Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach
I discovered the Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach because of his tomb in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – possibly the most nightmarish piece of funerary sculpture ever carved. It portrays the writer desperately trying to climb out of his own grave. My wife and I came across it when photographing tombs for a book we were doing on cemetery architecture. The tomb led to the books, which is what Rodenbach regarded his novels as anyway. He was obsessed with death.
His most famous novel, Bruges-la-Morte, has rightly attracted a lot of interest since it was republished recently by the excellent but now endangered Dedalus Books. First issued in 1892, it was a short but intense Symbolist novel about sex, lies – and Gothic architecture. The usually reliable Nicholas Lezard did a good review in The Guardian though he failed to mention that what helped make this book compulsive reading was the inclusion of 35 half-tone photographs (at least in the first edition). These depicted the shadowy canals, alleys and courtyards of the medieval city, and provided an atmospheric mise-en-scène to the events described. Mixing fictional text and documentary photography was resurrected a century later to great effect by W.G. Sebald. The Dedalus edition, translated by Mike Mitchell and Will Stone, dispenses with the original photographs and uses some modern photographs taken by Will Stone which work equally effectively. They are very effective.
Georges Rodenbach's tomb -- Ken Worpole
The basic plot of Bruges-la-Morte – man’s wife dies, man later sees a woman who looks like her and recruits her to dress up as the deceased loved one, a fantasy game that culminates in murder – was adopted by composer Erich Korngold for his opera, Die todt Stadt, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo shares obvious affinities. It captures the heightened emotions and excesses of a certain kind of decadent fin-de-siècle literary style, and is replete with descriptions of gloomy bourgeois interiors and empty, funereal streets. The same is true of Rodenbach’s final novel, The Bells of Bruges, also republished by Dedalus, about a late 19th century Flemish nationalist and city architect, whose misguided marriage to the wrong one of two admired sisters again ends in betrayal, abandonment and self-destruction. The main protagonist is also the city’s bell-ringer, hence the title, and a man like Fabrice del Dongo in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, who is only happy when he is high above the world looking down.
You could read Rodenbach alone for the architectural detail alone, a sort of Pevsner guide to Bruges interspersed with febrile sex and mordant Catholicism. For the city was filled with convents in this period – or Beguinages as they were called – as well as narrow streets and canal-side buildings offering the temptations of prostitution and drink. In both novels the dying city is really the main character, exuding a deep fatalism as it sinks into lethargy, now cut off from the sea by a retreating river, and trading on the mysteries of its ancient buildings carved ‘from blocks of night’. Dedalus and their translators have done a terrific job in bringing these intensely-wrought novels to our attention. Goths will love them, but so ought lots of other readers.