Death in Venice (of the North)


As you push your way through the crowds of tourists in Bruges, particularly on these long summer days, it's strange to think that the city was once synonymous with gloom and death. But at the end of the 19th century, that was how the city was seen by many of Europe's artists, thanks to the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. On the anniversary of his birth this week, join us on a journey back to the fin de siècle Capital of Melancholy

© Doc Archives & Museum of Literature, fonds G Rodenbach
© Doc Archives & Museum of Literature, fonds G Rodenbach

In 1892, one Belgian writer painted a very different portrait of Bruges than the popular notions of today

As you push your way through the crowds of tourists in Bruges, particularly on these long summer days, it's strange to think that the city was once synonymous with gloom and death. But at the end of the 19th century, that was how the city was seen by many of Europe's artists, thanks to the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. On the anniversary of his birth this week, join us on a journey back to the fin de siècle Capital of Melancholy

The irony of Rodenbach's story is that he spent very little time in Bruges, visiting only occasionally to see his father's family. The city was economically moribund in the middle of the 19th century and no place for people hoping to get on in the world.

Rodenbach was born in Tournai on 16 July, 1855 but raised in Ghent, where his father was inspector of weights and measures. He went to school in Ghent, going on to study law at the city's university. It was here that he began to write, with an extended visit to Paris in 1878-79 giving him a taste for the literary high life and material for his first journalistic pieces.

Back in Ghent, Rodenbach’s legal career progressed, but, in parallel, he published poetry and contributed to newspapers and journals. He moved to Brussels in 1883, still combining the two occupations but increasingly favouring literature. By this time he had become a significant figure in the revival of Belgian literature alongside other 19th-century authors who wrote in French, such as Maurice Maeterlinck and Emile Verhaeren.

But the temptations of Paris were strong, and in 1888 Rodenbach moved definitively to the French capital, with the aim of devoting himself completely to writing. He was remarkably successful, becoming one of the first Belgian writers to establish himself in Parisian literary society. He was seen in all the right places and was associated with figures such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Alphonse Daudet and Edmond de Goncourt.

"He wasn't seen as a French writer, but almost a French writer," explains Christian Berg, emeritus professor of literature at the University of Antwerp. "He had a slight accent; he had a physiognomy that suggested he came from the north. He was well turned-out, always very well-dressed. He was a bit of a dandy."

It was in Paris that Bruges became a focus in his writing, representing melancholia and nostalgia for a long-gone Flanders. This is strongest in the short novel Bruges-la-Morte, a title with multiple meanings once you know the story.

It concerns Hugues Viane, a widower in his 40s who moves to Bruges after the death of his young wife. Living a solitary existence, with just a devout old Flemish housekeeper for company, he dwells on portraits and photographs of his wife and mementoes, such as a long braid of her yellow hair that he keeps in a glass case. Long walks in the sombre city accord perfectly with his mood of introspection. Bruges is both a dead city and the personification of Hugues' dead wife. Never named, she is always referred to as La Morte, the dead woman.

One day Hugues sees a woman in the street who is the double of his dead wife. He pursues her and discovers that she is Jane Scott, a dancer at the opera house. In the months that follow, she becomes his mistress, but his ulterior motive of shaping this show-girl into the ideal woman he has lost are frustrated. Finally, Hugues kills Jane, strangling her with his dead wife's hair.

Serialised in Le Figaro in 1892, then published as a book with suitably gloomy photographs of the city, Bruges-la-Morte was a huge success with readers in France and French-speaking Belgium. "It's not really a novel, nor is it a fantastic tale; it's a sort of long prose-poem," says Berg. "It is also one of the first novels where photographs were inserted in the text, not so much illustrating it as extending it. In that sense, it has a certain modernity."

Rodenbach continued to develop this theme for the rest of his short career, dying in 1898, aged only 44. "In a way, he specialised in this subject: the dead city, nostalgia, the lost world of childhood and so on," Berg explains. "So it's a rather obsessive world view."

The exception is his final novel, Le Carilloneur, which focuses on the campaign of architect Joris Borluut to preserve Bruges as an ancient city of art rather than see it modernised. This plot touches on a project that was eventually carried through at the turn of the last century, re-opening Bruges' links to the sea and restoring it as a commercial port through Zeebrugge.

Unlike Bruges-la-Morte, which is highly poetical and a landmark in symbolist literature, Le Carilloneur has a more realist approach to the city and its people, although the same romantic air of faded glory lingers in its descriptive passages.

