Kalfus, Ken 1954-

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KALFUS, Ken 1954-

PERSONAL: Born April 9, 1954, in Bronx, NY; son of Martin (a businessman) and Ida Kalfus; married Inga Saffron (a journalist), May 2, 1991; children: Sky. Education: Attended Sarah Lawrence College, 1972-74; attended New York University, 1974-76.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Caroline Dawnay, PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Journalist and author, 1990—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Short-story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1999.


(Editor and author of introduction) Christopher Morley, Christopher Morley's Philadelphia, illustrated by Walter Jack Duncan and Frank H. Taylor, Fordham University Press (Fordham, NY), 1990.

Thirst (short stories), Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.

Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (short stories), Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel, Ecco (New York, NY), 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Journalist Ken Kalfus grew up in Long Island, New York, but has lived around the world in locations as diverse as Belgrade, Dublin, and Moscow. Accordingly, his debut collection of short stories, titled Thirst, offers an eclectic and varied treat for the reader, according to several reviewers. Kalfus was contacted by Milkweed Editions when an editor there read Kalfus's writing in Harper's. In response to the editor's request, Kalfus submitted several stories, and the editor's choices were published in book form. According to critic Mary Ann Grossmann of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, the author's stories reflect his international experiences. Voice Literary Supplement critic Dwight Garner commented on the author's outlook, concluding that Kalfus is the "rare writer whose travels haven't colored his prose with cosmopolitan cynicism." Garner compared Kalfus to Hemingway in his ability to "let moments speak for themselves."

Thirst, according to Grossmann, contains the common themes of human dislocation and situational uncertainty. Kalfus admits that uncertainty is central to both his writing style and personal outlook. Grossmann joined other critics in finding the theme of uncertainty particularly effective in the short story "A Line Is a Series of Points." The story allows readers a glimpse into the psyche of refugees who have been homeless for so long that wandering has become a way of life; it is based on Kalfus's observations of Muslim refugees who had been forced out of a Bosnian village by Serbs. Kalfus was struck by the sense of denationalization that he observed, and the sense that such people could have "come from anywhere." A Publishers Weekly reviewer further praised Thirst as "skilled and versatile" and alternating between "postmodern playfulness and darker realism." This reviewer liked the daring aspect of some of the stories, as well as the element of surprise in the collection. Among the stories are "Cats in Space," which features suburban teenagers who set a cat adrift in a hot air balloon and later rescue the animal; "Night and Day You Are the One," which features a sleep-deprived character who walks back and forth between two different worlds in the same city; the title story, which finds an Irish au pair and a Moroccan student becoming romantically involved in Paris; and "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," which suggests deeper meaning behind sports statistics.

Applauding Kalfus for subtly showing the reader that "sometimes the really significant truths are those found closest to home," Garner recalled in the Voice Literary Supplement that Thirst was the most effective debut book he had seen in a year. James Held of the Philadelphia Inquirer advised the reader to "unexpect the expected," and gave the author credit for capturing the humor inherent in our pursuits of deeper questions such as "knowing and being." Ron Carlson of the New York Times Book Review described Kalfus's style as one where the reader is never completely comfortable and the stories are laced with "fundamental strangeness."

After living in Russia for four years, Kalfus published a second collection of five short stories and one novella titled Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. The stories in this collection take place in Russia at various times between Joseph Stalin's regime and the present. "What is most wonderful about the variety of these stories is Kalfus's restraint," commented Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Paul Maliszewski. "While Kalfus is an American author, this is not Russia as seen through American eyes," Maliszewski continued. Similarly, Paul Richardson wrote in Russian Life, "It is exceptionally difficult for a foreigner to write fiction about Russia and get it right. Ken Kalfus gets it right. Again and again." In the book's title story, "Pu-239 and other Russian Fantasies," readers meet Timofey, a nuclear engineer who learns that he has absorbed fatal amounts of radiation. In an effort to leave his family with some means of support after he dies, Timofey attempts to sell weapons-grade plutonium on the black market. His clientele, however, ignorantly assume that the powder is an illicit drug. In "Anzhelika 13," a young girl begins menstruating on the day of Joseph Stalin's death and associates the biological event with Russia's mourning.

"Kalfus shows a striking talent for transcultural understanding, and for depicting the very strange," noted one Publisher's Weekly contributor in a review of Pu-239 and other Russian Fantasies. Many reviewers were taken aback by the author's technique, which seemed to gain power with this second publication. "Kalfus is a rare writer of fiction whose passages of description feel like action," wrote Laura Miller for Salon.com. "It's as if he were injecting his readers with a serum that renders them, in a rush, intimately familiar with the texture of the Russian experience," Miller acknowledged. In a review of Pu-239 and other Russian Fantasies published on the Stranger book review Web site, Evan Sult expressed a dissenting opinion of Kalfus's fiction. "It's not the Russian characters or perspective that fail. . . . It'sthe writing itself. . . . Kalfus has a problem linking his narrative voice to the characters he writes." This, however, was not the popular view of the book, which left most reviewers wanting more. "Hopefully, it won't be long before readers see a novel from this master storyteller," remarked Veronica Scrol in Booklist, and upon hearing of the pending publication of Kalfus's first novel, Miller wrote, "Ah, something at last to look forward to in the next millennium."

