Funny how, years later, I can still picture that one pose, how everything else has fallen away – all the bitterness, the arguments, the boredom – and left only that. I didn’t even see it first hand, I saw only her reflection in the surface of the mirror. I was sitting on her bed, and she, with her back to me, was grabbing at her short hair and pouting at herself; and I don’t know, I can’t recall, if I even found it beautiful at the time, but, after the break-up, this probably unreliable memory became, for a short while, an obsession, and the standard against which I judged all other women’s looks. How silly of me. In my mind I thought I was paying tribute to her, and yet in reality I was doing her an injustice, reducing her to a single image, one that no one, not even she, could have lived up to. If I see pictures of her now, which I do very infrequently, I just cannot square them with that young woman reflected in the mirror, who, I’m now sure, never existed anywhere but in my head.
Generally speaking, I’m not one for living in the past, for desperately scrambling after something that has gone. It’s too much like chasing a runaway donkey. It has a taste of the absurd about it. But I was nineteen at the time of the above anecdote, and nineteen is an absurd age. Besides, grief does strange things to you. No, she didn’t die, but the end of a relationship is a kind of death, a little death. It felt that way, anyway. I was in mourning; well, until I got over it, of course. Some people, however, never manage to do that, they cannot move beyond tragic or upsetting events. People like Hugues Viane, the central character in Georges Rodenbach’s atmospheric masterpiece Bruges-la-Morte.
“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.”
In the opening pages Hugues is described as a solitary man with nothing to occupy his time. This, it soon becomes clear, is because his wife of ten years is dead. Or, more accurately, it is because, as hinted, he cannot get over his wife’s death, for he has, obviously, not been forced to spend the last five years alone, it is a kind of choice. Hugues wallows in his grief; he moves to Bruges, because it strikes him as a melancholy place, he contemplates suicide [but won’t go through with due to the small chance that this will prevent him renewing his relationship with his wife in heaven], and he is still wearing mourning for his spouse half a decade after she passed away. Moreover, he will not throw or give away her clothes or things, or change the arrangement of the home they shared, for this, he thinks, will, in a way, mean losing her again, or another part of her. It is, then, no surprise, although it is rather macabre, that his most treasured possession is a large chunk of her hair, which he removed from the corpse and keeps in a glass case.
On the basis of all this one might legitimately call Hugues obsessive, or even insane. Certainly there is, whatever you want to call it, something unhealthy and peculiar about his behaviour even at this early stage of the narrative. However, as things progress, one is left in no doubt at all as to how dangerous his frame of mind has become, as he first follows and then begins a kind of relationship with a woman who he believes is the very image of his dead wife. Yet it is to Rodenbach’s credit that one, or I at least, still feels some level of sympathy for his protagonist, even in the weirdest and most excruciating moments, such as when he attempts to make this doppelgänger try on one of his wife’s dresses. Bruges-la-Morte is less than one hundred pages long, and so the author did not have much to work with, but I never stopped believing in Hugues; he, and his grief, always felt kosher to me.
[Portrait of Georges Rodenbach by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, 1895]
While the trajectory of Hugues’ relationship with this look-alike is what gives the novel momentum and tension, and I’d argue that all great novels need those things, it is not what provided me with the most enjoyment. First of all, Rodenbach’s prose is fantastic. I have seen it described as ornate, but it never struck me that way, especially in the context of when the book was published, 1892, a time when authors really did know a thing or two about overcooking their sentences. For me, Rodenbach wrote with clarity, and insight and tenderness. His prose is that special kind that, if I can write this without too much cringing, glides along the page, with grace and absolutely without pretension.
I was also impressed by how he worked his themes into the narrative, in a way that is touching and engaging without being too heavy-handed. Bruges-la-Morte is, of course, primary concerned with death, but rather than focussing on corpses and funerals and all that, he chose to write about change and decay and memory [which are all, or can be, related to death, of course]. I have mentioned some of this stuff already, but it is worth exploring in more detail. Take the locks of hair, Rodenbach notes how, while the body slowly disintegrates, the hair remains constant, it doesn’t change or fade, it, in effect, challenges death. I was very much taken with that.
Or consider how it is said that the face of Jane, the look-alike, becomes that of his wife, how, to be specific, after seeing Jane her face actually replaces that of his wife in his memory. We have all, I’m sure, experienced that strange and cruel phenomena, whereby we cannot properly remember what someone looks like, where, after a period of time, their appearance starts to become fuzzy in our minds. This is what happened to Hugues, so while he thinks that Jane is a deadringer for his dead love, in actual fact it is only ever Jane he sees; his wife, in essence, becomes Jane, not the other way around. I thought that was brilliant. Moreover, the marriage, we’re told, was extremely happy, was one where the passion and love never diminished over time. Therefore, one wonders whether this is simply how Hugues remembers it, rather than it being strictly the case, for his wife has become, in his mind, a kind of saint. Indeed, he literally worships her memory and treats her things like relics.
[Bruges-la-Morte, when originally published, featured a number of photographs of Bruges, including this one]
I hope I am managing to give some sense of how complex, moving and satisfying a book this is. There is, moreover, still much that I have not covered. I haven’t, for example, mentioned how mirroring plays such a prominent role in the text. Yes, of course, there is Jane and how she is the wife’s double, but there is more to it than that. At the very beginning of the book Hugues house is said to be reflected in the water of the canal outside. There is also much made of how Bruges itself mirrors the wife, how it is a dead city, and how Hugues needed a dead city to represent the dead woman. I must, before I finish, cover this in a little more detail, for Bruges-la-Morte is often described as one of the great ‘novels about cities,’ similar, in this way, to Ulysses or Bely’s Petersburg. Yet, without wishing to compare the quality of the three books, all of which I love, I would say that this one gave me more of a sense of place than the others. Bruges, we’re told, is where radiant colours are neutralised and reduced to greyish drowsiness, like a pastel drawing left uncovered. Which is, let’s be honest, fucking brilliant.
“Every town is a state of mind.”
Rodenbach takes us down the narrow streets, upon which falls constant rain, to the Église Notre-Dame [not the one in Paris], along the canals, and at every step there is an interplay between place and man, each intensifies the inherent sadness or bleakness of the other.