Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus

A master of the short story form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

coup de foudreKen Kalfus has become one of my favourite writers since I first read Equilateral, his brilliantly written take on the Mars sci-fi story. His collection of short stories about Soviet Russia, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, confirmed my first impression, while also letting me know that he is a true master of the short story form. So I was primed to love this new collection, which consists of a novella and 15 short stories. And I’m pleased to say that the book lived up to, perhaps exceeded, my high expectations.

The novella-length title story, Coup de Foudre, is a barely disguised imagining of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal (when the leader of the International Monetary Fund and possible candidate for the French Presidency was accused of having sexually assaulted a chamber-maid in a Manhattan hotel room). In Kalfus’ hands, it becomes a compelling examination of a man so intoxicated by power and his own superiority that he feels he is above the common morality. Landau, the Strauss-Kahn figure, narrates the story in the form of a letter to the maid. There is much here about the then political situation, with Greece teetering on the brink of financial meltdown and a real possibility of a domino effect across large parts of Europe; and, in his arrogance, Landau believes only he can save Europe and his downfall is Europe’s also. But monstrous though Kalfus paints him, we also see his concern in principle for the poor and less advantaged of the world. He recognizes the maid’s positional weakness as an immigrant who lied to get entry to the US to escape from a country where women are still treated abominably and where female genital mutilation is still routinely practised, and is sympathetic to her situation, while not allowing that sympathy to interfere with fulfilling his own desires.

strauss-kahn headlines

The story is extremely sexually explicit, but not pruriently. Rather, Kalfus is drawing parallels between economic and political power and sexual power, and the single-minded egotism that seems so often to be the driver behind both. I admit I felt uneasy, as I always do, about the morality of writing a story so obviously concerning real people still living. Not for Strauss-Kahn’s sake, I hasten to add, but I did wonder about the re-imagining of the maid’s story. Although depicted clearly as the victim, there are aspects of the story that made me feel as if it almost represented another level of assault, and I wondered whether she had been asked for and given permission to have her story told in this way. One could certainly argue that the salacious details of the story have already been so hashed over in the public domain that it can’t matter. But somehow I still feel it does. Despite that reservation, I found the story well written, psychologically persuasive and intensely readable.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

Fortunately the rest of the collection didn’t affect me with the same kind of internal conflict. Some of the other stories are also based on real-life events but not with the same kind of personalisation and intimacy of this first one. Some have a political aspect to them, while others have a semi-autobiographical feel, and there’s a lot of humour in many of them. There are several that would be classed, I suppose, as ‘speculative fiction’ – borderline sci-fi – but with Kalfus it’s always humanity that’s at the core, even when he’s talking about parallel universes, dead languages or even cursed park benches! There are some brilliantly imaginative premises on display here, along with the more mundane, but in each story Kalfus gives us characters to care about and even the more fragmentary stories have a feeling of completeness so often missing from contemporary short story writing. Here’s a small flavour of what can be found in the collection…

The Un- – a beautifully funny tale of what it’s like to be an unpublished writer – all the insecurities and jealousies, the stratagems for getting stories into print, the need to earn a living while waiting for the never-appearing acceptance letter. Witty and warm, Kalfus gently mocks the pseud-ness of so much of the writing world, but never from a place of superiority. It’s clear that this is autobiographical, and Kalfus was a member of The Un- back in the days before there was the possibility of solving the problem by becoming part of The Self-. He speculates on whether one can call oneself a writer before one is published. The drive to be published comes above all else, until he is suddenly hit with an idea – when suddenly it takes second place to the need to write.

An entire ward at the Home for the Literary Insane was occupied by people who insisted on favorably likening their evening-and-weekend scribbling to the work of the world’s most accomplished writers. Another ward was for people who compared their work to that of inferior writers who were nevertheless published; something snapped when they tried to account for the appearance of these mediocrities in print: it required a bloodlessly cynical theory of publishing or, even more, a nihilist’s genuflection before the mechanisms of an amoral universe.

Mr Iraq – this is the story of a journalist, normally on the left politically, who found himself supporting the Iraq war. Now in 2005, his father is attending anti-war demonstrations and his son is advocating bringing back the draft. This story gives a great picture of the dilemma in which left-wing supporters of the war found themselves when everything began to wrong and of the sense of alienation from politics with which many of them were left.

Teach Yourself Tsilanti: Preface – a charming little tale of unrequited love and longing disguised as an introduction to a rediscovered, long dead language, written by a man whose own love of words shines through in the precision with which he uses them to create beautiful things. I can’t help feeling this one may have an autobiographical element too…

How did Tsilanti gallants win their sweethearts? Not with testosterone-fuelled competitive violence, nor with gaudy displays of material riches, nor with glib lines of poetry ripped off from professional bards. No, the currency of love in the era of Tsilanti greatness was manufactured by patient, passionate, intimate instruction. The Tsilanti swain approached his maiden with fresh or obscure words, phrases, and sentences. With his glamorous baubles of language, he gave her a new way of thinking about the world and the distinct items that populate it. If she accepted his tribute, the Tsilanti couple began to share a common experience, a vision, and a life. This is all any of us can hope for within the span of our brief earthly tenures.

