A number of writers are very closely associated with a particular place at a particular time. One naturally associates Wordsworth with the Lake District, many of his most famous poems being composed as he went for long walks over Grasmere; Dickens, despite the diversity of his locations tends to conjure images of a foggy Victorian London of poverty and cruelty. But in neither of those two English writers does their location become something like a living environment as Bruges does in the works of Georges Rodenbach. Bruges does not form a backdrop, it is like the earth and the rainfall that brings forth life after its fashion, like an inescapable element. One can imagine that if Rodenbach had lived in an earlier period he might well have described Bruges as a personified Goddess.
Today Bruges is a major tourist destination, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. A quick image search of “Bruges” on the internet will result in many pretty pictures of attractive ivy clad houses on tranquil canals and numerous photos of the Christmas market which make the city look like the inside of a giant snow globe. However, much of Bruges modern splendour is the result of regeneration projects begun towards the end of the 19th century. Once a major port of the Hanseatic league, the silting of the Zwin deprived the city of the access to the sea that had made it such an important port, the city languished in the doldrums for centuries, superseded economically by Antwerp. The many regeneration projects aimed to harness the emerging importance of tourism to transform the city’s fortunes.
It was also towards the end of the 19th century that Rodenbach wrote his major works. The Bruges they describe is a grey ruin populated by joyless religious provincials and sensitive natures drawing in unhealthy influences from its beautiful mummified streets and mausoleum atmosphere. Rodenbach wished to convey the total effect of a place on a person, as a quote from his prefatory note makes clear:
“In this study of passion our other principal aim has been to evoke a Town, the Town as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.”
With the above quote in mind, it should be no surprise that the most memorable aspect of this iconic symbolist novel, is the atmosphere of the city of Bruges. The city is the bleak, grey and austere backdrop to a widower’s loneliness and deep sorrow. After losing his wife Hugues Vianes chooses to settle in Bruges, for “the town, once beautiful and beloved too, embodied the loss he felt. Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges.”
His dedication to the memory of his wife is fervently religious. In the home he establishes, he sets aside two rooms for the preservation of objects he deems precious by their association with his wife. He becomes anxious if his housekeeper enters these rooms, so worried is he that her cleaning might damage the many photographs he has of his beloved. Most dear to him of all and preserved in a transparent casket like a holy relic, is the long plait of her golden hair. When not immured with his reliquaries, Hugues traipses the streets of the city, seeking “analogies to his grief in deserted canals and ecclesiastical districts”.
Wandering after his haphazard fashion through the streets in the evening, amidst the closed houses exhaling their “funereal atmosphere” and the “melancholy suburbs lined with poplars”, Hugues contemplates taking his own life. The memory however of his wife and the vague possibility of reunion promised by his spiritual feelings is enough to turn him away from suicide. As he returns home from his melancholy wanderings among the tombs of Notre Dame, struggling to picture to himself his beloved’s face, he is stunned by the resemblance of a passing woman to his wife. Hugues pursues the woman, trying as best he can without giving himself away, to see her clearly and understand how this can be, “A disturbing apparition! An almost frightening miracle of resemblance that went as far as identity”.
In the days following this encounter, whenever Hugues thinks of his wife, he thinks of the unknown woman. The closeness of her resemblance and the morbid intensity of his mourning creates an obsession with this “illusion of his dead wife returned from the grave”. Hugues’ eventually discovers that the woman in question is an actress performing at a local theatre. After introducing himself to her and paying her court, a relationship develops between them.
It is not long before Hugues’ finds this illusion of resemblance fading. His flattering dream is tarnished and he is filled with regret and shame. Despite these bitter feelings, he is unable to break the relationship: the illusion of resemblance has been replaced by the baser feeling of lust. Ashamed of his conduct, fearful of losing his mistress who he suspects of infidelity, Hugues’ once more wanders the Bruges streets at ungodly hours.
This story of morbid obsession and delusion could have easily become a gothic and macabre period piece. What makes it so unique is the evocation of Bruges. Many writing workshops will insist on their students understanding the importance of creating a sense of place, but much more desirable and more challenging – the work of utmost difficulty and genius, requiring greater talent and a longer gestation – is capturing the spirit of a place. Rodenbach manages in a mere eighty pages to make Bruges a place one can’t help but feel. What is more, it is undeniable that had Rodenbach undertaken to place his central character Hugues Vianes in another city, he would have been compelled to create an entirely new story. It is very difficult to imagine the protagonist behaving in the way he does without invoking the cumulative pressure of the city Rodenbach imagines as a charnel house.