In Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte (1892), a widower named Hugues Viane moves to the Flemish city to mourn the death of his young wife. “Solitary and with little to occupy his time”, writes Rodenbach, “he would spend the whole day in his large room on the second floor, whose windows gave onto the Quai de Rosaire, along which his house extended, mirrored in the water.” There Hugues broods: smoking, reading and finally going for evening strolls through Bruges, with its medieval architecture and canals, sounds echoing along its narrow streets. On one of his ambles he notices Jane, a dancer who is a dead ringer for his dead wife. Obsessed, he soon establishes Jane as his mistress in an apartment on the edge of town. His passion for her deepens until his image of her eventually shatters, and the story takes a tragic turn.
Rodenbach’s book is a case study of the symbolist novel, of the way tone and atmosphere – and, in this case, the city of Bruges – mirror the psychological state of its protagonist: “And how melancholic Bruges was on those late afternoons. And how he loved it just so. It was the melancholy atmosphere which had drawn him here after the great catastrophe”. Rodenbach, who never lived in Bruges, was born into an upper-middle class Flemish family and raised in Ghent. Like much of the Belgian bourgeoisie of his era, he wrote in French and spent the last ten years of his life in Paris, where he was active in its literary circles. A novel of mood and the macabre, Bruges-la-morte feels acutely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, particularly “Ligeia” and “The Man of the Crowd,” tales that had been translated into French by Charles Baudelaire in 1857 and that revolve around mourning paramours, ghostly doppelgängers and aimless strolls through city streets. “I desire”, Baudelaire wrote to Sainte-Beuve on March 19 of the same year, “that Edgar Poe, who is not a big deal in America, becomes a Great Man for France.” Rodenbach’s tale, which cemented the Belgian author’s name in Paris during his lifetime, is one example of how Baudelaire’s translations fulfilled that wish.
Yet Bruges-la-morte now occupies a more peculiar place in literary history, as an influential minor work remembered mostly for its para-literary credentials. Alan Hollinghurst, in a 2005 essay on the novel, suggests that it is now better known as the source for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (1920), and it is sometimes cited as a tenuous inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Adaptation aside, Rodenbach’s novel resonates with contemporary readers because it is the first book-length work of narrative fiction to be illustrated with photographs. Bruges-la-morte thus set a precedent for surrealist texts ranging from André Breton’s Nadja to the work of W. G. Sebald and beyond. Its pages are peppered with photographic images of a mostly empty Bruges, which add to the haunting effect that the city casts over the tale. “In this study of passion”, Rodenbach writes in his preface, “we wished first and foremost to evoke a City, the City as a principal character, associated with states of the soul, which counsels, dissuades, and induces one to act… And this is why, since these scenes of Bruges impinge upon the story, it is vital to reproduce them here interspersed between the pages …”
Will Stone’s excellent new translation into contemporary English, published by Wakefield Press, is the only edition currently in print in English to reproduce faithfully Rodenbach’s choice of photographs, a crucial thematic detail for the novel. In the previous Dedalus edition of 2005, translated by Mike Mitchell, with supplementary material translated by Stone, new contemporary images replaced the original photographs of Bruges. (There are even distant cars in some.) This was a choice that marred Rodenbach’s vison of the work, because the photographs are not merely illustrations, as has been suggested, or even superficial formal innovation. Now fully reintegrated into the story, the anonymous original photographs augment the book’s themes of the dangers of resemblance and reflection.
In one passage, as Hugues walks to meet Jane, Geroges Rodenbach describes the little mirrors on exterior walls of the Belgian homes of the era called espions [spies]: “And so, thanks to the treachery of mirrors, they [the townspeople] all too soon knew every last detail of the virtual concubinage in which he and Jane now lived.” In a cautionary tale where the water of its canals mirrors a dead city and tawdry dancers seem to resemble dead wives, the book asks us to consider how photographs don’t accurately reflect the world, or rather what kinds of treachery can lie beneath their surfaces.
Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis, 2008, and Jeff Wall: North & West, 2015