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Gothic and Atmospheric
on 26 July 2005
'Bruges-la-Morte' is a wonderful new edition of that novella-length story (1892), along with the piece 'The Death Throes of Towns' which explores the same themes. These are great but neglected works which should be read by anyone with an interest in European literature over the past 150 years.
Three comparisons kept recurring in my mind as I read 'Bruges-la-Morte', two of which were with films - the wintery canal nightmare of 'Don't Look Now', set in Venice, and the Belgian art/horror film 'Daughters of Darkness', set in Ostend. If you enjoyed either of these then this book will also have a great appeal for you. It's almost cinematic in its eerie evocations and definite sense of place.
The other comparison, which is very obvious but nevertheless worth mentioning, is with W G Sebald. 'Bruges-la-Morte' is distinctive, like Sebald's now better-known work, because the text is interspersed with black and white photos of the town in which it is set, taken by the author (at the end of the nineteenth century). Although it is a kind of gothic mystery, and therefore not particularly reminiscent of Sebald in literary style, this striking feature makes Rodenbach's book seem like an early precursor of his work. Sebald has also, after all, passed through Belgian locations more than once in his books, and both authors are obsessed with Europe and its towns and cities, especially those whose best days lie behind them.
More than anything else, this book deserves to be read for its unusualness and poetic sadness. The simple plot concerns a widower mourning his beautiful wife who died young, in a decaying town which has been chosen as a residence by him to emphasise his intense, hopeless longing for her. Things take a twist when he sees her double walking the streets....
'Bruges-la-Morte' is introduced by Alan Hollinghurst, Booker winner last year for 'The Line of Beauty' although as is usually the case with 'classic' literature, that introduction is best left until you have read the story and formed your own impressions.