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The Commissariat of Enlightenment

3.61 of 5 stars 3.61  ·  rating details  ·  144 ratings  ·  18 reviews
Russia, 1910. Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a remote railway station. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. They have been joined by a film company whose cinematographer, Nikolai Gribshin, is capturing the extraordinary scene and learning how to wield ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published February 3rd 2004 by Harper Perennial (first published 2003)
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Marvin
Publishers Weekly picked this as one of the best books of 2003. I can see why some would see it as a work of genius, but it didn't really connect for me. The main character is a very early Russian filmmaker who sees the propaganda potential of film & is recruited by Stalin for the Russian Communists' propaganda machine (the Commissariat of Enlightenment). There are really only 4 long scenes in the book: the death of Tolstoy in 1910; an incident in 1917 amid the brutal struggle between the Re ...more
Erin
Ken Kalfus’s The Commissariat of Enlightenment has some brilliant passages of startling and beautiful descriptions. The observations about the role of cinema and the visual in modern life are made more striking by the obvious reliance in the text on the written word. In one scene describing the interior of a movie theater Kalfus so captures the intimacy and community of the theater experience that I had to wonder whether this was a book made to be a movie. And yet, it’s not the sort of book that ...more
Maduck831
[Toltsoy’s final days] “Given the widespread reverence for the Count, the circus tent was itself an incongruous manifestation; this moment early in the twentieth century was rife with incongruity.” (19) “The conflict between his reason and his appetites had already bloomed into a legend that would cling to his figure, embarrassing his family as well as his followers.” (29) [Vladimir Chertkov] “You couldn’t teach these people to read and expect to “elevate” them; you had to make new people, a far ...more
James
Tolstoy's demise in 1910 presents a career-launching opportunity for a young cinematographer who's beginning to understand the power of film to change or create political reality. He links this death with that of Lenin - by imagining that three men attended both: an embalmer, a filmmaker and Stalin. The film maker's knowledge comes in handy as Russia moves unsteadily from post revolution chaos toward the bureaucratic nightmare of the Soviet state.

Stalin promises that "the camera does not lie", b
...more
Evan
At times funny, at times grim, Kalfus's novel about the birth of propaganda in the Soviet state has great moments, particularly in the third section. I found the final chapters particularly well down, especially when Kalfus abandons conventional sentence structure to describe Lenin's stroke.

The beginning is a bit uneven, as the novel tries to find the protagonist. Considering most of the novel is about Grishbin/Astapov, the fact that it opens with 3 men on a train who seem to have equal importan
...more
Charles Cohen
Ken Kalfus wrote the best book so far about 9/11 - A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. If not for this being his book, I never would have read CoE. But I'm glad I did, because now I understand that Russian Futurists were nuts, and the Soviet socialist dream is nightmarish from 30,000 feet and 20 years away, but it's even more terrifying when it turns a man inside out, and convinces him that "historical science" shouldn't be too overburdened with facts. Reminds me that America is not so terrible, ...more
Jen
Aug 06, 2011 Jen rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: russian
I enjoyed this novel of the Russian Revolution, though it was a bit slow to start. It is a novel of the power of the cinematic vision to fool a people and society in general and of the use of symbols to achieve an end. In this case, the use of propaganda is used to help bring to power the Bolsheviks under Lenin, and then to the ensure the pre-eminence of Stalin. Didn't know some of the murkier bits about Tolstoy, so that was fascinating, and the idea that Lenin may have been embalmed before he w ...more
Peter
A deeply intriguing fictional account of the evolution of Soviet Russia, the art of cinema and the nature of propoganda. While telling the story of an accidental encounter between a budding filmmaker and the leadership of the Bolshevik cabal, Kalfus takes the reader on a slightly slant contemplation of the nature of history, the true nature and role of art and the power of images as opposed to 'fact'.
Daniel Kukwa
The second half of this novel becomes more and more an abstract, halluciogenic exercise in Communist insanity...but it's never less than compelling. Terrifying and tragic, with large dollops of black humour mixed with violence -- in other words, Russian history & literature in a nutshell. A surprisingly satisfying random pick at the bookstore once again yields dividends.
Jennifer  Sciolino-Moore
I really tried with this one. After a month of stops and starts though, I had to put it down. The narrative was disjointed, and even 150 pages in, the story was no closer to being told than on page one. I haven't rated it because I didn't read the whole thing, and maybe there is someone out there who "gets" it. That person isn't me. Blech.
Tom
This book is certainly well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking -- an insightful meditation on abuses of art for ideology -- but in the end, I thought it suffered a bit from the problem of many overtly "political" novels -- the message is more memorable than the characters.
Josie
I'm trying to read this but failing deeply. Like, it's got some sort of riddle in it (possibly related to the presence of characters named Lenin and Stalin!!?) but I have no idea what is going on.

Anyway, gave up.
Fictionista Du Jour
Lenin fanfic- who knew it existed?! Interesting concept and historically fascinating to ponder, but I felt like much of it was unnecessary characterizations for go-nowhere side plots.
Kevin Lewis
An absolutely poetic allegory for the ruin of the Russian Revolution, the perversion of Lenin's ideas, and the turmoil that marked the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Chad
Jan 08, 2008 Chad added it
Why did this novel get so little attention? Kalfus juggles several big ideas at once while managing to be sensitive, funny, and economical.
Suzanne
Who's in Lenin's Tomb and why. A wonderful novel about early 20th century "spin" and the fine art of propaganda.
Adam
Mine is actually hardcover, but you don't really care. I bought it based on the DFW blurb, and it's great.
Foreign
Italian editor: Luigi Sponzilli
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30801
He was born in the Bronx, NY and grew up in Plainview, Long Island.

Kalfus started college at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, but dropped out after the first year. He attended various other universities including the New School for Social Research in Manhattan and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Kalfus started writing at an early age.
More about Ken Kalfus...
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country Equilateral Pu-239 And Other Russian Fantasies Thirst Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories

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