This is a great collection which would be a perfect introduction to Kalfus. Occasionally shocking, hugely imaginative, full of warmth and humour and extremely well written, every story in the book rated at a minimum of four stars for me, with most being five. And Kalfus finishes the thing off beautifully with some Instructions for my Literary Executors, a little piece of mockery at the expense of the occasional pomposity of the literary world, but done so self-deprecatingly that any sting is removed…

4. The Collected Correspondence. I was never much of a letter writer, but in the course of a long and varied literary life, I’ve left a lot of messages for people, mostly on their answering machines. Place a query in the New York Review of Books; certainly many of these answering-machine tapes have been saved and my messages can be retrieved from them. Don’t edit the messages – please! I want posterity to “hear” me as I was…

 

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33 thoughts on “Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus

  1. Oh, I’m going to have to, this sounds a veritable feast of a box of dark liqueur chocolates. I need something, as I’m going to be embarking on a long literary journey, which may last – indeed, is almost BOUND to last, for around 10 years, unless I get eaten by sharks (I shan’t include Jaws) or completely lose my way (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (probably ditto) or just give up finding it too much of a burden (Giving Up The Ghost – already read it, and anyway, it isn’t on the route)

    As for what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to wait, I’m busy packing – mosquito net, tick, thermal underwear, tick, topee, tick, travel documents……….hmm, a bit previous, I’d have thought

    Watch this space. Or at least, my one, in the fullness of time. Hopefully before the end of the month, unless the wobbly TBR distracts. Not to mention, this one, thanks for the heads up

    • I think you’ll enjoy this one, but note – it’s grossly overpriced on Az UK for some obscure reason. I got it from Abe Books in the end, when I gave up waiting for it to appear on Kindle over here.

      Most intriguing! Do I detect some kind of world tour in the offing? I shall await with anticipation for all to be revealed…

      • Thanks for the warning. I may wait a while longer and try to deal with some of the dreadful existing TBR piles, especially as I bought 3 books today and a couple of them are very dense indeed.

        As for your question……you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment, though I might do so in a few weeks, when something or somethings should at least be under my belt – and not just because I’ve made a pig of myself in preparation by consuming a lot of chocolate.

  2. Oh, this sounds like a great collection, FictionFan. And what interests me is that it seems cohesive, although there isn’t an obvious theme, really, that links the stories. And I’m intrigued by the variety of contexts! Little wonder you liked this.

    • There are recurring themes, though each story is quite different. Probably less themed than his last Soviet collection, but that means there’s more likely to be something for everyone in this one. I think this one gives a real flavour of his style and the quality of his writing. Good stuff! 🙂

  3. What a charming collection! I think i should check myself into the Home for the Literary Insane at once; I am always comparing myself to great writers (as if!) And the Tsilanti one sound rather lovely indeed.

    • He’s a lovely writer – a real wordsmith. I don’t really understand why he’s not better known. And this collection in particular would be a great starting point to his work, I feel… 🙂

  4. I haven’t read any of Kalfus’s work before, so thanks for the recommendation. I’m not totally sure this one would tempt me to read it (well, maybe the story titled ‘The Un-‘, but even that might hit too close to home, ha!)

    • Haha! I suspect every writer, published or not, would recognise some of the things in The Un- , but it’s done so warmheartedly it would be an encouragement rather than off-putting, I think. No doubt I’ll be reviewing more of his stuff in the future, so I’ll try to tempt you again then… 😉

    • Thanks, DD! I love the way Kalfus returns to the theme of writing again and again in his stories, but always in a way that doesn’t feel as if he’s full of his own self-importance, as some of the literary ‘greats’ tend to. The Un- is a great little story that I think would ring bells for most writers, published or not…

  5. I must get around to Kalfus – I seem to be saying that a lot lately about a lot of authors. People keep writing books I want to read, but the day still only has 24 hours in it.

  6. Another author I’ve not read and one that I really ought to try – this short story collection (and novella) may be the place to start even though I’m not a huge fan of the form – Like you I think I may feel a little uncomfortable reading Coup de Foundre but Un sounds really appealing.

    • I think this collection is a good introduction to his work – it covers a lot of themes that I’ve spotted in other stuff he’s done. And unlike a lot of short stories these ones leave me feeling as if they’re complete – so often with shorts I find I’m thinking, well that was good if only it had been properly finished! If you do try him at some point, I hope you enjoy! 🙂

    • Yeah, for someone who says I don’t really enjoy short stories, I seem to be reading an awful lot of them these days! He’s good at the political ones, I find, because he doesn’t go into a one-sided rant – the stories are always about how the politics affect the people…

  7. Very interesting, and I think your comments about the first story and the effect on the maid’s story are very just and thoughtful. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but I also suppose it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened.

    • Thank you – yes, it always leaves me a little uneasy when writers use living people, or even people whose friends or children might still be living, in fictionalised accounts. I felt much the same about Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I know as many people hated her as loved her, but I really felt it was too soon after her death for that kind of story.

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