I must admit that I would never have read the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898) if it hadn’t later been made into a major opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by the German composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). After seeing Korngold’s opera seven or eight times in Altenburg, Hagen and Frankfurt am Main, I finally decided to read the book. I looked for it at some of the book stalls along the Seine but couldn’t find it there, so I finally bought a copy at one of the big fnac stores in Paris.
Both the novel and the opera are about a man who indulges in an unusual degree of endless mourning after the death of his wife. Indeed, he moves to Brugge especially for this purpose, since in the nineteenth century this was a moribund medieval city that seemed especially suitable for a life of perpetual grief. This man, who in the novel is called Hugues Viane, is evidently wealthy enough that he doesn’t have to work for a living, so he doesn’t have any daily routine to fall back on and help bring his period of mourning to an end. In his house by the stagnant waters of the Quai du Rosaire (Rozenhoedkaai) in Brugge one entire room is devoted to a sort of shrine for his dead wife, with portraits and souvenirs and even long thick strands of her golden hair that he has kept as a special treasure, preserved under glass.
The novel Bruges-la-Morte was controversial when it first appeared because it was the first literary work to include photographs. At that time, in the 1890s, photography was generally not considered an art form, but rather an insidious new technology that produced trivial images and threatened to put serious artists out of work. Apparently Rodenbach and his publisher did not share this view. These were black-and-white photos, of course, since color photography hadn’t quite been invented yet, although the Lumière brothers (among others) were already working on it.
The photos in Bruges-la-Morte were carefully chosen to make the city look as empty and lifeless as possible. When I was taking photos in Brugge I tried to recapture some of the morbid atmosphere of the novel, but this was not so easy because Brugge in the 21st century is not nearly as dead as it was in the 19th, especially at the height of the tourist season.
In this post I would like to show some prominent places in the city of Brugge/Bruges in the order of their appearance in the novel. (Some chapters mention more than one new place; others mention none.)
In the first chapter of Bruges-la-Morte we learn that the widower Hugues Viane lives on the Quai du Rosaire, which in Dutch is the Rozenhoedkaai and in English the Quay of the Rosary. The author doesn’t say which house it was, but since there are only seven houses on the Rozenhoedkaai it must have been one of those in the photos.
In the nineteenth century this must have been a bleak and deserted place, enlivened only by the occasional religious festival. In the twenty-first century this short street is said to be the most-photographed place in Brugge. It has two souvenir shops, a dreadful touristy restaurant, a café and a landing for tourist boats. Also there are lots of lively people riding around on bicycles, so this would no longer be the ideal place to settle in for a life of eternal grief and mourning.
The second chapter of Bruges-la-Morte describes Hugues Viane’s solitary evening walks, starting from his house on the Quai du Rosaire and proceeding from there to the nearby Quai Vert, which in Dutch is the Groenerei and in English the Green Bank or Green Canal. This is a part of Brugge which still has its medieval buildings largely intact, so it is still a beautiful place for walking or cycling. Also there are lots of swans on the canal, which contribute to the mournful or at least picturesque atmosphere.
Still in the second chapter, Hugues Viane continues his solitary walk and comes to the Quai du Miroir, which in Dutch is called the Spiegelrei and in English would be the Quai of the Mirror.
Nowadays the street signs are only in Dutch, which is the only official language in Flanders.
The Spiegelrei is the street on the right side of the canal, and the Spinolarei is the one on the left.
On the Spiegelrei there are some very old buildings (which look their age), for instance this one (below), which was built either in 1494 or 1595 or 1797, depending on how you decipher the numbers on the wall.
Later in the second chapter, Hugues Viane goes into the Church of Our Lady, (in Flemish Vrouwkerk, in French Notre-Dame), where he spends some time thinking about death (what else?) and gazing in quiet despair at the tombs of Charles le Téméraire (1433-1477) and his daughter Marie de Bourgogne (1457–1482).