The Commissariat of Enlightenment begins in pre-revolutionary Russia in the year 1910. Eminent author Leo Tolstoy is dying in a railway station in the small Russian town of Astapavo. Nikolai Grisbin, a young and ambitious cinematographer for a French newsreel company, joins the throng of media that congregate in the tiny town in hopes of capturing on film Tolstoy's last moments on Earth. On the way to Astapavo, Grisbin meets Professor Vorobev, a scientist and embalmer who wishes to embalm Tolstoy's body with his self-proclaimed revolutionary preservation skills, to which he attests by presenting a preserved rat. While in Astapavo, Grisbin meets revolutionary Russian figures Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. Stalin, who is quietly collecting political allies, convinces Grisbin to use his cinematic skills for propaganda purposes. After the revolution and Lenin's rise to power, in the year 1919, Grisbin changes his name to Astapov and goes to work for the Commissariat of Enlightenment, a Russian agency dealing in political propaganda. Here Grisbin truly realizes the dark power of film as he takes part in manipulating and controlling images and stories, ultimately determining what will become Russia's political history. When Lenin is close to death, Professor Vorobev is called on to preserve him. The novel ends at the crumbling of the Soviet Union.

Kalfus's first novel was widely reviewed. "Told in supple, witty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect form Kalfus," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer of The Commissariat of Enlightenment. "It's not moral complexity or clashes of opinion that interest Ken Kalfus, but the driving force of single ideas, the questioning, gives a relentless impetus to the narrative that makes this novel compelling to read," remarked Barry Unsworth in a New York Times Books Web site review. Unsworth continued with a popular observation on the author's powers to overtake the reader with an almost chemical force: "Some scenes of action and description are realized so vividly that they almost have the force of hallucination." Similarly, John Freeman wrote in the Star Tribune, "Kalfus mixes a stiff cocktail out of history's sad ingredients. In fact, it goes down so smoothly you almost don't feel the burn." Not all reviewers praised the book, however. In the Houston Chronicle, Evan Miles Williamson revealed one of the novel's problems: "Rather than let the reader draw conclusions from the events being dramatized, Kalfus repeatedly clubs readers over the head with his thesis: History is manipulable, and our culture is controlled by the propaganda machines of the media." Summing up popular opinion of the book, and making the prevalent comparison of Kalfus to revered Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, a Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "a brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary," adding, "Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he'd dreamed this up." Remarking on his development as a writer since the publication of Thirst, Kalfus revealed to Garner in a Salon.com interview, "I certainly felt that when I was writing those stories that aiming for spareness in my work was a way of avoiding screwing it up with things that weren't relevant. I think my style has become a bit more lush. I think I'm more confident."



Bloomsbury Review, September, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 13.

Book, March-April, 2003, Beth Kephart, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, pp. 78-79.

Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 70.

Booklist, August, 1999, Veronica Scrol, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 2027; January 1, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, pp. 847-848.

Choice, March, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 1266.

Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 76.

Esquire, November, 1999, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 82.

Harper's, February, 2003, John Leonard, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, pp. 67-68.

Hungry Mind Review, fall, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 32.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 1074; December 1, 2002, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 1720.

Library Journal, August, 1999, Jim Dwyer, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 144.

Newsday, August 20, 1998.

New Yorker, November 22, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 202.

New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1998, p. 9; September 26, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 10; October 3, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 104; December 5, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 77, and review of Thirst, p. 105.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 1998.

Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1998, p. 45; July 12, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 72; March 20, 2000, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 20; January 6, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 37.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2000, Paul Maliszewski, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 183; summer, 2003, Tim Feeney, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 138.

Russian Life, January, 2000, Paul Richardson, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 58.

Saint Paul Pioneer Press, August 30, 1998.

Times Literary Supplement, July 9, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 23.

Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1998, pp. 73-74.

Yale Review, October, 2001, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 129.


Curled Up with a Good Book Web site,http://www.curledup.com/ (April 16, 2003), review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Esquire Web site,http://esquire.com/ (April 16, 2003), Adrienne Miller, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

HarperCollins Web site,http://www.harpercollins.com/ (April 16, 2003), description of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Houston Chronicle Web site,http://www.chron.com/ (February 25, 2004), Eric Miles Williamson, "Soviet-Set Page-Turner Offers Warning," review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Mostly Fiction Web site,http://mostlyfiction.com/ (February 25, 2004), Mary Whipple, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

New York Times Books Web site,http://www.nytimes.com/ (April 11, 2003), Barry Unsworth, "Ambiguous Light," review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

PFD Literary Agency Web site,http://www.pfd.co.uk/ (February 25, 2004), "Author Ken Kalfus."

PIF Magazine Web site,http://www.pifmagazine.com/ (February 25, 2004), Ryan Boudinot, "Interview with Ken Kalfus."

Reading Group Guides Web site,http://www.readinggroupguides.com/ (February 25, 2004), description of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (April 16, 2003), Laura Miller, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, and Dwight Garner, "The Salon Interview: Ken Kalfus."

Star Tribune Web site,http://www.startribune.com/ (April 16, 2003), John Freeman, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Stranger,http://www.thestranger.com/ (April 16, 2003), Evan Sult, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies.*