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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