use your word, why it did not “resonate” with this reader. I did not use any preconceived notions about what a story is supposed to be like (and, again, have no idea what it would be like to do that). Your standard sounds like judging a story as good if it simply manages to be story. That’s a step up from judging it based on whether the author spelled all the words correctly, but not much higher.

  8. Dennis Lang May 10, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    It’s okay David. You’re a good man. I’m not arguing with you. I respect your viewpoint and your obvious love of literature.

    I always enjoy your contributions and look forward to them!

  9. Melinda May 11, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    I believe this story is about reality—how one perceives it and how that perception is effected by an individual’s cumulative experiences: consciously remembered and subconsciously present. The characters’ extreme behavior, I think, illustrates how chaotic an environment becomes when its inhabitants can only react, rather than objectively respond to situations. It’s the reason why the inexperienced child, who’s learned no mechanism for dealing with frustration beyond tantrums, can appear “so cute” to the character who desperately misses her own child.

  10. john denver May 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

    I read this story last night and believe it is meant to function both as a realistic story, and as a metaphor for trauma or PTSD. The child, after all, is named PT, a strange name (post-trauma, in my reading). The narrator has suffered a terrible loss and drags PT around with him. When they see the man on the building, his rational response is to try to verbosely talk the man down; PT’s response, or the man’s irrational and emotional response, is that he wants him to jump, revealing his own simultaneous desire for suicide and illogical desire to see someone overcome death.

    The redheaded woman correctly reads this impulse as he rushes up onto the roof, identifying the man’s traumatized nature and deathwish. Uncoincidentally, it seems to me, her name is the same as his dead wife’s. We never see the man jump, never really see the aftermath, and afterward, we have the narrator eating ice cream with his wife’s namesake, not overly troubled. The entire incident, again, can be read as a kind of metaphorical PTSD fantasy, in which the man on the building is substituted for the narrator’s own suicidal impulses, in which his dead wife is resurrected to talk him down, after he fails to talk himself down.

  11. Trevor Berrett May 15, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    David, at the top you hoped I might be able to shed some light on how stories such as this get selected, edited, and then published in The New Yorker. The short answer is that I do not know. But I’ve seen plenty of this and might be able to offer some kind of guess.

    Some times, it is the translator who goes through the work of interesting the magazine, but I’m betting this is rarely the case with The New Yorker. Some times, it is the author’s built in clout. If a Murakami story is in the pipeline, for example, I’m betting The New Yorker does all they can to get it if it’s remotely not bad.

    While Keret is no Murakami, his work is being translated for publication in English regardless of The New Yorker. Who paid for it? Most likely the future publisher. In this case, though I do not know, I’m betting this story is being translated as part of a future work. Keret, the publisher (likely Riverhead, part of Penguin Random House, or maybe FSG, both of which are filled with authors who are not strangers to the pages of The New Yorker), and The New Yorker probably have a good relationship, so when this story appeared it was in great shape. Keret came with some clout, the translation was ready to go, and here we have it.

    I’m not sure if that’s helpful at all. If I could boil it down, I’d say the link you’re looking for is the publisher.

  12. David May 15, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Trevor, that does help some, but my question started with wondering why he might not translate his own story given his clear proficiency in English. It seems odd for an author to give up so much control over how the story will be presented, especially in its initial publication, when he could do it himself. I expect he would review any English translation and work closely with the translator, but when the author is as fluent as he seems to be all he really needs is help like an editor would give. Do any bilingual authors ever translate their own work or is this something even then that is usually done by someone else? Thanks.

  13. Trevor Berrett May 17, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    I see, and sorry for overlooking that portion of your question. There are plenty of authors who speak English fluently as a second language who nevertheless allow their works to be translated by someone else. I speak Portuguese “fluently” but I’d never ever trust that I could translate my work into Portuguese. Some of these authors work closely with their translators.

    See, for example, W.G. Sebald, who wrote in German despite living and teaching in England for decades. Indeed, I’ve listened to some of his interviews in English and he speaks the language better than I do. Nevertheless, he had his work translated by others, primarily Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell, with whom he worked closely, supervising their work. (see here for a fantastic shot of Sebald’s notes on one of Hulse’s translations; you’ll see that this segment comes from a book called Saturn’s Moons, which includes pieces by Hulse and Bell about working with Sebald).

    Other authors are not so involved, and because of the wide spectrum of skill and ego (presence and lack of) and desire, the reasons vary greatly. There are some books translated by the author, of course. The most notable example is Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote nine novels in Russian before starting to write in English. He went back and translated some of the first novels himself (he also translated two of his English-language books, Conclusive Evidence (or, Speak, Memory (it has an interesting publication history) and Lolita, into Russian).

  14. David May 18, 2017 at 12:14 am

    Thanks, Trevor. That is very helpful.

  15. William May 18, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    So here comes Etgar Keret again with his schlemiel character and again the man has a young boy. And again the boy is demanding something. Here it is ice cream and the circumstances are not as propitious as in the “Moon” story – his dad is trying to stop a man from jumping off a roof.

