The Belgian poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach was born in 1855 in the prosperous commercial town of Tournai. But it was the becalmed and eclipsed towns of the former Low Countries, those “melancholic widows of medieval Communes” as he would put it in an essay — Ypres, Furnes, Courtrai, Audenarde, above all Bruges — that he would fondle and embalm in his fiction.
In his early twenties Rodenbach published poems in Belgian magazines, and his first collection, Le Foyer et les champs, appeared in 1877. While mingling in Catholic literary circles and attending various salons, he went through the motions of pursuing a legal career. He read law at the University of Ghent and went to the bar there, before moving briefly to Paris where he made a number of important literary friendships. Writing to his friend Emile Verhaeren, Rodenbach identified this brief initial period of residence in Paris as a moment of sudden, and perhaps mildly unnatural, literary flourishing:
As for producing literature in Belgium, in my view it is impossible. Our nation is above all positivistic and material. It won’t hear a word of poetry . . . Whereas in Paris, one lives at twice the pace, one is in a hothouse, and suddenly the sap rises and thought flowers.
Returning to Belgium in 1879, he lived first in Ghent and then in Brussels, where for a while he was a partner in a law firm. But in 1886 Rodenbach renounced the law, and devoted himself fully to a life of writing. Two years later, in 1888, he settled in Paris, married, and became the Parisian correspondent for the Journal de Bruxelles and the Belgian correspondent for Le Figaro. Four years later he published his most famous work, Bruges-la-Morte (1892); it was the most successful Parisian publication of that year. Rodenbach’s health, however, began to fail. In 1895 he suffered a serious chest infection, and in 1898 he died of typhlitis.
Bruges-la-Morte is a story of an obsession which turns murderous. While it is not entirely wrong to associate the novel with the decadence of the fin-de-siècle, to do so is to some extent misleading. Notwithstanding its final spasm of violence, the emotional palette of Bruges-la-Morte is milder and more attenuated than one finds in the fiction of, say, Huysmans. Its dominant mood is that of melancholy and impotent rumination on the past. Hugues Viane has been widowed, and he transplants himself to Bruges, a city which, dispossessed as a result of the silting up of the channel which connected it to the North Sea of the mercantile energies which once animated it, becomes a sympathetic setting for the acting out of the quasi-religious ceremonies of the widower’s extravagant grief. Verhaeren responded to the unusual importance of setting in this book:
Rodenbach sang the praises of Bruges because of all cities in the world he considered it most in tune with his sense of melancholy . . . Bruges is the book’s protagonist and nothing better explains the novel or tells us more about the poet himself.
Rodenbach clearly agreed about the importance of setting. The first edition of the novel, published by Marpon and Flammarion, was embellished with 35 photographs of Bruges — largely unpeopled monochrome images which vibrate in sympathy to the strange and desolate mood of the novel. (From a bibliographic point of view, Bruges-la-Morte is important because it was the first novel to be published with photographs as an integral part of the text.)
One evening, in a mood of particularly intense melancholic absorption, Hugues thinks he sees his dead wife walking the streets of Bruges. In fact, it is a dancer, Jane Scott, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the dead woman. Hugues makes Jane’s acquaintance, and begins a liaison with her. He sets her up in a house in a different part of town from his own, dresses her in his wife’s old clothes, and tries through her to taste again the pleasures of his marriage. Of course, he cannot succeed:
He had gone too far. Through wanting to unite the two women, their resemblance had diminished. The delusion was possible so long as they remained far removed from each other, separated by the mist of death. Drawn too close together, the differences appeared.
Jane is certainly different from Hugues’s first wife. She believes that Hugues will soon die, and she has designs on his property. She insists on being invited to Hugues’s house, ostensibly to view a religious procession which will pass before it, in fact to assess his wealth. While there Jane handles and mocks some of the relics of his first wife that Hugues has religiously preserved, including a tress of her hair. Enraged, Hugues strangles Jane with the profaned hair of his wife, and the novel ends on the complicated chord of the exhausted Hugues sitting with the murdered woman, as the bells of the city ring out, both ironically and sympathetically, for the return of the relic of the Holy Blood to its shrine.
An important minor character in the novel is Hugues’s servant, Barbe. This simple and devoted woman’s greatest pleasure is to attend divine service and spend the day with the nuns at the Béguinage, which she does one Easter Sunday:
After grace had been said, they sat down at table in the long refectory. But Barbe, barely touching her food and then without any pleasure, watched as the healthy, rosy-cheeked nuns and a few other family visitors like her did justice to this festive Sunday dinner. On that day they served the unctuous, golden sacramental wine of Tours. Thinking she might drown her cares, Barbe emptied the glass she had been served. But she felt a headache coming on.
Tours does not itself produce much wine.But it is the natural point from which the astonishing sweet white wines made further down the Loire to the west-Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, at a more humble level Coteaux du Layon — are shipped onwards to their eventual consumers in Belgium and elsewhere. These wines are made from Chenin blanc, a grape which can be vinified dry, when it tends to be an acquired taste — even very fine examples can have a disconcerting nose of wet wool. In bad years it is versatile enough to produce an exceptional sparkling wine, age-worthy when made by a good producer such as Foreau, and frequently more interesting than champagnes costing two or three times as much. But when conditions allow it to be made “moelleux”, the Chenin blanc achieves its finest expression. In great years these are almost immortal wines, piercingly sweet, but braced with a thrill of acidity.
Barbe drinks this splendid wine at a crucial moment. One of the nuns is about to warn her concerning Hugues’s moral character, for his liaison with Jane has become the subject of censorious gossip. On the point of being made aware of her proximity to corruption, Barbe knocks off her glass of rich, sweet wine. It is the sacramental accompaniment to her movement from a world of innocence to a world of grievous loss and knowledge, to the imminent pains of which it warningly points in the headache which it summons.