Review: Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Hugues Viane lost his wife five years ago, five long lonely years ago.

 “He whiled away some of the time by reading magazines and old books, smoked a great deal and, lost in his memories, lingered at the window opening onto the grey weather outside.” (Page 17*)

Since his beloveds death, he has moved to Bruges and it seems the mood outside; the bleakness of winter in this Belgium city reflects his own. Having always been by each other’s side, loneliness has crept in and Hugues now keeps himself apart from other locals. They, of course, see him around town but they also respect his desire to be left alone, no one bothering him as he walks by, as if he himself is a ghost.

That is until he catches sight of Jane Scott. Jane is the spitting image of his dead wife.  It’s as if she has returned reincarnated into another living soul. To begin with, he simply follows her trying to get a glimpse of her as she passes through the crowd. One evening, however, he loses her and in his despair purchases a ticket to the evening opera theatre performance in the hope that she has wandered inside to view it also.

To his dismay, he cannot see her while scanning the faces of the audience, but just as he is giving up hope, she appears on stage in costume.  A dancer, a performer: identical to his wife in so many ways, but in this way so completely different.

“It was her – a dancer! But not for one minute did he dream that this was what she was. She was his wife, descending from the stone of her sepulcher, his wife, who was now smiling, advancing, holding out her arms.” (Page 35*)

Stunned, Hugues is convinced after seeing her on stage that this is, in fact, his wife. The eyes, the figure, her presence, even her hair is the same golden colour he so vividly remembers.

In his world of confusion, the dancer, Jane, is all he can think about. He starts to follow her from the theatre after her performances; starts to watch her house hoping to catch a sighting as she returns. Stalking her becomes all he can think about, becoming his obsession.

He is no longer grieving at home, he has returned full of life just as his dear departed wife has done. He slowly tries to win Jane over; visiting her, providing her with gifts and offering to take care of her if she stops dancing.

This once quiet, insignificant man was beginning to be the reason for so much gossip in the city. Known for keeping himself to himself, to suddenly be paying this young lady so much attention was causing the locals to talk.

Is this a story of happy endings or a dark tale of infatuation?

Bruges-la-Morte by Georges RodenbachMy Thoughts on Bruges-la-Morte

Originally written in 1892, Bruges-la-Morte is a lesser-known classical work that definitely deserves more recognition.

It is a story of profound pain and depression following the death of a loved one. It highlights that grief can manifest in many different ways, sometimes causing people to see what is not truly there. It is melodramatic in places whilst being uncharacteristically upbeat in others.  Rodenbach has crafted a novel that causes the reader to explore suffering whether they wish to or not and the consequences it can have on one’s life.

It is a novel that has also been praised for its symbolism, with many agreeing that it reflects the mood of Bruges at the time Rodenbach was writing, seeing it as a decaying city unlike some of the more popular Belgium cities of the era. Apparently his aim was to paint a picture of the Flemish town as a living being, associating the moods of Hugues with the moods of Bruges.

It certainly isn’t a book that people are drawn to, or perhaps even know about, but it does set a bar for all those psychological thrillers that followed which feature untrustworthy characters, unseen dangers, and unsettling feelings.

If you want a short classic novel to delve into, one crammed full of emotion, then Bruges-la-Morte is one worth considering.

Have you read any of Georges Rodenbach’s work?

*Please note that the translation used for quotes is translated by Philip Mosley in 2007 and published by The University of Scranton Press.

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