This final novel also reflects Rodenbach's position regarding Flanders and says a lot about his place in Belgian literature. "It wasn't about fighting for the Flemish cause," Berg says. "It was about fighting for Flanders as a region with a significant historical and cultural past – but preferably speaking French."

These were ideas that Rodenbach shared with Maeterlinck and Verhaeren and which naturally separated him from writers working in Dutch, such as his cousin Albrecht Rodenbach. Unlike Maeterlinck and Verhaeren, however, it is unlikely that Rodenbach spoke Dutch at all, although the characters in Le Carilloneur are passionate advocates of its use and can be assumed to be speaking it throughout the novel.

But there's even a deeper gulf separating Rodenbach from contemporaries who chose to write in Dutch. "What's remarkable is that the influence Rodenbach had on Flemish writers – above all, from the point of view of his major themes – is zero, absolutely zero," says Berg. "There was no resonance at all, for the very simple reason that this theme of the dead city didn't interest them."

Rather than a dead Bruges, the Flemish movement wanted the city to be seen as flourishing and part of a broader revival of Flanders. For similar reasons, the city authorities refused a plan by Rodenbach's friends to erect a memorial to him in the begijnhof. Instead, it ended up in Ghent.

But Bruges-la-Morte continued to resonate with French readers and inspire other French-speaking artists. The most immediate influence was on the symbolist painters, with fellow countrymen such as Fernand Khnopff and Xavier Mellery depicting Bruges in line with Rodenbach's vision. Khnopff in particular was well-attuned, having spent his early childhood in the city.

"Khnopff returned to Bruges only once, or so it seems, to take some photographs," says Berg, recounting a favourite anecdote, "and he wore large dark glasses so that he wouldn't see how much the city had changed. That really says something about their frame of mind. They wanted to revisit and rediscover the city that they had known. They wanted to see only what they wanted to see, and nothing else."

Rodenbach in English

English translations of Georges Rodenbach's main works are available from Dedalus European Classics. Bruges-la-Morte is paired with the earlier essay The Death Throes of Towns and has an introduction by Alan Hollinghurst and new photographs showing that Rodenbach's Bruges still exists. Le Carilloneur is published as The Bells of Bruges.

Bruges-la-Morte: an excerpt

In the muted atmosphere of the waterways and the deserted streets, Hugues was less sensitive to the sufferings of his heart, his thoughts of his dead wife were less painful. He had seen her, heard her again more clearly, finding the face of his departed Ophelia as he followed the canals, hearing her voice in the thin, distant song of the bells. In this way the town, once beautiful and beloved too, embodied the loss he felt. Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la- Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.

The legacy of Bruges-la-Morte

The literary heritage of Bruges-la- Morte is considerable, although it has to be placed in context. Berg traces Rodenbach's inspiration back to poems about the city written in English by William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in French by Charles Baudelaire. Belgian writers such as Camille Lemonnier and Marcel Wyseur picked up Rodenbach's themes, as did Michel de Ghelderode and Marguerite Yourcenar later on.

Further afield, Rodenbach's influence can be seen in the work of Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. In English, Henry Miller is one of Berg's favourite carriers of the flame, thanks to the little-known essay Impressions of Bruges (1953). "It's one of the most beautiful texts on Bruges that I've ever read," he says. Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star (1994) continues the tradition. "It's a novel entirely focused on Bruges, on Khnopff, on Rodenbach, on the woman lost and rediscovered. It shows that that these themes are still current."

Bruges-la-Morte continues to be published and translated on its own merits, but also because of its adaptation in other arts. The most important of these is the 1920 opera Die tote Stadt by the German composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which is performed frequently around the world. In the cinema, both the opera and the book have been adapted for the big screen, with Roland Verhavert's 1981 film Brugge, die stille a notable Flemish retelling of the story. Verhavert described the film as an opera without songs, using the lush music of Claude Debussy throughout, a composer closely associated with French symbolism.

However, the strangest film connection is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which shares with Bruges-la Morte the theme of a man trying to remake one woman in the image of another. The link is likely to be an indirect one, via the French novel D'Entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, which provided Hitchcock with the story. But it is still fascinating to see how far the ripples from this slight Belgian novel have spread.

Yes, it's the same Rodenbach

The well-known Rodenbach beer, now produced by Palm Breweries, was first brewed in Bruges in 1821 by four Rodenbach brothers, one of whom was the grandfather of Georges Rodenbach.

Death in Venice (of the North)

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