Hans Cadzand’s Vocation was the first book by Rodenbach that I read. It passed two tests I imagine every writer would like their work to pass; having finished the book I could genuinely see myself re-reading the work, and secondly, I was curious to acquaint myself with more works by the author. The long nouvelle is less well known and less celebrated than Bruges-la-morte, yet I can’t help but feel this general preference is a matter of precedence. Bruges-la-morte was written first, and while Hans Cadzand extends and develops its style and broadens its milieu, literary judgement has not relinquished its preference for the seminal work.
I think this is a great shame, as I can genuinely imagine a reader being disinclined to read Rodenbach further if they are introduced to him through Bruges-la -morte. Despite my high regard for that work, it lacks something that Rodenbach achieves in Hans Cadzand. That achievement is the creation of characters both individual and real. The protagonist of Bruges- la-morte, Hugues Vianes, strikes one either as a makeshift creation, or as a melodramatic stock figure. I can well imagine the genesis of the Hugues character: from his comfortable siuation in Paris, perhaps in a quiet cafe or a library, Rodenbach wanders in memory through the streets of Bruges, rhapsodising on the spirit of the place, its icons, its climate, its history, trying to evoke scenes that capture the place’s essence. Then working backward from these ruminations he tries to fit them to a character who either feels like Rodenbach, or a makeshift mask. By contrast, Hans Cadzand has at its centre two characters of individuality and realistic emotion.
The prologue introduces us to the Mevrouw Cadzand, and her son Hans Cadzand, a melancholy pair walking home from morning mass. From a well known respectable family, they attract the wondering eyes of neighbours, who cannot grasp the reclusive sadness of this pair. He is such a handsome man, still young, and she has the fortune every mother must surely pray for, her son has not left her side to go out into the world. And yet both carry a despondence between them, enigmatic to the furtive provincial eyes Rodenbach assures us are always watching in Bruges.
From this sorrowful picture Rodenbach takes us back to the birth of a boy born on the anniversary of his parents wedding. The father of this newborn is a scholar of Bruges’ departed golden days, who sadly dies before his son can remember him. He does however leave him a name, Hans, after Hans Memling, the great artist of Bruges. His mother’s nervous love, becomes all the more intense with the loss of her husband, she is besotted with her sweet, pretty, graceful little boy. Hans for his part grows into a serious, studious and pious child. His heart draws him toward the church; the beautiful ceremonies and rituals of mass, prayer, incense, choirs, harmoniums, the rood screen, the whole panoply of sanctity enraptures him. In time, he dreams of becoming an altar boy.
This dream causes his mother some consternation, for it will mean cutting off his soft fair hair. Eventually she allows Hans to have his way, but she mourns the loss of those gentle locks, and when they are cut away, takes them for herself to add to a pillow.
As he gets older Hans becomes more and more religious. At first his mother is comforted that his religious devotion will save his sensitive nature from the temptations that can torment a growing young man. Her equally sensitive and devoted nature longs to keep him with her without impeding his happiness, and his devotion to Christ and the Virgin consoles her that she will not lose her son to a woman.
Her hopes for her son are ruined by a fateful day in his last year of school. His school has an established tradition of organising a retreat for those in their final year, devoted to helping students recognise their vocation in life. One of the speakers at this retreat is a Dominican monk whose eloquent encomium on the virtues of the religious life so enthuses and moves Hans, that he feels sure God has granted him the grace of recognising his vocation. He confides his vocation to his mother, who feels the most intense sorrow that she will lose the life with Hans that she has cherished. Both mother and son are set upon dreams for one another that cannot be reconciled.
His mother manages to convince Hans to put off his entrance to holy orders until he comes of age in the desperate hope that he will lose his commitment to becoming a Dominican. It is during this year when Hans has promised to wait that his mother undertakes to loosen his conviction with the help of an old friend, hoping that Hans will fall in love with her pretty and innocent daughter. One is never in doubt, due to the memorable sorrow of the prologue, that these crossed dreams will lead to some sort of tragedy and trauma, what makes the result so painful, is that one cannot help but sympathise with an affectionate mother and son, so devoted to one another and alike in so many things, apart from their disagreement about Hans’ future. To hurt someone we love because of the love we bare them, must be one of the most tragic of sorrows.
And the city of Bruges is the brocade on which these sorrows are perfectly woven. There are the expected signature descriptions Rodenbach is so fond of when evoking Bruges; the beguinage, the carilloner, the mist on the canals, the mausoleum atmosphere, the ghosts of long departed splendour. But the great success of the nouvelle is that Bruges is described as powerfully through the characters of the drama. Hans Cadzand and Mevr Cadzand, feel like people of flesh and blood, but also growths of the soil of Bruges. Everything about their faith, their love, their dreams, is shot through with the ghostly limbo atmosphere of Bruges. If one tries to imagine this book being set in Paris, Prague or Florence, one would have to rewrite the entire work, because so many of the little nuances of human character are reflections of the city’s character.
I think Hans Cadzands fully achieves the stated aim of Bruge-la-morte’s preface:
“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.
And in reality, this town of Bruges, on which our choice fell, does seem almost human. It establishes a powerful influence over all who stay there.”
But the character of the city is expressed more intensely by feeling its subtle shaping of people who have lived their entire lives in its midst.’