“I think all of us love this work because we see the humanity involved. We see the sweep.” Jean Taylor, an instructor in theatrical clowning with the Barrow Group, paced a few steps in a small, white-walled studio a few blocks from Times Square while Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret and I sat on opposite ends of the row of chairs before her, intruders in a class of experienced clowning students.
Keret, known internationally for his specifically Israeli iteration of magical realism — one full of a sorrow-laced dayenu humor — was wearing a red plaid button-down over a white t-shirt, which bore a sketch of a red balloon floating above the dark silhouette of a town. He held a grey sweatshirt in his lap and, as we listened to our instructions, he crossed his legs, resting the tips of his fingers on his knee. Theatrical clowns only lightly resemble the elaborately face-painted birthday party stalwarts paid to terrify children. They wear red noses and hats, but their costumes are a ward against artifice, not an embodiment of it. A theatrical clown is supposed to be a gorgeously uncomplicated creature, one that springs holistically from a quiet, vulnerable side of its performer’s personality.
Keret has a well-developed public persona. He’s thoughtful, unpredictable and funny, as at home smoking weed on the podcast “High Times” as writing for The New Yorker. I wanted to learn something about him that he wouldn’t necessarily choose to tell me — something about that quiet side that could be embodied, but not spoken. Plus, Keret as a clown makes a kind of intuitive sense. In a 2007 profile in Hadassah Magazine, the Israeli literary scholar Yigal Schwartz called Keret “a sad clown.” And Keret’s new collection, “Fly Already,” features a story, titled “The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon,” in which a couple of disgruntled longtime circus clowns make memorable cameos. In the story, the clowns are simultaneously voices of reason and agents of chaos. That combination — rationality plus a serious interest in mayhem — in some ways defines Keret’s work.
We warmed up, standing in a circle and attempting to clap in time, one after the other, Keret always half a beat too late. His arms stayed close to his torso, and his knees were slightly bent. It was the posture of someone about to leap, as if he could not wait to be in action, but was also terribly alarmed by the prospect.
“Clowns,” Taylor called. “Clowns!” Her voice, chiding in a comforting way, invited the childlike surety that comes with knowing there is an authority present — one whose word, even if illogical, must be taken as truth. Throughout the class, Keret looked as if he would like to do something completely surprising but couldn’t decide on the most interesting option. The next day we sat at a restaurant over half-empty cups of coffee, left on the table after an interview he’d conducted with another reporter. “When I was a clown,” he told me earnestly, “my instinct was to refuse instruction.”
Keret claims to be surprised that his stories, known for being short, sketch-like and surreal, keep turning out to be dark. “I feel that the heart of my stories is really soft and sweet,” he said, “but somehow the shell is sharper. I think my stories are very much me wanting to make you a cup of coffee and then spilling it all over. The intention was that I wanted to do something positive. Your trousers may disagree.”
But is he really confused about the depth of pain and grief in his work? Keret says he was not afraid of death as a child, but was deeply afraid of being murdered, and specifically of being stoned. He’s the child of two Holocaust survivors, so it’s tempting to read certain conclusions into his young fixation on a form of torturous death first codified in the Torah. And Keret’s work isn’t exactly free from Jewish guilt and trauma. There’s a reason that “Fly Already” features — spoilers — a story about a young boy who grows up in an orphanage, only to realize in the last hours of his life that he’s a clone of Adolf Hitler, and has been created so that a very elderly Holocaust survivor can murder him. Asked about the numerous startling, often apparently arbitrary deaths in his new collection “Fly Already,” Keret said “it’s not so much a conscious decision. I knew people who had died violent deaths, so it may be something that has to do with my biography, my personal experience. And also I think that there is something reflecting about death; it’s really a good way of talking about life.”
You could see that balance in his work as a clown. The two of us partnered to perform a semi-improvised dance, a mix of a creaky pseudo-hula — my contribution — and a frenzied contribution of jumping and heel-slapping — his. We danced side-by-side, facing the audience and trying not to laugh. Keret was playful, as if we were old friends. He put his arm around me as I shrunk away from the audience, pulling me back; when I did something especially ridiculous, he gave me a look of warm ridicule you would never give a stranger. His liveliness was overwhelming — and then it was gone. He had flung himself to the floor, where he lay, unmoving, and the dance was over.
Well, I thought so. His eyes stayed closed for a long moment. And then he opened them, reached for my hand, and pulled himself back up.