He emerges from the church feeling more despondent than ever and is about to return home, as he usually does, but on this particular evening something extraordinary happens. He sees a young woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. He follows her at a distance through a maze of narrow, winding streets, astounded at the resemblance, until she finally disappears.
In the third chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, Hugues Viane spends a week stalking the streets of Brugge, looking in vain for the young woman who resembles his dead wife.
After a week, he finally catches sight of her again and follows her through some parts of the city that he normally avoided on his solitary walks, starting with the Grand’Place, known in Dutch as Markt and in English as the Market Square.
In the nineteenth century this square presumably did not have the proper quality of deadness that Hugues Viane needed to sustain his mood of perpetual grief. A few decades later he might have had better luck, because the square was used in typical twentieth-century fashion as a parking lot for cars. It wasn’t until 1995-96 that cars were banned from the square, which was then re-designed and returned to the people.
Today the Market Square is a very lively place with lots of people strolling, chatting, taking photos or riding around on bicycles.
Also in the third chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, the Belfort Tower or Belfry of Bruges is described as being “immense and black, defending itself against the invading night with the golden shield of its dial.”
This bell tower is known in Flemish as Halle en Belfort and in French as La Tour des Halles. It is at least 83 meters tall and leans to the left by 1.19 meters. This makes it look slightly unstable, but it has been leaning like that for the past four centuries, so there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger that it might fall over.
Hugues Viane only glanced briefly at the Belfort Tower, because he was trying not to lose sight of the young woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife.
After following the young woman more or less discreetly from the Grand’Place through the Rue Flamande (Vlamingstraat), Hugues Viane was surprised to see her head directly for the City Theatre and disappear through one of the open doors. He went in and looked around, but didn’t see her anywhere.
Spectators were starting to arrive for an opera, Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil), which is described in Bruges-la-Morte as “one of those outmoded operas that nearly infallibly dominate the repertoires of provincial theatres”.
In fairness, I might add that this opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864) was a huge success when it debuted in Paris in 1831 and continued to be one of the most popular and often-performed operas until well into the 1860s. By the 1890s, when Bruges-la-Morte takes place, Robert le Diable was no longer on the playbill in Paris but was still performed regularly in smaller theaters all over Europe.
Hugues Viane, who had not been to the theater or even heard any music since his wife’s death several years before, bought a ticket and went in to see the performance. Although he knew no one in Bruges, he was well aware that everyone knew who he was and that his unaccustomed theater visit would be the talk of the town the next morning.
He didn’t see the young woman, either in the audience or on the stage, until near the end of the opera when she suddenly appeared — as a dancer.
In the fourth chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, Hugues Viane quickly finds out who she is. Her name is Jane Scott. She is English but lives in the French city of Lille, and she comes to Bruges twice a week to perform at the theatre.
Since dancers “are not at all reputed to be puritanical”, he approaches her one evening and speaks to her. She does not seem surprised about this, in fact she seems to have been expecting it. When she speaks, he is amazed to find that her voice sounds exactly like the voice of his dead wife.
Soon he learns her schedule and starts waiting for her every time she comes to Bruges. Before long he begins visiting her at her hotel. The author does not specify the exact location of the hotel, but it is somewhere close to the theatre.
By the fifth chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, the relationship between Hugues and Jane has developed to the point that he rents a jolly little house for her in a quiet street near the Béguinage. Evidently he has the financial resources to do this.
At the same time, Hugues persuades Jane to stop dancing and move to Bruges (from Lille) so she will have more time for him.
There is no indication in the novel of why she agrees to this. A twenty-first century reader can’t help wondering why she would give up her career as a dancer for a creep like Hugues Viane. Perhaps this sort of question did not occur to readers in the nineteenth century.
The exact location of Jane’s house is not specified, but we later learn that it is on the way from the Béguinage to the town center.
In the novel, Jane is unaware of her resemblance to his dead wife. This is different in Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), where the dancer is fully aware of the situation and deliberately tries to supplant the dead wife in his affections, treating her as a rival. In the opera she insists on spending the night at his place, hoping to defeat the dead rival on her own turf.
