Lives often fall into patterns and routines. For some, the trenches of routine form over time because work, the commute, the schedule of a family orders their life. For others, routine forms from malaise, despondency, or a resignation that a shift from a certain way of doing things will do nothing to improve life. Routine is not necessarily bad; for some, and many of the Vila Matas narrators consistently belong to this group, routine is desired. It is essential to productivity, maintains sanity, wards off the demons that come in on the coattail of chaos. But in The Illogic of Kassel (Kassel no invita a lógica, 2014; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, 2015) this isn’t where pleasure is found. Instead, in Kassel, pleasure occurs at the edge of routine, where necessary, safe order has become a weighty grind, impossible to shrug off; pleasure, relief — even when it comes with intense frustration or discomfort — comes from an eruption from that routine. In The Illogic of Kassel, Vila-Matas, like his kindred spirits Javier Marías and Paul Auster, begins that eruption with a phone call. It’s an intrusion, undesired, but utterly compelling. After that, the eruptions continue, some bring quick pleasure, others spark neurotic reactions, but the end result is a refreshed self.
The Illogic of Kassel’s narrator, a writer, a version of Vila-Matas himself, is invited to participate in Documenta 13, a months-long avant-garde art exhibit in Kassel. The plot: his role, his performance, is to sit at a booth in a Chinese restaurant, Dschingis Khan, with a placard announcing him as author-in-residence, and write. But for Vila-Matas, plot is the skeleton for the organs and flesh of his ideas, philosophy, and play. This is familiar to those who know Vila-Matas’ work; also familiar are his digressions, the him-not-him narrator, the blend of fact and fiction, doubt of which is which, thoughts on other authors and artists, the incidents of chance, genre seeping into life, a plentitude of interpretations of actions, past and future. That Vila-Matas covers the same ground repeatedly, that his books are predictable in their attitude and tricks, has been used as a criticism, but The Illogic of Kassel is, in his terms and in his style, a defense against that criticism, and a successful one.
When the initial phone call comes, the narrator “played along a little,” open to incident, even though at night he’s “hit hard by an anguish that has me imagining dark, horrible scenarios.” Inviting him to Document 13, the woman on the other end claims to be acting on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. McGuffin. When they meet, she admits the McGuffins were just that, Hitchcockian McGuffins, narrative sparks. Her identity-games will go further, but the narrator already recognizes his process, his way of writing, is being challenged:
I had the impression I was once again living through the beginning of a journey that could end up turning into a written tale, in which, as was customary, I would combine perplexity and my suspended life to describe the world as an absurd place arrived at by way of a very extravagant invitation.
The invitation to Documenta is intended to propel the narrator into the type of situation that drives his intellect and creativity, situations presented in Vila-Matas’ works as created through randomness, though of course structured carefully by him. In The Illogic of Kassel the hosts of the avant-garde force the writer into that situation typical for him: the random chance motivator is created by curators, then controlled further by Vila-Matas. The hosts are challenging him to prove his methods aesthetically worthwhile. At the same time that the purpose, the use, of his writing is challenged, the narrator questions the same things for the avant-garde.
Under these pressures, the narrator does not limit himself. As he is leaving Barcelona in the middle of the night, “[a] police car drove past, and I imagined that, seeing me getting furtively into a taxi with my suitcase, it would be hard for the policeman not to suspect me of some strange undertaking.” Vila-Matas loves to craft a sense of noir because it builds suspense, pushes the idea of consequence in plot, of some dark event impending. Whether departing or arriving, the narrator constantly supposes others’ focus on him. It seems self-centered. It is a constant reimagining, reconsideration of himself, of who he could be and how his actions affect others, a stretch to know others, to give them the same creative and interpretive powers he himself has. Though other’s actions make them pieces of a game, pushing his plot and thoughts, they are rich personalities too, and hinge on detail; for example, he notices that Pim “was dictated to by what we might call the downside of her charm, which obliged her to show herself, without the slightest letup, always delighted by her life.”
Experiences and imagination are conjoined in the world of Vila-Matas. Either in the midst of a moment or afterwards, his thoughts drift, create. In meeting one of the assistants for Documenta, estranged from each other by disparate languages, he “started imagining that she, in our unspoken language, was telling me that she wasn’t wearing anything under her skirt.” Then, “Setting aside that torrid scene, I returned to the real world, where I confirmed once again that everything was monotonous.” This movement from monotony to imagination is liberation, and leaves rifts behind for the strange to continue to seep in.
Travel and the return from travel, the mental revisiting of past travels, is part of what allows this. The writer’s mental landscape opens as he explains a new physical one. The almost delusional wonder and joy that The Illogic of Kassel brought me was that I began to experience life as he does, my manner of thinking infected by his. I, without leaving this small city, a city so familiar the monotony is painful, travelled, broke out of the dark, anxious mindset from which the narrator wants to escape, too.
