Rodenbach’s short novel, Bruges-la-Morte

Literature from outside of metropolitan France is finding an expanding presence in undergraduate French courses, freeing students from the idea that the great works of French literature must only come from France (or Paris). The incorporation of francophone literature into survey courses has been a valuable addition to presenting the broader role of the French language in the world and its history and cultures.

I was recently suggested the reading of the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach’s symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892), in the context of my dissertation work on devoutly Catholic women. I hadn’t ever heard of the novel or even of its author except in passing (Huysmans wrote about him), but found it to be a quick and engaging text with lots of material to think about for both my dissertation and to use in the classroom.

Bruges-la-Morte is the story of a widower, Hugues Viane, who establishes a sad and solitary life in Bruges after the death of his young, beautiful wife. After five years he finds solace in the near-double of his late beloved, a dancer who closely resembles her physically, if not in character. His conflation of the two women, and the tragedy of his quest to resurrect his wife in the dancer is an episode of quasi-religious devotion verging on mental illness. Hugues adores (in the religious sense) the lock of hair he cut from his wife on her deathbed and this idol, like the city of Bruges, becomes a character in itself, central to the violent culminating scene at the novel’s end.

The monastic backdrop of the medieval city permeates the action of the novel so much so that it becomes a humanized actor as well. Rodenbach, in the Avertissement, describes what he hopes to create in the novel: “nous avons voulu aussi et principalement évoquer une Ville, la Ville comme un personnage essentiel associé aux états d’âme qui conseille, dissuade, détermine à agir. Ainsi dans la réalité cette Bruges qu’il nous a plu d élire apparaît presque humaine. Un ascendant s’établit d’elle sur ceux qui y séjournent.” To further evoque the city of Bruges, the novel is interspersed with many photos or drawings (depending on the edition) of the city.

En classe: We are reading this text in a writing class, since in the first half we cover “le portrait,” “la description des lieux,” and “le récit.” For the fist time, I have assigned the readings to be done online, with the students either reading the text on Google books or downloading the pdf. I will choose and print out specific excerpts to discuss in class so that we have some parts of the text in front of us to analyse, but I am otherwise trying to go fairly paperless with this reading.

This should be the perfect text to discuss descriptions, and at around 140 small-format, short pages, it should be accessible to students who have finished their intermediate language courses and are only beginning literary analysis and advanced writing. The symbolism and suspense should be engaging as well, adding interest to the reading assignment.

You may find the 1900 edition here.

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