The opera was written thirty years after the novel, and times had changed.
The eighth chapter of Bruges-la-Morte is the only chapter that is not told from the point of view of Hugues Viane. Rather, we follow his middle-aged Flemish housekeeper, Barbe, as she makes use of a rare free day to visit a relative who lives at the Béguinage.
She walks to the Béguinage by way of the Minnewater, the Lake of Love (or ‘Lake Which One Loves’, as the author Georges Rodenbach suggests).
Barbe loves this artificial lake because it reminds her of her youth in a Flemish village. It is Easter Sunday, a beautiful clear morning, and she loves “this dozing pond, with water lilies like the hearts of children at their first communion, the grassy banks full of flowers, the windmills gesticulating on the horizon.”
The author explains that Barbe has “a pious soul, with that Flemish faith that retains a bit of Spanish Catholicism, the sort of faith where scruples and terror are stronger than confidence and the fear of Hell is stronger than the longing for Heaven.”
In the eighth chapter, the author Georges Rodenbach describes the Béguinage as “a medieval hamlet, a small town apart from the other city, even more dead.”
The Béguinage in the nineteenth century was not a convent, because the women did not have to take vows or give up their property, but they did have to be pious and respectable — and affluent, because living there was expensive.
Barbe, the Flemish housekeeper of Hugues Viane, loves the Béguinage. Her main goal in life is to save enough money so she can afford to live there when she retires.
But on the Easter Sunday when Barbe visits the Béguinage, she is shocked when her relative, Sister Rosalie, advises her to stop working for Hugues Viane because of his sinful way of life. Sister Rosalie adds: “I even know the house where this woman lives. It is on my way from here to the city, and I have seen Mr. Viane go in or out more than once.”
When Barbe gets over her shock she simply replies: “I’ll think about it.” On the one hand, she realizes it is wrong for a decent Christian woman to work for a sinner. On the other hand, she knows she will never again find a job as pleasant, easy and lucrative as being the housekeeper for Mr. Viane, and she needs the money to be able to retire to the Béguinage when she is older.
On her way home she stops by the Church of Our Lady and tells the whole story to her confessor, who advises her not to do anything rash. Even if the rumors about her employer turned out to be true, she could still go on working for him as long as his sins were not committed in his own house. But of course if this “woman of bad life” were to come to his house, even for dinner, she would have to refuse her service and resign.
By the time we reach the eleventh chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, Hugues Viane has become increasingly disillusioned about Jane. She doesn’t look so much like his dead wife, after all, and he suspects that she has been consorting with other men in the jolly little house that he is paying for. He again spends his evenings and nights walking alone through the city, stopping to go into St. Salvator’s Cathedral and walk among the tombstones and copper plates which are strewn throughout the basilica, so he feels he is walking in death.
He also goes into Oud Sint Jan (Old Saint John) to look at the fifteenth century religious artworks by Hans Memling (1430-1494). He is particularly moved by Memling’s Shrine of Saint Ursula (now in the Hans Memling Museum) and the history of the eleven thousand virgins (there were really only eleven, not eleven thousand, but never mind) who calmly went to their death in the certainty that they were merely crossing the threshold into a better life.
In the nineteenth century Oud Sint Jan was a hospital with an attached church. It is now a congress and event center.
The novel Bruges-la-Morte ends where it began, in Hugues Viane’s home on Quai du Rosaire. I won’t disclose the ending, so as not to spoil it for all of you who I’m sure are going to rush out and by the book. (LOL)
Bruges-la-Morte has been translated into numerous languages. There are at least two English translations, one of which received a very positive review in The Guardian in January 2008.
If you don’t want to buy the book, you can download the complete original French text here for free from Project Gutenberg.
Better yet, find an opera house that is playing Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The Polish National Opera Warsaw, for example, did several performances in June 2017 (with Marlis Petersen as Marie, no less), and the Semper Opera is Dresden mounted a new production in December 2017.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
My next post: Jacques Brel’s Marieke in Brugge/Bruges