The routine that protects sanity had become its dark inverse, a pattern of life without interruptions, miscomprehension or confusions, those sources of creative, personal thought. The nighttime anxiety of Vila-Matas’ writer had become all-day anxiety. I took The Illogic of Kassel to a new coffee shop and sat outside. This shop is on a cross street on the downtown strip of shops, cafés, and bars. Sitting there, not conscious of the Vila-Matas pattern of thought rewiring my brain, I realized that though I’ve walked down that street, past these familiar buildings, hundreds of times over the years, I’ve never just sat on the sidewalks of this street. I was someplace else, in a foreign city, and I felt relief from anxiety, from boredom. The building I faced was a new one, taller, and in the windows of the building I faced, I saw the coffee shop. It became even stranger.
In habitual downtown reading spots, it is inevitable I see someone I know, a friend or acquaintance, or any of the dozens of people I have never spoken to. But due to the small town, and my affection for people-watching, I recognize them and in excessive cases know where they work or live, another thing to share with Vila-Matas. In this new spot, I was immune. No one I knew would pass by, because I was not in town. Reality was altered. As Vila-Matas creates his own realms, layered over his life, so did I. Thrilled by this palimpsesting of place, I feared it could be pierced. What would it take to do so? If a friend walked by, I wondered, would I not recognize him, preserving this travel? At this question, ahead of any conclusion, I watched people walk up the hill towards me. A man waved. I turned around to see who he waved at and found no one. A man called my name. I turned back, this stranger now a friend, this foreign city now the town in which I live. I explained my situation, aware that even this was a clinging re-enactment of Vila-Matas’ writer explaining to bewildered others his similar sensations.
Over the course of time I spent with The Ilogic of Kassel, these experiences intensified. An old friend visited, we went on an hours-long walk, thought and speech affected by the act of walking, freely rambling. I made reference to Vilas-Matas walks, to his belief that in a walking conversation, you say things otherwise impossible, and minutes later, found myself surprised, delighted, by an idea coming out of my mouth, then looped back to the source, that not only did I need to walk to have these thoughts but also needed Vila-Matas to point that out.
During one of the walks in The Illogic of Kassel, he’s asked if he’d “ever reflected on the fact that walking was almost the only activity not appropriated by people who devoted themselves to the world of business, that is, capitalists.” When thinking takes on the patterns of walks, it too is an activity not appropriated. In The Illogic of Kassel and his other works, Vila-Matas returns to phrases and ideas like a walker passing the same spot, looping past a favorite site or returning to the beginning, but from new angles.
In his defensive posture in The Illogic of Kassel, Vila-Matas’ narrator turns to other perambulatory writers, Walser and Sebald, the latter famously a fan of the former, to support his fascination with the walk. Three beloved authors coming together is a pleasure, and for this writer, their fiction opens doors in his life, create avenues of experience, and by paving alleys from his path to theirs, we come to them from new angles ourselves. At Documenta, writers are not the only artists whose work integrates like this; indeed, visual artists dominate.
The individual expressions of singular works come together, often through the narrator’s process of walking from one to another. The second work encountered by the narrator is a breeze, a draft, in a room in the museum at the center of Documenta. It’s title: The Invisible Pull. After that moment, the work, the language of its expression, is part of the narrator and he speaks of pulls, of feeling compelled along: “It was as if a spirit, a breeze, a current of morally bracing air, an invisible impetus, were pushing us toward the future, forging forever the union between the diverse members of that spontaneous, suddenly subversive seeming group.” This breeze carries from one artwork to the next, taking along with it reoccurring thoughts and sensations. Following the breeze from one art-site in the city to another, the writer-narrator describes them and speaks their meaning, whether as interpreted by him or explained to him.
A description in fiction of Van Gogh or Picasso, or even Pollack or Kiefer, is unlikely to match the aesthetic or intellectual pleasure of seeing those works, but in writing about the works of Documenta 13, Vila-Matas’ narrator creates new artworks and philosophical achievements. The writing is an artwork accessible, clear, and easily disseminated. The artworks as they appear in the novel are something other than the originals, and in the relations to each other, with the personality the writer adds, possibly something more affecting. That this new work is impossible without the original adds another loop in the circular, wandering logic and existence of the narrator.
In one of his many scattered conclusions scattered in The Illogic of Kassel, the narrator writes, “Art, I thought then, is something that is happening to us.” He goes beyond this passivity, makes artwork the overlay of his life.
Just as I approached art to turn my back on the world, it seemed to me that dramatizing my own life, my footsteps in the dark, was a way to intensify the sensation of being alive, that is, one more way of making art.