    Overall, I like this story. It moves quickly and it presents an important idea about life in two pages, giving it a nice punch. And the title functions in a nice double way — it expresses the boy’s desire to see the man fly and it expresses the notion that his dad needs to get beyond mourning and savor life.

    In general the man and boy are played off against each other skillfully, as well as the redheaded woman, mixing farcical humor of misunderstanding with tragedy/grief:
    — The boy thinking the man is a superhero and will fly vs. the father trying to stop him from jumping
    — The man trudging up the stairs to try to stop the jumper with the boy wriggling under his arm
    — The woman misunderstanding what’s going on with the man and his son
    — The boy feeling he missed something while the father feels that he failed.
    — Everyone eating ice cream after the man jumped

    I think that miscommunication is a subtheme: “How can you say all that to a half-deaf guy who’s four stories above you?”

    In the last scene we have an accounting and a resolution of sorts, or at least acceptance:

    “The redhead signals that it’s O.K. and gives him her almost empty cup. Her child is dead, my wife is dead, the guy on the roof is dead.

    “’He’s so cute,’ she whispers, as P.T. strains to suck up the last drop of milkshake in the paper cup. He really is cute.”

    It takes a child to teach them. Or show them. I thought of that saying in the Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life we are in death.” Only this story requires a paraphrase: “In the midst of death we must enjoy our ice cream.”

    BTW, I had no problem with the boy being whiny — I take it you guys don’t have children — nor with the man feeling guilty about causing his wife’s death nor with his feeling suicidal after the car accident, despite having two children. Suicidal thoughts don’t follow normal logic. Again, I suspect you guys have never been depressed. Overall, you’re way too hyper-rational. And hypercritical. Relax. Enjoy. Fly, already.

  16. Eric May 21, 2017 at 6:58 am

    FWIW, Isabel Allende has lived here in the Bay Area for nearly 30 years, and still writes everything in Spanish. To me, there’s no mystery at all about that, since I found her work to be unreadable in English, but much more entertaining after I learned Spanish well enough to read the originals. She obviously thinks predominantly in that language, so her personality (and, therefore, writing style) comes through much more vividly in Spanish than it ever can in English.

    I found this Keret story to be pretty decent, but I also suspect something similar is going on here, and that, if the Hebrew original ever sees the light of day, readers of that language will find the characters to be more nuanced and believable than is possible in an English translation.

  17. Greg May 21, 2017 at 10:33 am

    1) Thank you to Dennis, Melinda, John and William for showing me all that is going on in this story. There are so many more emotional dynamics than I thought!

    2) And thank you to David, Trevor and Eric for discussing general translation implications. I had always thought that a translator was simply hired after a story was completed and “that was that”. But now I know it is much more involved than this!

  18. William May 24, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    [I thought I posted this last week, but I see it didn’t take. I’ll try again.]

    So here comes Etgar Keret again with his schlemiel character and again the man has a young boy. And again the boy is demanding something. Here it is ice cream and the circumstances are not as propitious as in the “Moon” story – his dad is trying to stop a man from jumping off a roof.

    Overall, I like this story. It moves quickly and it presents an important idea about life in two pages, giving it high EPA (Empathic Personal Advancement) rating in terms of feelings/word.

    In general the man and boy are played off against each other skillfully, as well as the redheaded woman, mixing farcical humor of misunderstanding with tragedy/grief:
    — The boy thinking the man is a superhero and will fly vs the father trying to stop him from jumping
    — The man trudging up the stairs to try to stop the jumper with the boy wriggling under his arm
    — The woman misunderstanding what’s going on with the man and his son
    — The boy feeling he missed something while the father feels that he failed.
    — Everyone eating ice cream after the man jumped

    I think that miscommunication is a subtheme: “How can you say all that to a half-deaf guy who’s four stories above you?”

    In the last scene we have an accounting and a resolution of sorts, or at least acceptance:

    “The redhead signals that it’s O.K. and gives him her almost empty cup. Her child is dead, my wife is dead, the guy on the roof is dead.

    “’He’s so cute,’ she whispers, as P.T. strains to suck up the last drop of milkshake in the paper cup. He really is cute.”

    It takes a child to teach them. Or show them. I thought of that saying in the Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life we are in death.” Only this story requires a paraphrase: “In the midst of death we must savor life.” And enjoy our ice cream.

  19. William May 24, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    now I see that it did post, but it didn’t load when I went back to the site. ah, computers — you gotts love ’em.

  20. David July 26, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Update: I just listened to an interview with Keret on The New Yorker radio show. He speaks English with a very heavy accent, but if you were to read a transcript of what he said you might have trouble finding any grammatical errors or phrasing peculiarities that indicate he isn’t a native English speaker. Given that, I can see how he would both be qualified to translate his own work into English, yet might feel more comfortable having someone else do it. Even with a translator, I would say he has strong enough English that he could easily correct any translations with some degree of nuance.

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