WHAT YOU'LL FIND IN THE NARROWEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD

The narrowest house in the world was built by a Polish architect and named for an Israeli writer. Created by Jakob Szczesny, the house is, at its widest point, four feet to Americans and 122 centimetres to everyone else. Built in the space between two houses on a street that used to be inside the Warsaw Ghetto, it was designed as a temporary retreat for traveling writers, the first of whom was Etgar Keret, the author who gave the house his name. Few eponyms have been more apropos. Etgar means challenge while Keret means urban. What greater urban challenge than living in a place where, if you want to open the fridge, you have to stand in another room?

 

The Keret House. Courtesy of KeretHouse.com

The Keret House. Courtesy of KeretHouse.com

(Sidebar: if reality television producers want a new concept, they should stick a pair of newlyweds in the Keret house for a year and see what happens. I have lived with women in homes that weren’t nearly so small and, sadly, we did not survive; had our shabby apartments been only four feet wide, I’m sure there might have been blood. Marriage is an urban challenge all its own.)

 

All of Etgar Keret's stories are a couple of pages long, which makes him perfect reading while waiting for a latte or longing to distract yourself with something other than Facebookj. Although he started writing in the 1980s, Keret's work was built for the Internet age. “My stories are very compact,” he once told The Guardian. “I want them to say the most complex things in the simplest way.”[1] He has written short stories, films, graphic novels, and a memoir. He’s received plenty of acclaim for these accomplishments, including the Chevalier Medallion of France and the Charles Bronfman Prize, but perhaps the most impressive thing about him is that his books, it is said, are the most shoplifted ones in Israel. Not bad for an author who showed his first story to his brother only to see it used to clean up after the dog. “That,” said Keret, “was the moment I realized I wanted to be a writer.” [2]

Keret was born by cesarean three months too soon – he weighed about 900 grams and his mother woke to hear the doctors betting on how long the baby would live. He arrived during the aftermath of the Six Day War; as he grew up, the scenery of war was never quite cleared away. Growing up, he could look out his window and see the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War, and the attendant violence that has came with those events. Turning back into the house, he could listen to his parents stories of surviving the Holocaust or consider the short life of his best friend who, when they were 19, shot himself while Keret was in the other room.

Given this heavy history, it's perhaps surprising that his stories are some of the funniest in modern literature. In History's School of Literature, Keret's sitting in the same classroom as Aesop, Voltaire, Donald Barthelme, and Simon Rich. It's a classroom that defies easy classification, for the students deal in allegory and satire, fable and farce. A sampling of Keret's plots:  at a child’s party, a magician pulls ghoulish things of of a hat...at a restaurant, a man is served a talking fish....a man crawls through a pipe and finds Heaven on the other side . Keret's work, in short, exists in that place where your dinner talks back, God is watching, and the monsters are real.

Keret is a champion of substance over style: his prose is so unadorned that one suspects it of having taking a vow of poverty. The Russian author Sergei Dovlatov once complained that translators had robbed him of his personality. If Keret has ever echoed this in his private moments, I wouldn't be surprised. His prose, they say, is more fun and playful in his native tongue. “Hebrew is a unique language,” he told the inquisitive journalist at the Paris Review. “The tension between traditional language and a very chaotic and anarchistic one creates a spoken language that is bursting with unique energy and that allows you to switch registers mid-sentence.” [3]

We are what we invent but we’re also made up of the things that invented us first. Keret, like his stories, sits in the middle of two worlds. He emerged from a society that exists at the place where politics intersects with religious identity. Keret is an artist but his sister is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who won’t let her kids read his work. He has come under criticism for his refusal to champion the status quo. Keret generally disagrees with Israel’s military policy and considers the Lebanon War to be Israel’s Vietnam. To underscore this great divide: he is the only Israel author to be published in the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the last intifada. Yet Israelis of all backgrounds continue to shoplift his books; for all his controversy, he maintains a universal appeal.

Perhaps it’s because of the comedy. Humor has a way of slipping past the censors. On his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell discussed the Satire Paradox, pointing out that liberals viewed Stephen Colbert as a liberal skewering conservatives - while conservatives saw it the other way around. Humor is a subtle art. It's also rarely treated with the respect it deserves. Every year, the Academy Awards ignore comedies in favor of earnest dramas; at the Golden Globes, comedies are in a separate category all together. Artists are expected to pick their poison: you can make 'em laugh or you can make 'en think.

When someone like Keret comes along, then, we slap him in the humor category simply because he has made us grin. What is sometimes forgotten is that all good jokes are grown from that kernel of truth. Who among us has not seen our lovers transform when the sun goes down? This is the plot of Fatso,  where the narrator discovers his beauty queen lover transforms into the eponymous behemoth after dark. The absurdity rings true. One should never discount a story just because it has a good punchline. Keret understands that such maudlin things as “a realistic premise” is not what’s needed to tell a story that’s true.

Etgar Keret, as I said, didn’t mind that his brother had used his first story to clean up after the dog. “The story I had written wasn’t the creased, shit-smeared paper,” he said. “That page was just the pipeline through which I could transmit my feelings from my mind to his.”[4] As a writer, I’m nothing like Etgar Keret. I prefer longer stories and if someone is using one of my stories to clean up after their dog, well, let's just say I'd rather not know about it. But Keret and I do have one thing in common: neither of us know how the stories we start are ever going to end. “If I know the end of a story, I cannot write it,” he told the author George Saunders. “The process becomes very technical.”[5]  This philosophy goes against common wisdom, which tends to preach the need for outlines, breakdowns, and an excessive use of cue cards. Yet Keret's philosophy - which is mine too - seems the much more realistic way to go. In life, none of us know how our stories will end. If we knew how that love affair was going to finish, would any of us surrender our hearts?

In Keret's world, reality is always a heartbeat away from breaking down. His characters are like the stag who wanders into a thicket and has his horns caught in the bramble. That’s the spot where Etgar Keret’s characters exist: each of them have had something snagged as they moved from one moment to the next. They’re between two worlds, which is why that narrow house in Poland, the Keret House, is the perfect physical manifestation of Keret’s literary work. It is, after all, built in the crack between two houses, the the exact sort of crack that one might fall into while on their way somewhere else.

Thanks to the Keret House, you can live in that narrow space for a great deal of time. It will probably be to your advantage. The middle ground, as Etgar Keret shows time and again, is where all the wondrous things occur.

NOTES

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/13/fiction.features3

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/05/01/something-out-of-something-talking-with-etgar-keret/

[4] https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/we-can-try-to-be-human/

[5] http://www.pen.org/nonfiction-conversation-transcript/etgar-keret-george-saunders