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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Illogic of Kassel

Enrique Vila-Matas

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To purchase The Illogic of Kassel

Title: The Illogic of Kassel
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 222 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Illogic of Kassel - US
Kassel no invita a la lógica - US
The Illogic of Kassel - UK
The Illogic of Kassel - Canada
The Illogic of Kassel - India
Impressions de Kassel - France
Kassel non invita alla logica - Italia
Kassel no invita a la lógica - España
  • Spanish title: Kassel no invita a la lógica
  • Translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom

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Our Assessment:

B : solid meditation on art as/in real-life fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Globe and Mail . 5/6/2015 Pasha Malla
The NY Times . 13/8/2015 Valerie Miles
The Telegraph . 21/8/2015 Lidija Haas
TLS . 14/8/2015 Scott Esposito

  From the Reviews:
  • "This zoolike experience would provide Vila-Matas with the source material for The Illogic of Kassel, which inverts Vos’s treatment of form and content: the book, though based in fact, adopts novelistic techniques to pose as fiction, describing actual events with ironic distance to question and trouble their "realism."" - Pasha Malla, The Globe and Mail

  • "(A)n adventure novel of ideas. He writes in the first person here and, in a performative twist, through two alter egos: a cast of Enriques in different guises, narrating as if through a fuzzy mirror, so that the story is never quite clear. This is an earnest novel, but it’s also rollicking, a passionate defense of literature as an essential element of public life and, more generally, of art in a time of numbers" - Valerie Miles, The New York Times

  • "Vila-Matas has found his own solution to the supposed exhaustion of possibilities in literature: a devotion to digression and lightness. (...) He chooses humour in a way that allows him to have big ideas while relentlessly making fun of them." - Lidija Haas, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Illogic of Kassel the narrator, a writer in his sixties from Spain of some "eccentric literary fame" -- i.e. strongly resembling author Enrique Vila-Matas -- is invited to participate in the 2012 Documenta, a contemporary art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany; he is invited to be on display as a writer-in-residence at an off-site venue, the Dschingis Khan Restaurant.
       In 2012 author Enrique Vila-Matas was, in fact, a participant in dOCUMENTA (13), a writer-in-residence at the Dschingis Khan Restaurant .....
       Vila-Matas has frequently relied on actual and literary figures in his fiction, and often figures in them in some form himself. But even in a work such as Never any End to Paris there is some distance between reality and fiction -- in that case both temporal (the autobiographical novel revisits events from decades earlier) and literary. In The Illogic of Kassel there seems barely any line between fiction and reality left to blur: it is a work of almost complete immediacy, and the setting and circumstances -- complete with the art on display and the people involved -- are almost all easily ascertainable as factual. Yet The Illogic of Kassel is not just an expanded variation on glossy magazine pieces of the 'My Experience of Documenta'-sort; it is a work of fiction.
       Two concepts that Vila-Matas employs in separating fiction from mere fact are that of the McGuffin -- a plot element that catches the reader's attention but in fact serves no real purpose in the story proper -- and the concept of 'avant-garde'. In fact, that's how Vila-Matas begins his novel -- in an avant-garde-McGuffin mash-up:

     The more avant-garde an author is, the less he can allow himself to be labeled as such. But who cares about that ? In fact, my opening sentence is just a McGuffin having little to do with what I intend to relate, though it could be that in the long run all I can tell about my invitation to Kassel and my later trip to the city will eventually have everything to do with that sentence.
       Several more McGuffins appear or are alluded to, and indeed many of the plot-points could be seen as such: which elements are significant and/or real versus which are incidental and/or invention is a question that repeatedly crops up in this narrative that is largely uneventful -- and yet which is also one of constant encounters with the new, different, and unexpected (as might be expected in a story that involves travel to a foreign country, exposure to a variety of art works, and the stress of being put in a position that the protagonist isn't very comfortable with (on-dsiplay writer in residence)).
       Vila-Matas own position on realism is implicit -- but, just in case, he is also explicit:
We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth., when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality
       It's a reminder to the reader that the detail-pile-up that is The Illogic of Kassel shouldn't be seen as some sort of true-to-reality depiction.
       Playing into all this is the narrator's interest in the concept of avant-garde -- "I wanted to be an avant-garde artist", he admits, but he is also well-aware of the inherent contradictions of the concept, of how easy it is for what is introduced as avant-garde to shift into being utterly conventional. How always to be at the cusp of change ? Vila-Matas' experiment in fiction here -- basing it so thoroughly in fact here -- is one way, possibly. Or maybe it's just a McGuffin.
       Vila-Matas does intentionally undermine some of the fact-basis of his novel: the contact-person who invites the author to participate in Documenta is, repeatedly, not upfront about her identity or, initially, her proposition (in fact she ropes him in by suggesting she has nothing less than the "solution to the mystery of the universe" to offer him). The narrator, too, tries to recreate himself by symbolically fundamentally changing at least the label of his identity: "I decided to change my name and call myself Piniowsky", he decides at one point, adopting the name of a figure from Joseph Roth's The Bust of the Emperor. It's liberating for him -- taking on a fictional identity, he finds: "now that I was called Piniowsky, I was at last starting to be myself". Elsewhere, when he can not understand what people around him are saying (often in foreign languages) he simply imagines a scenario for himself in his own mind, creating and interpreting the reality around him on the spot.
       In The Illogic of Kassel the narrator describes his adventures leading up to and then in Kassel, an experience he is leery of and where he bristles at much that he faces and expects to face. Ultimately, however, he embraces the experience. He visits and sees many of the art exhibits, taking something from each. He's not entirely thrilled by his own stint as artwork, on display in the restaurant, and giving a lecture -- the culmination of Documenta for him --, but in sum takes a great deal from the experience.
       "I've always been enormously entertained by theories", the narrator admits, and Documenta offers much here to satisfy him. If not necessarily always truly provocative, the art he encounters and the experiences he has prod him; as is familiar from Vila-Matas' books, his narrator finds both literary connections and inspiration in everything around him, weaving a tale of tangents and references that frequently circles back to his major themes -- here the McGuffin-concept, and the notion of avant-garde. The Illogic of Kassel is, for better and worse, a novel of theory-in-practice, and Vila-Matas an old hand at this with enough talent (and sly humor) to entertain almost regardless of how he goes about it.
       Documenta offers fertile ground for him to work in. As he writes:
     I thought: didn't I come to Kassel precisely to seek the aesthetic instant ? Yes, but not only that.
       It's a good summa: the aesthetic instant is a holy grail which he can't even clearly define ("I didn't even know what an aesthetic instant might really be", he admits) -- and even if that is his main objective, he's easily distracted by other possibilities. Kassel proves to be yet another place and source of distraction and inspiration, a repositioning that allows him to address his concerns -- about literature and art and the remaining possibilities of art (of being avant-agrde, for example) -- from yet another perspective and context.
       The Illogic of Kassel isn't entirely successful, and it can feel that Vilas-Matas writes too much from the corner into which he has backed himself here with his premise, but there's enough to it to make it worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 June 2015

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The Illogic of Kassel: Reviews: Enrique Vila-Matas: Other books by Enrique Vila-Matas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas was born in 1948. He has won numerous literary prizes.

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