BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An artist muses about death that he has seen, while seeking out his ex-lover’s artwork.
PROS: Intensely focused on its theme; a very quick read.
CONS: If you aren’t already familiar with the art he describes, you can easily get lost; also, generally without a strong plotline.
BOTTOM LINE: Not terribly approachable for those not already in that art scene.
The introduction to The Enigma of Departure sums it up so well: “The obvious danger with writing an introduction to a work of fiction is that one may give the plot away. But since I have no idea at all what the plot of The Enigma of Departure is, I do not feel particularly endangered.” This gives you a good clue about this very vague novella that examines its themes without much respect to plot. The themes are art and death, which makes it difficult to avoid seeming pretentious–and Royle doesn’t quite manage the trick.
The main character is an art critic and a writer. In the “main” timeline (if I may impose such bourgeois terms on the narrative), he is asked to attend an art festival in Venice and report back on the presence of English artists there. He doesn’t want to go, but when he sees that there will be an exhibition of work by an ex-lover of his, he decides that he must go. He does, and he sees the work, and he goes home, very worried. That is what happens in the “present day” of the novella.
The rest of it involves flashbacks: to his relationship with his stormy photographer lover, and with death that he encountered as a younger man, the deaths of his father and father’s friend and also his grandfather. In between times, he muses on different works of art. Not being immersed in the art scene myself, I found the introduction by Robert Irwin helpful in this respect, as it gave me some clue as to what the narrator was on about.
Overall, that was my biggest problem with the book: it wasn’t aimed at me, and it didn’t have much interest in drawing me in. Instead of sharing the joy of particular works of art, it instead seemed to say “If you don’t already appreciate the genius of this artist… What? You’ve never heard of him? Philistine!” I have no problem learning new things from books; it’s one of my favorite aspects of literature. I became an ardent fan of Rodin after seeking him out due to Jubal Harshaw’s paean to the “Fallen Caryatid” in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein didn’t assume that you already knew the work, but he wanted you to appreciate it and maybe go looking for it–which I did, to my lasting joy. Enigma did not make me want to see the paintings described–mostly by Giorgio de Chirico (from whose work the title of the novella is derived). It simply made me feel like I was missing something that the author assumed I knew.
Also, while I’m not totally averse to plotless books or books with ambiguous endings, usually what I like about them is their incredible prose styles. Jeffrey Ford, Liz Hand, Theodora Goss and others have been known to write stories in that mode, and I often love them. It works particularly well at the shorter lengths, as Enigma itself is. However, Royle’s prose style doesn’t contain the poetry or lyricism that I look to when deprived of plot. It also suffers from having a less-than-totally-sympathetic main character.
Thus I would say that The Enigma of Departure is written for a fairly precise audience, and that is an audience already devoted to the static visual arts, such as painting and photography. To the extent that that group doesn’t include me, I didn’t find this book to be terribly approachable.