Heartwood 3:6 – Bruges-la-Morte

BrugesBruges-la-Morte is a perfect little book for our drizzly, dismal fall season.

The story begins with a respectable widower who has chosen to move to Bruges, Belgium as the most suitably melancholy city in which to mourn his dead wife. When Hugues Viane sees a woman who resembles his wife on the street one night, he follows her until he loses her in a tangled intersection of alleyways. But having had this encounter, he keeps an eye out for this woman who so resembles his dead wife. Eventually, he sees her again and follows her into an opera house where he again loses sight of her. After intently scanning the audience, he can only assume that she must be in the production, so he settles into his seat and watches the performance without much interest in the story but only to see if she will appear on stage. When she does, it is in the resurrection scene of the opera Robert le Diable – and it as if he is watching his wife come back to life. So begins Hugues’ scandalous infatuation with Jane Scott.

The book is written in a somewhat old-fashioned style, that of a dreamlike yarn, but details are handled with nuance and care, and the emphasis on Bruges as a dying city, with its decaying architecture and stillwater canals, is poetically and atmospherically depicted. When the book was first published in 1892 it included photographs of the city, and this finely translated edition also has somber black-and-white photos taken at a later date.

As Alan Hollinghurst notes in his introduction, Bruges-la-Morte is written within the symbolist tradition but also prefigures elements of modernism – and since this blog is called areadinglife, I thought I would highlight some resonances to other books that, in my reading experience, lend support to this observation.

Thematically, I found Bruges to overlap strikingly with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (Rodenbach’s novella predates Proust’s multi-volume work), particularly the focus on resemblance, infatuation, jealousy, habit, otherness, public opinion, and the temporal world of memory. But where Marcel attempts to recapture the past, Hugues seeks “the infinite luxury of forgetting.” When Jane tries on one of his wife’s old dresses, he hopes a pinnacle of resemblance will be reached that will “abolish time and reality,” but because of Jane’s wanton behavior it results instead in a feeling of vulgarity and degradation. (On top of all this, it is hard not to think of Proust when one reads of a white swan flapping its wings in a canal “like a sick man thrashing about when he wants to get out of bed.”)

Rodenbach’s style and subject matter also reminded me of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, especially: “The Fall of the House of Usher” for its sense of melancholy and decay; “Ligeia” for the theme of a dead wife’s resurrection; and “William Wilson,” one of the first fictional works to feature a doppelgänger.

Lastly, the ubiquitous ringing of church bells brought to mind “the leaden circles dissolved in the air” as Big Ben repeatedly rings out the hours in Mrs. Dalloway.

There’s a lot more to say about this moody, image-rich novella – a wonderful and memorable read – but I’ll stop here and encourage you to read it for yourself. It’s a book well worth living with for a gloomy autumn evening or two.