Monday, 1 June 2015

Bruges-La-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Bruges-La-Morte (Bruges the dead) is a novella from 1892 by Belgian author Georges Rodenbach.  It is about the widower Hugues Vinae. Five years after her death, he is still obsessed by her wife and has turned his sorrow over her into a heavily ritualized private religon, centering around the relic of a braid of her hair.

He has moved to the city of Bruges, which has such a melancholic mood that it is as if it were dead. It fits his grieving mood. But there he meets a woman, which he thinks looks exactly like his dead wife. He transfers his obsession to her, starting an affair with her.
Rodenbach was heavily influenced by the French symbolist writers, like Baudelaire and Mallarmé (who he knew personally) and wrote in French, despite being ethnically Flemish. Thus, material "reality" in his novels merely represent ideals. In this case the city of Bruges comes to represent decay and death (and being the gothic romantic and decadent he is, this is a positive for Rodenbach). This is a real city and the novel is illustrated with 35 pictures (it was the first time a work of fiction was illustrated with photographs). It was originally a bustling town of commerce, but the river which enabled the ships to come there dried up and the city decayed.

It is Rodenbach's portrait of Bruges that makes the book worth reading. It is very atmospheric, beautiful and poetic, but also disturbing, depicting a "dead city", locked in tradition into complete stasis. Bruges seems less like a city and more the corpse of some gigantic creature that people somehow have made into a morbid home. It is as much the main character as Vinae is and they deliberately mirror each other. Vinae's private religion of grieving his dead wife is mirrored by the morbid, death-obsessed Catholicism of Bruges.  Recurring motifs are the many church bells and the almost dried up and unmoving canals.

The obsessive and insane love story is also interesting and, with the main character's neurotic need to control the appearance of his love and prevent her from betraying him with some else reminds me of Proust and was perhaps an influence on him. As so many late-romantics, Rodenbach presages the modernists, with his lack of conventional storytelling and focus on the inner life of his main character.  In a review for the guardian, Nicholas Lezard notes that Rodenbach making Bruges into a main character precedes Joyce doing the same with Dublin in Ulysses.  The book has also had several film adaptations and probably inspired the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac which Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was adapted from.

There is also an Wagnerian opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die Tote Stadt, based on a german translation of  the play that Rodenbach later adapted from the novel. There is much beautiful music in it, though it doesn't capture the melancholic and poetic mood of the novel in any way. Korngold would later become one of the foremost soundtrack composers in Hollywood and it's obvious that Hollywood is his true calling and companion, not the subtle and poetic Rodenbach

As the Swedish translator Leif Jäger notes in his informative afterword to his translation of the book, this is a minor classic and it is well worth reading if one is interested in Symbolist literature and poetic prose.

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