An Interview with Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus is a great American novelist and short story writer who for many years has enjoyed a solid reputation and ardent following among his fellow writers. The themes and concerns of his fiction have remained surprisingly focused since his first Russian-inspired fiction: The Commissariat of Enlightenment and his short story collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies places.
I have been reading his work with great pleasure since I first studied Russian literature at a New York university ten years ago. At the time he seemed to me to be the American writer who was most interested (and skilled) at diffusing the 20th century Russian literary tradition into Anglophone literature.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country explored the breakdown of a marriage amid the backdrop of the September 11th terrorist attacks. His previous novel, Equilateral followed a British astronomer through his obsessive quest to excavate an equilateral triangle in the dunes of Egypt's Western Desert.
His latest book Coup de Foudre, gives life to the titular bromide "ripped from the headlines." It is a remarkable novella exploring the inner life of a powerful French central banker who commits a crime against a maid in an upscale Manhattan hotel room. This interview was conducted after we met in person for a pleasant lunch in Paris's Marias district.
You have lived in many places, and in your writing you've drawn continuously on European settings and history -- Russian especially, from the 1917 revolution onwards to the violent post-Soviet 1990s. Apart from the obvious allure of that civilization and its ornaments to the sensitive literary soul, what make these places a source of inspiration?
I grew up as a Cold War baby, so the Russians always possessed allure and glamor for me as our adversaries, and by the late '60s, not ones we really feared or hated. Even now the pronunciation of the word "Soviet," with all it implies and its weird juxtaposition of vowels in the final two syllables, excites my lips, tongue, and palate. I began studying Russian in the seventh grade -- with the expectation that our country and theirs would eventually cooperate in space and my proficiency in the language would further my career as an astronaut. I was prescient about the cooperation in space, of course, if not about my career with NASA or my ability to become a particularly skilled Russian-speaker.
I first visited the Soviet Union in my teens and traveled extensively in Eastern Europe in my 20s and 30s; my limited Russian gave me a bit of a foothold there. I lived in Moscow in the 1990s. My Russian got better. I continue to find the people of Russia and Eastern Europe exotic, endlessly hospitable, strikingly handsome, cultured and unabashedly intellectual. I can't help but be drawn to the region. And then there are those ornaments you mentioned.
Speaking of those ornaments -- it seems that you've metabolized a great deal of the influence, texture, tonality, and mood of the Russian short story into your work. Which of the Russian classics are most important to you, and what exactly do you make of the influence of their work on your own?
The question of influence is always a bit tricky, it presupposes that you've learned anything from your reading. It's true, though, I've delved deeply in the Russian short story, much of which I read originally in Russian -- which means I read the stories with a dictionary in hand, very slowly, slowly enough to appreciate the structures of the sentences and the storytelling. I especially admire the craftsmanship of Tolstoy's short fiction -- exemplary even in the Christian parables he wrote at the end of his life. Gogol's fantasies excited my Twilight Zone sensibilities, some of which I think are evident in Coup de Foudre.
And then there's Nabokov. We can argue whether he's an American or a Russian writer (I prefer to consider him American), but his work continues to delight and inspire me -- his language, his attention to the surface of things, his wit and his apparent cold-bloodedness. After reading The Collected Works of Vladimir Nabokov from beginning to end, genius from the first page to last, I was reminded of the power that can be coiled within a single perfect short story. So, after publishing three novels, I wanted to do another book of short fiction.
It seems your short stories can be divided roughly into two categories. One is the earthy, realist-naturalist kind, historically tethered and psychologically bleak. It takes place in a version of our own reality -- for example, a provincial judge entertains fantasies of an affair. The other kind is more ribald and picaresque, the Borgesian or Bolaño-inspired fantasias of mystical cities, improbable lost languages and enchanted parks benches in Paris.
Yes, the second of the two sorts of stories you identified was certainly inspired by my reading of Borges, particularly a well-used paperback copy of Labyrinths, purchased in the Dandelion Bookshop on Aungier Street in Dublin, when I lived there in my 20s. The stories held enormous meaning for me. They seemed to articulate everything I was either thinking about or wished I was thinking about. Reading Labyrinths, I felt like I was being given a kind of permission to write about the things I really cared for, the impossible, the bookish and the philosophical. His story "The Library of Babel" eventually provoked "In Borges' Library."
And then there's the one about the mediocre writer who spends his time contemplating all the ways one can become unbalanced by writing.
Watch what you say about the "mediocre" writer in my story "The Un-." That's the most autobiographical story in the book.
Well, he's mediocre only in the sense that he is utterly convincing to the rest of us who have also struggled with being a "mediocre writer." "The Un-" might be taken to be ur-text. Is the fate of the writer in the story, beset by a thousand small humiliations and dejections, a universal one? And is the answer to simply further strive?
"Universal" may be too strong a word: as we know, some writers find success right off the bat. Let's praise them and enjoy their work. But our culture is overwhelmingly dominated by the celebration of youth, and especially the youth of artists and writers. I think this skews our expectations of what it means to be a writer and minimizes the time, the work, the setbacks and the humiliations that consume the lives of creative people.
