‘The faces of the dead, which are preserved in our memory for a while, gradually deteriorate there, fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse. Thus, within us, our dead die a second time.’
Bruges-La-Morte is the cardinal work of Symbolist literature: a haunted, profoundly intimate novel that explores the sacred obligations of grief, sorrow, and sin—and the way that a place, here the decaying city of Bruges, can inform the rhythm of life (as well as life-in-death) of the scattered, ruined souls that comprise its inhabitants.
Written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892, Bruges-La-Morte is a key component of the literature of the Decadence—as well as, perhaps, the most moving and acutely poignant work in its canon. Rodenbach’s prose, orphic and sensuous, could be labeled a sort of exercise in hypnotism, the spell achieving its greatest successes when, after coming up from the depths of an opium-dream, we are startled with the occasional interruption of painfully raw, near-caustic laconicism; these short, beautifully-woven sentences linger in the brain like a fever, inducing a rapture of agonized comprehension. This novel, curiously, is utterly empathic to the concerns of even the most jaded and stoic of readers: because it is a work dedicated to the study of human ‘analogies’—the strange, surreal comparisons drawn in the minds of all and torn to pieces within the obsessions, and eager fervor, of an unfortunate few.
The plot is merely a gauze upon which to hang the ghosts of observation: it details the dream-like, funereal existence of a widower who, after ten years of mourning his dead wife—worshiping her possessions, photographs, and physical memories like the reliquaries of a saint—chances to meet a woman who, in outward appearance, is the very mirror-image of his lost love. They begin an affair: one in which our protagonist sees not the intimations of sin and betrayal against the dead so often experienced by the bereaved, but, instead, the literal continuation of his wife’s actuality: he is trying to recreate her existence, as if a thread had never been cut—as if it had only been interrupted. Obviously we can expect little but disappointment and tragedy from so misguided a notion; but the climax of this novel is triply-tragic, because three lives are shattered by the highest intentions of one.
Bruges-La-Morte, as I said, is a novel of analogies; and the highest analogy is between the insistent sentience of the city and the way it mirrors—as a dead wife is mirrored by a stranger—the psyche of a citizen. Rodenbach, of course, illustrates this phenomenon best: ‘Towns above all have a personality, a spirit of their own, an almost externalized character which corresponds to joy, new love, renunciation, widowhood. Every town is a state of mind, a mood which, after only a short stay, communicates itself, spreads to us in an effluvium which impregnates us, which we absorb with the very air.’ And the ‘effluvium’ of dead, gloom-haunted, and weeping Bruges (which, arguably, remains the most important character in this novel) is rich with a paradoxical aura of contagion, comfort, and doom.