No one reads the Belgian Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), author Bruges-la-Morte, which in addition to being called “the Symbolist novel,” was the first fictional work to incorporate photographs.
Rodenbach, who stated that silence was the thread connecting all of his work—which spanned eight volumes of poetry, four novels, a number of essays and short stories—worked as a lawyer and journalist in Paris (where he befriended Mallarme, Renoir, and Maeterlink, among others), despite his deep affection for his native soil. Of the distance he put between himself and Belgium, he wrote:
One only truly loves what one no longer has. Truly to love one’s little homeland, it is best to go away, to exile oneself for ever, to surrender oneself to the vast absorption of Paris, and for the homeland to grow so distant it seems to die. […] The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.
Bruges-la-Morte, which made him famous when it was published in serial form in 1892 and is undoubtedly his masterpiece, conjures the city of its title. In his forward, in fact, Rodenbach stated his goal in writing the novel was to “evoke a city… in its essence, [as] a person whose shifting moods persuade or dissuade us and determine our actions.”
The plot centers on the obsessive widower Hugues Viane, who moved to Bruges after the death of his wife several years before the novel opens. With no occupation to fill his time, Hugues wanders the melancholy town, meditating on death and longing for the grave. A bizarre and scandalous romance begins when he sees a woman he takes to be the exact double of his dead wife in the streets. The novel’s associations with morbidity and despair, not to mention its shocking conclusion, created a stir among town officials, who later refused to permit a memorial statue of the writer to be erected in Bruges—hence Rodenbach’s suitably eye-catching tomb in Paris, pictured above.
The outline of the plot may lead one to assume that the novel is a melodrama, but it steers away from action in favor of the internal world. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Alan Hollinghurst claims that Rodenbach “creates a rarefied world, internalized and intensified by feeling.” And the always reliable Nick Lezard contends that Bruges-la-Morte “is one of the greatest novels ever written about grief, loneliness, and isolation…”
Some representative passages should suffice to put you under the pall of Bruges’ gray northern skies:
Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.
As he walked, the sad faded leaves were driven pitilessly around him by the wind, and under the mingling influences of autumn and evening, a craving for the quietude of the grave … overtook him with unwanted intensity
- For more, see a gallery of photographs included in the book or some of Fernand Knopff’s haunting artwork inspired by the novel.
- Dedalus Books publishes English translations of three of Rodenbach’s works, including Bruges-la-Morte.
[Photo of Rodenbach’s tomb in Paris by nikoretro]