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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.
Strongly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 February 2008
In the Middle Ages Bruges was a bustling and sumptuous international trading city; today it is a tourist centre, with fake medieval banners fluttering brightly from lamp-posts. But in 1475 the river Zwijn which had connected it with the North Sea dried up as the latter suddenly receded; the town's prosperity died away; its quais were deserted; all so much so that by the 1890s it was known as Bruges-la-Morte. It had - so at least Rodenbach perceived it in 1892 - become a sleepy, pious city under mournful grey skies, with the dominant colours being the black robes of the clergy, the white head-dresses of the nuns who live in the `mystic enclosure' of the Beguinage, and the white swans on the canals.

When Hugues Viane, the chief character in the novel, lost his beloved young wife, he decided to settle and shut himself away in Bruges because the dead town corresponded to his dead wife and because its atmosphere matched his inconsolable grief. Then one day, just as he was beginning to have difficulties in recalling his wife's features, he sees a woman in the street who is so much the absolute image of his dead wife that he pursues her. He rents a house in which he instals Jane as his mistress without at first feeling that he was being unfaithful to the cherished memory of his wife. After a while, it all goes horribly wrong as Jane's coarse nature diverges more and more from that of his wife; but by that time he cannot free himself from the erotic (and now experienced as the sinful) thrall into which he has fallen; and the end is terrible.

It is quite a powerful novella. It is told poetically against the pervasive atmosphere of the town which itself is a character in the story.

This atmosphere is described in an essay called `The Death Throes of Towns' which Rodenbach had written two years earlier. The publishers have added it at the end of `Bruges-la-Morte'. Though this, too, is a beautiful and evocative piece of writing; but much of it is incorporated in the novel we have just read.

When the book first appeared, it was illustrated by 35 half-tone photographs of Bruges. This edition has 23 new black-and-white photographs, but since none of them was taken in sunlight, they have the grey look which goes well with the text to which they refer.
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on 23 November 2011
Cons: None of the pictures.
Poor paragraph detection and formatting plus many typos.
You can read this version online if you want.

Pros: The binding and printing are OK.

Conclusion: Buy another edition.
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on 21 January 2011
This is a French symbolist novella written in 1892 and is a dark love story based in Bruges.

Now - Do not be tempted to read the back cover story précis (of the Magritte cover edition) - it will absolutely spoil the ending as it describes everything to the last page; fortunately I, through luck spotting the phrase `struggle's climax' being another way of saying `spoiler alert', managed to avoid it and so the ending maintained its sharp drama.

This is a bleak love story with few characters, Hugues Viane a 5 year widower who meets Jane Scott a dancer and double-ganger for his dead wife. The other two characters are Barbe his religious house-keeper and the city-scape Bruges itself.

I'm sure you can imagine where a devoted love for a dead one will lead but this is a very good story indeed. The grey, overseeing Bruges impacts the story in a way the symbolist style intended, permeating and slightly sinister. It does have hints of The Golem but this tale is perhaps more subtle and certainly less existential.

This is an excellent, descriptive story; the analogies and cold Bruges seep out. I'd suggest trying to reading in one sitting.

Here are a few quotes:

On this particular day, the widower was reliving his past all the more painfully on account of the grey weather of November, when the bells scatter the dead ashes of the years, as it were, into the air in a dust of sounds.

...it seemed necessary also to sponge and wipe very carefully the clear surface of the mirrors, so as not to erase her face sleeping deep within them.

... the relentless late autumn drizzle, shedding tears, weaving into the water, tacking the air, pricking the still surface of the canals, capturing and paralyzing the soul like a bird trapped in the wet meshes of an endless net.
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on 15 June 2015
Well, I might be biased because I read it in Bruges, but this book was really enjoyable. Like Poe's gothic tales, Bruges-la-Morte centres around the death of a beloved woman and an obsession you know must lead to tragedy. Rodenbach personifies Bruges itself and it's as much a character as the protagonist. I'd recommend for anyone into the nineteenth-century literature - I found this translation well written and poetic.
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on 6 September 2016
Interesting classic, nicely printed
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