Although the darkness of Keret’s work is pronounced, his public persona is more clearly linked to his endearing imaginativeness, often mistaken for whimsy. Aside from the clone of Hitler, “Fly Already” — translated from Hebrew by, among others, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen and Sondra Silverston — features characters including a smoking fish in slippers, a pair of siblings convinced their father has been turned into a rabbit, a man who purchases the rights to other people’s birthdays and, most amazingly, a prolonged faux-email correspondence in which two men, while booking a visit to an escape room, argue over which of them more appropriately mourns the Holocaust. Keret’s ninth story collection, the book has a way of spinning away from the brink of misery toward hope. A story about paralyzing grief ends with a trip to get ice cream. A father, desperate to ensure his son’s love after a brutal divorce, spirals to alarming behavioral extremes that nearly culminate in theft. Then his son delivers a moment of grace, and the father relaxes. We see, if only for a moment, the possibility of a new and closer relationship, rather than one disintegrating under the weight of the father’s need.
That tonal heel-turn doesn’t make the stories charming, exactly, but they give off the strong impression of a mind at play, an impression accentuated by Keret’s pleasantly impish public disposition. His reputation for quirkiness has, in some ways, billowed out of his control. When, in 2012, the experimental architect Jakub Szczesny set out to build what would be the world’s narrowest house and looked for inspiration, he settled on Keret — whom he had never met — as his imagined occupant; Keret became the house’s first tenant. There is something about the heartfelt, lightly humorous ingenuity of his work that others find easy to grasp onto and run with.
“I never intend to be funny,” Keret said the morning after clown class. “It’s like when you deliver furniture, then you wrap [it] with bubble wrap — for me, funny is the bubble wrap. I’m interested in keeping the sofa intact.”
That approach made clowning an unnatural fit for Keret. “Clowning, being funny is one of your purposes,” he said, skeptically. But despite his reticence — or perhaps because of it — he was extremely funny as a clown, even, and sometimes especially, when he leaned into the side of clown-like innocence in which naïveté becomes alarming. That was a natural place for him to go, given his discomfort with the exercise: “There was something about this position of being kind of [a] performer,” he said, “my first reflex was to experience it as humiliating.”
Embracing that reflexive embarrassment at being observed was part of what made him so persuasive. Clowning, Taylor said as she explained the basics of the art, is “about play, pleasure, vulnerability and resilience. Your clown — and you all have a clown — knows really well how to go between the vulnerability and the resilience.” Clowns find the world to be often incomprehensible, experiencing a long, emotionally nuanced delay between receiving a piece of information and processing it. Keret’s fight to overcome his instinct to turn away from the attention of his audience played clearly in his actions. He would try, badly and hilariously, to do the correct thing, and those of us in the audience would scream with laughter.
But as much as clowning pushed him, onstage, into a place of instinctive rebellion, that form of performance tellingly mirrors Keret’s attitude to writing. “The way that you write a story, is — for me — you take an action, and you break it to bits, and then you take every bit and break it to more bits,” he told me. “You do things very slowly. By doing them slowly you get many, many colors and reactions and authentic moments along the way.”
Keret has been asked to perform what seems like a relatively simple exercise: Move between two spots on the floor with clown-like indecision.
Keret looked at me shyly. Then he gazed at the other clowning students and smiled. “I’m going to expose a piece of my body,” he whispered.
“Clown,” Taylor warned, “What are you doing?” Keret undid the top button of his plaid shirt. “No,” Taylor said. “Clown.” Another button, and another; the red balloon on his t-shirt came into view. Taylor gave him an affectionate, chastising glare. Speaking barely above a whisper, fingers still on the button, he grinned. “I will change my mind,” he said, almost lovingly, and began re-buttoning the shirt.
He’d broken the rules and tiptoed toward the nearly-shocking, but it had been weirdly perfect: the most surprising performance of the night. And yes, there was competition for that honor; two students took the improvised-dance mandate as reason to act out a complex, hilarious pantomime about the daily routines of a pre-industrial era miner. Keret is open in his conversation, but not necessarily free. He knows he is presenting a certain kind of identity, and he is careful about what he will allow it to encompass. Briefly, as he came into his own on the stage, those boundaries became blurred.
And then the outside world entered the studio, and things began to re-solidify. Toward the end of our class, a man in a well-cut blue suit entered the room and took a seat in the back. It was Ira Glass, the radio personality best known for creating “This American Life.” (You never really expect to see Ira Glass; I knew I’d encountered a famous-looking man, but it took me three weeks to figure out which one.) When Taylor dismissed us, Keret took off his red nose and went to join him. He was the same person who, minutes before, had thrown his feet in the air with me in wonderful abandon, but as he and Glass greeted one another and walked out, the clown I’d been observing disappeared. Keret had become, again, a serious resident of the serious world.
I saw them once more by the elevators, and Keret and I smiled at each other like strangers. In the midtown night, I walked alone through the hurried crowds. And I thought of a movement Keret had made shortly before the incident with the shirt, a long, tentative moment in which his whole body seemed to be suspended in decision, each option laid before him and the right one still unclear.
“It’s so fun to see something so simple produce that much information,” Taylor said. “Yes, that’s so beautiful.”