Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:
The biographical note accompanying “Gaslight: Lantern Slides From the Nineteenth Century” describes Joachim Kalka as “an essayist, literary critic, and translator of authors such as Martin Amis, Angela Carter, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Isherwood, and Gilbert Sorrentino.” Impressive as it is, that list only hints at the extent of Kalka’s literary sophistication. His freewheeling essays — adroitly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole — reveal not only an easy familiarity with the obvious masterpieces of German, French and English-language literature, but also a devotee’s appreciation of ghost stories, mysteries, classic films and comics. His subjects range from Wagner’s conception of the Valkyries in “The Ring of the Nibelungs” to the artistic legacy of Jack the Ripper to a mini-history of anarchist bomb-throwing.
In fact, Kalka belongs to that admirable line of European intellectuals, such as Roland Barthes, E.M. Cioran, Umberto Eco and Simon Leys, who can write interestingly about almost anything. What he doesn’t do, however, is write conclusively. Whereas an American essayist frequently resembles a courtroom lawyer, trying to make an argument or prove a case, Kalka — who is from Stuttgart, Germany — is content to circle around a subject, illuminating it from various angles. Then, instead of closing with a knockout summary of the evidence, he simply stops. This can take getting used to. Still, how can you resist a writer who draws insights from “Mickey Mouse and His Sky Adventure” and Gershon Legman’s “Rationale of the Dirty Joke”?