Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Bruges-la-morte, by Georges Rodenbach

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Lorsqu’il allait, en de muettes dévotions, baiser la relique de la chevelure conservée ou s’attendrir devant quelque portrait, ce n’est plus avec la morte qu’il confrontait l’image, mais avec la vivante qui lui ressemblait. Mystérieuse identification de ces deux visages. Ç’avait été comme une pitié du sort offrant des points de repère à sa mémoire, se mettant de connivence avec lui contre l’oubli, substituant une estampe fraîche à celle qui pâlissait, déjà jaunie et piquée par le temps. When he went to perform his silent devotions, kissing the relic of her hair or giving rein to his emotions before some portrait, it was no longer his dead wife to whom he related the image, but the living woman who resembled her. Mysterious conformity of these two faces! It was as if fate had taken pity on him, providing his memory with markers, conspiring with him against oblivion, substituting a crisp new print for the one that was fading, already yellowed and mildewed with age.

In preparation for our trip to Bruges and parts west last week, I read this very short 1892 novel, which is described by those who know about this things as one of the taproot texts of Symbolism. I am afraid that I thought it was rather silly. The protagonist, recently widowed, takes an actress with an uncanny resemblace to his dead wife as his sugar baby; eventually there comes a point where he realises that his new lover is in fact her own person, and he strangles her with a lock of his dead wife's hair. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the book has been around for a century and a quarter.) The symbolism of the dead town and its dead rituals is belaboured well beyond the point you would have thoguht possible. The French original (which you can read here) was illustrated with some very nice contemporary photographs of Bruges, supposedly the first novel to have this feature (and there can't be many). My translation, with introduction by Alan Hollinghurst and also an essay by Rodenbach on "The Death Throes of Towns", unwisely has chosen to update the photographs with pictures from the present day. But you can get it here.
Tags: bookblog 2020, west flanders 2020, world: belgium

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