Saturday, February 23, 2013

Georges Rodenbach - 'Bruges-la-Morte' (1892)


As noted in a previous post on Symbolism, Bruges-la-Morte is an example of symbolist literature. As such, Rodenbach's style is wordy and ornate, as if he is luxuriating in descriptions, vocabulary, and language. This makes Bruges-la-Morte feel like something halfway between poetry and prose, and that can be very appealing. Imagery conveys meaning more so that plot or characterization, and the novel maintains a darkly dreamlike tonality even when Rodenbach is describing something like a dance hall.

Rodenbach's style and atmosphere bring to mind Edgar Allan Poe short stories or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Bruges-la-Morte, however, while there are elements of horror (the dreary setting, the morbid fixation on death), Rodenbach doesn't take his story into the horror genre. This gives Bruges-la-Morte a very unique feel, a feeling likely enhanced by the use of photos of Bruges published with the work upon its original release (see picture here for an example).

The plot concerns Hugues Viane, a melancholy widower obsessed with the memory of his late wife. Viane moves to Bruges, a city which to him seems to be in mourning for the loss of its past greatness. He feels a kinship with the city for this reason. One day, Viane encounters a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. He becomes obsessed with her despite the fact that, beyond appearances, the woman is nothing like his wife. The situation slowly evolves like the opening of a narcotic black flower (don't worry no spoilers).

But as should be expected plot is not the main point here. Rodenbach is about imagery and - given the school he belongs to - symbols. I'm not sure how well this style would work in a full-length novel, but in a short work like Bruges-la-Morte that is under 100 pages, it achieves it's goal and sets a brooding - almost self-indulgent - air of emotion and atmosphere. As in poetry, it's up to the reader to interpret the symbols and imagery to find the meaning of the work.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Portrait of Georges Rodenbach 
For me, the Rodenbach's symbols conveyed several things. First, I saw a parallel between the omnipresent Catholicism Rodenbach paints in his Bruges and the literal shrine Viane builds to his late wife (even including a braid of her hair in a glass case!). Bruges seems to be lost in a fog of mysticism, while Viane is wrapped in blankets of mourning and sleepwalks through life. Neither appears to be geared towards happiness or progress.

Second, and related to this, is an element I noticed in Bruges-la-Morte, which I have also found in Poe's works and Huysmans' Against Nature (the symbolist novel I am reading now): a general antipathy toward human society and normal life. All these works focus on reclusive, highly intelligent protagonists whose morbid melancholy or obsessive behaviors are as desired as they are dreary and soul-destroying. Very much the feeling of 'once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.' This embracing of voluptuously described and self-indulgent melancholy, isolation, or doom may be the 'decadence' of which symbolism is accused of conveying.

Symbolism is definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed Bruges-la-Morte. I imagine I will reread it again at some point when I have an urge to dive deeper into it images...or if I want to re-experience the gloomy fragrance of its prose and imagery. Definitely a book for a gray, rainy day when you're 'in a mood'.

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