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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Exemplary Departures

Gabrielle Wittkop

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Title: Exemplary Departures
Author: Gabrielle Wittkop
Genre: Stories
Written: 1995/2012 (Eng 2015)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Exemplary Departures - US
Exemplary Departures - UK
Exemplary Departures - Canada
Les départs exemplaires - Canada
Les départs exemplaires - France
  • French title: Les départs exemplaires
  • Originally published (1995) as a collection of three stories; two more added posthumously (2012)
  • Translated and with a Postscript by Annette David

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stylish and evocative

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 10/2015 Joshua Cohen

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The complete review's Review:

       Exemplary Departures is a collection of five stories, each of which leads up to the death of its protagonist(s). The 'departures' are unusual, shrouded in at least some sense of mystery, the characters in one way or another on the run, death only a final disappearance.
       Several of the stories are based on real-life figures: Mr. T.'s Last Secrets features 'Silk King' Jim Thompson, who disappeared in 1967 in the Malay Cameron Highlands, Idalia on the Tower tells the story of teen tourist Idilia (here Idalia) Dubb's tragic 1851 death, while Baltimore Nights follows Edgar Allan Poe to his death. Death is, of course, an inevitability, but each of these stories also points to happenstance, the characters savable but fate conspiring against them.
       Mr. T.'s Last Secrets takes a notorious and well-known life- (and disappearance-)story still shrouded in mystery, Thompson's disappearance simply the final uncertainty about this unusual man. Wittkop collects a variety of perspectives on the man -- which serve also to emphasize how unknown he remained, to the end: "he was the most suspect man I ever met", one person says, while another finds: "apart from his taste, as I said, his supposed good taste, he didn't have anything worth mentioning, really. He was weak willed, a dabbler ...". Wittkop nicely captures the uncertainty -- about who Thompson actually was, what he was responsible for --, complete with a slightly sinister air, with Thompson's mysterious vanishing an appropriate uncertain fate for this elusive character.
       Wittkop promises: "an exemplary story" early on in Idalia on the Tower -- and mentions that it will involve: "the very slow and painful death of Miss Idalia Dubb", for those not familiar with the incident. The seventeen-year-old Scottish girl was traveling on the continent with her parents; she ventured into the ruins of Lahneck Castle, the stairs she clambered up collapsed behind her and she got stuck in the tower; seeing the damage, the search parties didn't look more closely in the tower and she perished there -- with her remains found some thirteen years later.
       Wittkop almost gleefully presents the parents -- a terminally ill father now indulging in the last enjoyments of food and drink, an annoyed mother -- and the conniving traveling companion, as well as the young ambitious girl, who wanders off one morning to sketch the lovely ruins. A whole series of unfortunate small missteps and oversights lead to her being and remaining lost, despite her passing locals on her way there, her even asking for directions. Wittkop describes the fruitless (if not all too intense) search, as well as the girl's frustrated slow demise (and the watchful crows ...); Idalia's efforts to attract attention -- including tossing out pieces of paper from her sketchbook with her name on it, and waving with her handkerchief to passing boats on the nearby river -- are maddeningly close to successful, but not quite, with Wittkop beautifully capturing the lost opportunities, as when:

     On its way to Koblenz Die Nixe von Biebrich glided slowly past. From a table on deck the passengers were enjoying the sound of clarinets and violins. Frau Weisshaupt, having put down her cup, held up her binoculars toward Lahneck. When she saw a woman on top of the donjon waving a handkerchief she answered her salutation with a wave. A little later, the ship having already passed several bends, Frau Weisshaupt remembered the woman's hair blowing in the wind, unless it had been some white scarf, but the image, veiled by more hills, the sky and the water, faded, dispersed like steam. It nonetheless left the lady with a vague unease and, unable to make sense of it, she endeavored to banish it to the depths of oblivion.
       Poe's is the most familiar story, the reader likely coming to Wittkop's version with an already deeply ingrained sense of man (and sad life, and end), which makes it difficult to go anywhere new with this. Still, Wittkop presents his last, dark flight, and the worry about his lost manuscripts, in her usual fine form. She captures well that, as one character reports: "profound disharmony in him ... He spoke like a gentleman and behaved like a lunatic".
       A Descent is a sad-sack story featuring one Seymour M. Kenneth, a life-story of failure that Wittkop chronicles and leads to its unusual final resting place. Seymour's life isn't one of abject failure: he lives reasonably comfortably but completely under the thumb of first his mother, in Detroit, and then, after her death, a woman he meets when he ventures to New York, who is in many ways supportive but also doesn't let him come in any way into his own. When that tie too breaks, the unmoored Seymour descends -- quite literally -- to his end.
       Claude and Hippolyte is another story that chronicles life -- two lives, here -- more than focusing on the point of death (though for them too it comes). The title characters are practically identical twins born in 1724 -- and both hermaphrodites: "No single sex dominated the other". Born into nobility, their mother a strong-willed and very independent-minded widow, their true identity remains a family secret. They are raised very much together -- sharing a bed for all their twenty-five years (yes, Wittkop makes clear early on that they will die young) -- and allowed considerable freedom: "with everything being possible, everything was permitted". Eventually, their behavior, and identities, do arouse some suspicion; their end, however, isn't (directly) due to their nature, but of a far more conventional-predictable sort.
       Throughout, Wittkop captures the deathly air -- and her characters' relationship to it -- well, from the atmosphere in Idalia's tower-tomb to the hermaphrodite twins as tourists: "In Naples, death was everywhere, but for Claude and Hippolyte, only its fabulous setting mattered". Wittkop's writing drips with the feel of (and occasional allusion to) fin de siècle decadence -- "Pallid, villous, Kubinesque anguish poked its head between the curtains" --, a style so well-suited for these kinds of tales.
       Exemplary Departures is a fine little collection of stylish, beautifully crafted morsels. Despite her obsessions and the inescapable death-focus, Wittkop offers considerable variety here; these are very different tales, both in approach and the situations (and, obviously, the characters). Limited to story-length, Wittkop only gets so far with them -- a drawback to the more life-focused tales, especially about Thompson and the twins -- but she still packs a great deal in, and manages to evoke much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 June 2019

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Exemplary Departures: Reviews: Gabrielle Wittkop: Other books by Gabrielle Wittkop under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gabrielle Wittkop was born in 1920 and died in 2002.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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