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The Commissariat of Enlightenment

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  180 Ratings  ·  24 Reviews
Ken Kalfus's mesmerising first novel is about two events that become milestones in the history of the modern media: the death of Tolstoy and the murder of Lenin. One yound filmmaker was there. The story begins in 1910, as Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a railway station in provincial Russia. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy ha ...more
Published (first published 2003)
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Apr 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The camera lies...

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspir
Nov 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
[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
Jan 25, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 04, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Luis Fernandez
"El teatro ha muerto. Es una institución anticuada y burguesa...La cultura tiene que servir a las masas...Es una negligencia permitir que un drama teatral sea representado cada noche ,.., sujeto a caprichos de los actores y directores individuales, cuando se puede realizar una película perfecta que será perfecta cada vez que se proyecte." Ken Kalfus
El parpadeo eterno fue la primera novela de Ken Kalfus, y fue destacada por el New York Times como uno de los libros notables del 2003, y para mi co
Aug 07, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 30, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
The Great Dan Marino
Really a novel of ideas rather than character, and maybe it becomes a bit didactic for all that but it's done artfully enough that it avoids the baseness of most didactic fiction. First half looks like a coherent narrative, but then it becomes more fractured and abstract and structurally you can see how this mirrors the Bolsheviks, story of the Central Committee, etc. Also if you look at that semidevolvement into abstraction it echoes what Tolstoy does in W&P. (First half of this book is abo ...more
Charles Cohen
Jul 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit
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
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 31, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-lit
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.
Jun 22, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 14, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unfinished
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.
Why did this novel get so little attention? Kalfus juggles several big ideas at once while managing to be sensitive, funny, and economical.
May 16, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who's in Lenin's Tomb and why. A wonderful novel about early 20th century "spin" and the fine art of propaganda.
May 09, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mine is actually hardcover, but you don't really care. I bought it based on the DFW blurb, and it's great.
Vikas Datta
Jun 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most extraordinary...
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.
rated it it was amazing
Jul 20, 2012
rated it liked it
Dec 20, 2007
Kevin Deenihan
rated it liked it
Aug 23, 2016
A fascinating reimagining of some key events in early 20th century Russian history. I was gripped throughout.
Kjetil Svarstad
rated it really liked it
Nov 22, 2011
Antonio Marts
rated it really liked it
Aug 11, 2014
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May 04, 2010
Max Nemtsov
rated it it was amazing
Jan 07, 2008
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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

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