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Bruges-la-Morte, by Georges Rodenbach

Updated on July 14, 2016

In 1892 Georges Rodenbach published his masterpiece Bruges-la-Morte. The short novel immediately was acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of the "decadent movement" in French literature, a vision of the Flemish city of Bruges that once was a depiction of Jerusalem and now was turned to doom by the evil forces of Satan, whose Pope was resident in this town...

Ostensibly, Bruges-la-Morte was the account of a doomed love affair that culminated in a bizarre murder, but even more important were its dream-like evocations of Bruges as a ghost city of silence and desolation, lost in time but nevertheless dictating the inevitably fatal events of the narrative.

The widower Hugues Viane has turned to the melancholically decaying city of Bruges to mourn; in his disturbed spirit Bruges-la-Morte is the image of his dead wife. To manage and endure his unbearable loss, he systematically follows, in a cyclical promenade of reflection and allusion, the mournful labyrinth of streets and canals. 

At the beginning of the story we see Hugues setting out from his big old silent house for one of his solitary walks. In the drawing-room of his house are the mementoes of his wife: some pictures and a long tress of her yellow-gold hair preserved in a glass case as a relic of love. Outside, his eyes "fixed on a very distant point, beyond life itself", he finds everywhere analogies to her and to his feelings about her: in the rain, the bells, the canals – until the whole city mysteriously begins to resemble her.

One evening Hugues goes into Notre Dame, where he is touched by the imagery of fidelity in the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy. Out in the street he again sees his dead wife… but now as a living woman, apparently her exact likeness. He follows her into a theatre where he takes his place in the stalls. He can’t see the woman in the audience and he is barely aware of what is performed on stage: Robert le Diable, the extravagantly romantic and supernatural opera of Meyerbeer. 

Hugues decides to leave after "the scene with the nuns", but then the mysterious woman emerges as a dancer, the nun Hélène, who rises from her tomb – as his lost wife, resurrected – like Christ. Afterwards he recalls the scene as "a setting full of magic and moonlight", but it is in fact a satanic ritual, in which the devil’s disciple Bertram summons up the spirits of the nuns who have died in sin.

Hugues is instantly obsessed by the vision of the dancer, like "Faust, reaching out for the mirror in which the divine image of woman is revealed". The relationship between Hugues and the dancer has something of a diabolic bargain, culminating in psychological torment and a deranged murder.

Bruges-la-Morte is clearly a poet’s novel, marked by hypnotic repetitions, working in rhythm and pattern, image and suggestion, metaphorically dense and visionary in style, musical in its fatalistic circling.

The novel was an ultimate evocation of Rodenbach’s fascination with the enduring mysteries and haunting mortuary atmosphere of Bruges. It was also a fable of the strange identity of the known and the unknown, of the mysterious equations of past and present, place and feeling, the visible and the invisible, one woman and another. It is the story of sexual imagination that turns on the fulfillment of dreams, of Flemish Catholic piety coexisting with pagan icons of female sexual power, and morbid eroticism.

Rodenbach included photographs in his novel and in the little preface he wrote to explain this, he described his work as "a study of passion" and "the evocation of a city as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act". The photographs were intended to help the readers to "come under the influence of the city, feel the pervasive presence of the waters from close, to experience for themselves the shadow cast over the text by the tall towers". 

Though Rodenbach was Flemish, he was not himself a Brugeois. He grew up in Ghent, studied law there and spent a year in Paris. Before returning to Ghent, he published his first collection of poems, Les Tristesses. He worked ten years in the law, but got involved in Belgian literature, as a reviewer, essayist and poet. Then, in 1888, Rodenbach left Belgium for good, to spend the rest of his life in Paris.

Rodenbach gladly embraced his exile, married and became a kindly and discreet figure in the Parisian literary circles. He could have been the spiritual twin of his friend Joris-Karl Huysmans.

As his life flowered in Paris, an almost mystical nostalgia for Flanders and Bruges crystallised… and so Rodenbach evoked, from his Paris apartment, a dead city where he had never lived.

In those days, there was much talk of reopening Bruges to the modern world after the silting-up of its old sea-canal had resulted in centuries of decline, so many Brugeois, seeking a new commercial life, resented Bruges-la-Morte as Rodenbach did with the desecration of his imagined Bruges.

Georges Rodenbach was a distinctly "northern" type, with his light blond hair, pale complexion and blue-grey eyes, deep and distant as a mirror of his native skies, with the colour of the canals they had long reflected.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer painted the poet in a spectral close-up against a background of roofs and gables and with the great Gothic spire of the church of Notre Dame in wintry silhouette. His shoulders seemed to rise out of the shadowy waters of the canal behind him. He was an elegant and dandyish dresser, but the painter depicted him with a wide-eyed expression of reverie bordering on grief, as some sort of a double portrait of the author and his obsessive hero, Hugues Vianes, still haunting the deserted quays.

Rodenbach died in 1898, after finishing another prose masterpiece, Le Carilloneur, addressing the same theme: a city that had to be loved for its life or for its beautiful death, exploring the mysterious accord between the soul and the city, in a mood of lonely withdrawal and silent contemplation...

Audio Book (French) - Bruges-la-Morte / Georges Rodenbach

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    • Chad A Taylor profile image

      Chad Taylor 8 years ago from Somewhere in Seattle...

      Dutchman, are you excite about the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen? Do you think they will do Doyle justice?

    • Nemingha profile image

      Nemingha 8 years ago

      Interesting and obviously well researched.