The struggling writer (and we all struggle) has to try to remember (and it's not easy) that her efforts are on behalf of the work itself (which is not to say that publication doesn't matter). Going back to the computer, remembering the reason she wanted to write in the first place, what motivated her to try to write this particular thing -- yes, there lie the answers to all the questions about whether one is really a writer.
The story that struck me most powerfully combines elements of both the categories I mentioned above. "The Moment They Were Waiting For'' imagines the transformation of a city with the casting of a spell that lets each inhabitant know the exact date of his or her death. The premise is fantastical, but the execution, the exploration of the social outcome is rather concrete and conceivable.
What I especially admire about Borges are the stories with few dramatic scenes but rather a distant, history-writng narrator, as in "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero." In my story, "The Moment," there are few discrete scenes and no dialogue, a consciously taken Borgesian approach to storytelling. I've just recently realized that my desire to fuse the fantastic with the "concrete and conceivable," here and elsewhere, was also inspired by the TV show The Twilight Zone. I've begun watching it again. Some of it is pretty great.
So, lets talk about the title novella, "Coup de Foudre." It is a bracing psychological portrait of a libertine French central banker who very much resembles Dominique Strauss-Kahn. We spend the day inside his consciousness, as he goes about his business, and engages in a sexual assault on a maid in a midtown New York hotel suite. The story is structured as an apologia to the maid that both he and we know he will never send. One that he is constitutionally incapable of sending. How did you settle on the idea of writing about him? What was it like to imagine yourself inside his head?
Well, let's leave open the question of whether or not he will send it.
I was just fascinated by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, as was much of the world in May 2011. Some of the interest was the product of simple prurience and curiosity about what actually happened in the hotel room. In fictionalizing the story, however, I was drawn to the familiar specter of the progressive man in power -- the politician whose policies suggest sensitivity to poverty, gender, and race -- acting regressively. I'm thinking of course of Bill Clinton and Elliot Spitzer, for starters. Which shows, to me at least, that good political sentiments don't guarantee the goodness of the people who adhere to them. In the case of our leaders, their weaknesses jeopardize the causes to which they've dedicated their lives.
Of course, I don't know what was going on in DSK's head. A character may be inspired by a real-life individual, but to make him work as a character, the story needs the right voice. That's usually the hardest thing about making a story. In this case, his letter provides an intimate, if unreliable, voice that suggests how he thinks and how he sees himself and the world -- even the world of the European debt crisis, French politics and Angela Merkel. It was the voice that put me inside my protagonist's head and I hope the reader will join me there.
Not to get too practical about literature, but this sort of imaginative and speculative dialogue plays an important social role for the culture. The revelations of the news cycle are lurid but not substantive, which is to say that the newspaper accounts of Strauss-Kahn's actions do nothing to explain his motivations. Your account of his drives is brutal and plausible. Has this interest in exploiting current events always been a core part of your fiction?
I still have the newspaper delivered every day, through my front door mail slot. It's a pleasure and a luxury, even when the stories it tells are frustrating and depressing. The news often feeds my imagination, which is why my fiction sometimes plays off topical or historical events: in this collection, particularly "Coup de Foudre" and "Mr. Iraq," about the aftermath of the American invasion. My second novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which opens with the destruction of the World Trade Center, closely follows the news events of the early years of the 21st century.
The news feeds all our imaginations! Our preoccupation with the news is a relatively new feature of human consciousness, starting with the development of mass media around the middle of the 19th century. It has radically shifted our perceptions of our private selves. National politics were once a distant affair; even wars would not directly concern us unless we were doing the fighting or one of the armies was approaching. Now, with the 24/7 media flooding our screens, the news is intimately part of our daily lives. At dinner we speak of candidate gaffes, terror attacks, celebrity scandals, and sporting wins and losses as if they really happened to us. I've tried, in some of my fiction, to dramatize and satirize the way we have come to take public events so personally.
What of the possible criticisms of that sort of position? Do you imagine that this sort of project of dramatization of the news serves to overemphasize such false "non-events" into the deeper recesses of our collective psyche ? Or do you think that a society needs to take stock of the traumatic/intense/exhilarating/disturbing events that batter it, through the intervention of the creative artist?
Yes, I see your point, that in dramatizing the news the writer may serve to intensify the experience of the "non-events." All right, that's possible, though my feeling isn't that the news is generally false, or unimportant, or non-happening. The idea is more that there are events that we once didn't care about and now we do, and this development has profoundly changed how we think about ourselves. And of course it's changed our thinking mostly for the better, allowing us the opportunity to extend our sympathies beyond our intimate circles, sometimes even globally.
The writer or artist who wants to exploit the news for creative purpose has a lot to play with. There are just so many great news stories out there, and they can be taken in so many directions. Some of those directions may produce fiction on an intimate level. Others have the potential to make sense of public events in ways that journalistic reporting and oped analysis can't. I've tried to do that in some of these stories. There are many other legitimate approaches to fiction -- many far from the public arena -- but I think writers should embrace the opportunity to use current history for inspiration, story, and setting when they can.