Portrait of Georges Rodenbach by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1895).
Georges Rodenbach’s short, atmospheric novel is one of the key texts of Symbolism, not only for its themes but also for the art it either inspired or complemented. Bruges-la-Morte was first published in 1892 and the recent Dedalus Books edition, edited by Alan Hollinghurst and with a new translation by Mike Mitchell and Will Stone, was reprinted late last year.
Bruges-la-Morte…concerns the fate of Hugues Viane, a widower who has turned to the melancholy, decaying city of Bruges as the ideal location in which to mourn his wife and as a suitable haven for the narcissistic perambulations of his inexorably disturbed spirit. Bruges, the ‘dead city’, becomes the image of his dead wife and thus allows him to endure, to manage the unbearable loss by systematically following its mournful labyrinth of streets and canals in a cyclical promenade of reflection and allusion. The story itself centres around Hugue’s obsession with a young dancer whom he believes is the double of his beloved wife. The consequent drama leads Hugues onto a plank walk of psychological torment and humiliation, culminating in a deranged murder. This is a poet’s novel and is therefore metaphorically dense and visionary in style. It is the ultimate evocation of Rodenbach’s lifelong love affair with the enduring mystery and haunting mortuary atmosphere of Bruges.