in Opinion | 13 SEP 05
Featured in
Issue 93

Street Life

An obscure 19th-century novel exploring the city as a state of mind was a precursor to some of the late 20th-century's most radical writers. It has now been re-issued

in Opinion | 13 SEP 05

Dead towns don’t talk; they let their secrets slip out by subtle and unexpected routes. In a conversation appended to Place (2005), the book on art and locale that she and Jeremy Millar published earlier this year, Tacita Dean responds to a disparaging remark by historian Simon Schama, on the decline of British towns, with a lament of her own. She recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film A Canterbury Tale (1944): ‘It opens in the bombed-out Canterbury and you can just see signs sticking up out of the rubble saying “Boots was here”. I was born there, and they’ve now rebuilt it with all these replica medieval places. They are the most depressing of all.’ But Dean, tellingly though forgivably, has misremembered the film and the city alike. In the movie the pharmacy in question is still intact; meanwhile, a glance today at the actual portion of the high street flattened in 1942 reveals that it was replaced, after the war, without much thought or sympathy for the adjoining half-timbered architecture.

Certainly, a fever for medieval fakery would later grip towns such as this; but it had its first flush in the 19th century. By far the oddest manifestation of this Victorian medievalism is surely a very peculiar novel, now reissued, published by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach in 1892. Bruges-la-Morte was immediately admired by Stéphane Mallarmé and the Parisian Symbolists and initiated them into a veritable cult of the moribund town that is less the story’s setting than its maundering central character. Rodenbach (whose connection with the city was oblique: he was born in Ghent and spent much of his life in Paris) conjured up a bizarre, lifeless terrain: a bereft, landlocked town, once a thriving port and now a silted, desiccated, ghostly non-place. And he framed this grisaille cityscape not only in prose but also in 35 pallid photographs dispersed throughout the text, making Bruges-la-Morte an obscure precursor to such books as André Breton’s Nadja (1928) Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980) and the novels of W.G. Sebald.

In some ways Bruges-la-Morte, with its energetically overworked symbolism, is a remarkably bad, or at least predictable, novel. Into its scant 100 pages Rodenbach seems to have insinuated every trick of late 19th-century decadence: picturesque melancholy, alarming fetishism, the obligatory motif of the double. The book’s ostensible hero (soon overtaken by the city itself) is one Hugues Viane, recently widowed and retired to Bruges, where he has slipped, like the decaying town, into a ‘precocious autumn’. His sole occupation is the veneration of photographs of his wife and the contemplation of a long plait of her hair that he keeps in a glass case. Awoken from the stupor of his grief by the sudden sight, on a street, of a woman who looks uncannily like his wife, Viane tries desperately (and, of course, tragically: the novel looks forward too to Hitchcock’s Vertigo) to reanimate the past.

In a prefatory note to his tale Rodenbach announces: ‘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.’ The author achieves his effect by reiterated ‘mute analogies’ between character and place; Viane is forever skulking down abandoned streets, pondering the city’s enervated canals, hearing the bells that toll ‘the great reverie of the dead [...] through the air without respite’. But it is the photographs that echo most resonantly the sighs of the grief-stricken aesthete. The images were taken from the picturesque local stock of prints and postcards sold to tourists; they picture a city almost wholly uninhabited. Occasionally, minute figures in the distance have even been excised, so that these photographs, in 1892, are already outdated, resembling daguerreotype city views of half a century earlier, with their vanished or blurred citizens.

For the most part these photographs of deserted squares, looming bell-towers and impassive façades have been left out of subsequent editions of Rodenbach’s novel, as though they added a touch of distracting realism to his dreamlike narrative. The opposite, in fact, is the case: where the story merely reflects the lurid expectations of the writer’s Parisian audience, the photographs reveal an act of grand deception — the Bruges they depict is in many places an architectural concoction of the 19th century, a renovation further finessed by the photographers’ choosing to leave out the incidental evidence of modern life. In an inexplicable twist to this tale of trompe-l’oeil medievalism the latest edition of the book, from Dedalus Press, has replaced the original images with 23 new photographs taken by the translator: once again the ‘real’ town has been carefully cropped out.

The result is a book that has floated free of its place in the history of literature, of photography, of the still slightly unsettling environs of Bruges. As somebody says of the ruined city in A Canterbury Tale: ‘It is an awful mess; I don’t blame you for not knowing where you are.’