This is not just an intensifying of the sensation of being alive, but the very way he stays alive. Anxiety, the resulting depression, paralyzes him each evening. In The Illogic of Kassel the anxiety is staved off by inspiration and artistic effort. When anxiety does arrive, he eases it by drawing connections to a Walser short story, finding there a companion, whose aestheticization of a moment becomes akin to caring. Life as artistic expression is not a new idea, but his devotion to the totalizing experience, to the opportunistic awareness without total control, is how the sensations and thoughts spread, a meme that brings the same lightness to the reader’s life. There is a contradiction within this expression, this hoped-for life: that it is both purposeful and survives on chance. If I went to that café seeking the freeing experience I had, if the narrator had answered the phone, expecting Documenta, the walk would be impossable, yet if you don’t nudge chance around, you won’t arrive either. As the narrator notes, “nothing was further from spirit than rationality, and for that very reason, rationality was the peak of madness.”
Contradiction and opposition are lifesprings of energy; existence without them flatlines. Early on, the narrator decides his hotel room is his “thinking cabin,” isolated, separating him from participation in Document 13. Yet, he does no thinking there, his only productive, rambling thinking comes when avoiding the cabin. His thinking is dependant on the existence of the thought cabin. Without that space to avoid, his thoughtlessness would happen everywhere. This embrace of the irrational echoes repeatedly in The Illogic of Kassel. In an inward turn, he concludes “anyone who dedicated himself to literature had not renounced the world; the world simply evicted him, or never admitted him as a tenant.” That he is far from the world, so taken by fiction and art that the world is irrelevant, can be a dismissal of Vila-Matas, though for many it’s exactly what we want from art, so much more beloved than edifying life lessons. Because, really, who needs the world? “It seemed to me that art was still holding up perfectly well, and it was only the world, with its two dizzying tsetse flies, that had crumbled.” Yet, in his perambulations, his returns and examinations of his distance, and art’s distance, from the world, become not a removal, but engagement.
For the narrator, the melancholic sentiments around Europe especially, “already a tragic composite,” are infected by Sebald the same way his walking is. Of Germany, which he calls “a country famous for combining intelligence and barbarism,” he says, “without memory they ran the risk of turning monstrous again, but also with too much memory, the rest was that they’d remain firmly stuck in the horror of the past.” This is how well-crafted The Illogic of Kassel is: the book plays that all the narrator’s thoughts are responses to chance encounters, to unexpected comments, by the spirited influence of artworks, plays that his thinking is a wandering, improvised walk through a city, through parks, but he returns to the main avenue, and the two overgrown side paths connect with each other to make for a previously undiscovered dirt path. This is what makes the work complete, brilliantly serious no matter how fun and playful it is.
The writer’s expression of German cultural memory is true of his own personal memories. Even if the past is the previous day instead of decades ago, the narrator can get bogged in the memories, in the desire to have said something differently, the fear that what he did say leads to disaster. This builds anxiety as the darkness of evenings set in. But if he did not visit these memories, he would never revise them, never create. His l’esprit de l’escalier is not a source embarrassment but rather a way of being, and a way forward. When he says that “art and historical memory were inseparable,” personal memory makes for a third line of a triangle. Bracing each angle is a single theme, the motif of Document 13: collapse and recovery.
Before the narrator is introduced to this motif, in fact sparking the naming of it, he already uses its terms to explain his daytime positive moods to the nighttimes of anxiety. After the conversation defining the theme, he sees it everywhere, in himself, in art, in other people, in the flow of a day, of a conversation. The cycle can be but a moment: “It as if the acts of ruin and recuperation really could make up a single entity and share the instant perfectly well.” Attention to this cannot control the loop but can modulate your emotional and bodily responses to those dark evenings and to lifting cultural memories from shadowed pasts.
The recoveries and collapses are inevitable no matter your awareness, no matter how chance and control mingle. The recovery that was my reading of The Illogic of Kassel and sharing rambling thoughts on it with friends became the collapse of attempting to write about it. What Vila-Matas is offering here though, what is his defense of repeating his same literary tricks, and obsessions, his blending of fiction and life, his fictional fictions as in A Brief History of Portable Literature, is that through l’esprit de l’escalier, through art and fiction, through the stimulation of those pleasures, the recovery can always begin. This is not a grand, uplifting hope, but a grip on the little handholds we have above total collapse. What can’t be missed, and what Vila-Matas never misses, even in those times his narrator does, is that humor and laughter holds the intellectual, emotional, and pleasurable together: “As on the previous occasion, I laughed into the darkness. And suddenly, everything changed.”
This is just a tremendous book! I have enjoyed Vila-Matas a lot in the past, but this is probably the first time I had a deeply personal experience with his work, somewhat similar to your own. I just got the latest one from New Directions: Because She Never Asked. I read the first chapter and felt an immediate sense of relief, like coming back to a trusted friend. Hopefully I’ll get a post up on that one soon, but for now I want to encourage folks to look up this one (as well as A Brief History of Portable Literature!).