Early January 2017. A Sunday spent in Bruges foot-stepping the 1892 novelette Bruges-la-Morte by the symbolist poet Georges Rodenbach. The high street shops are open, olde-worlde carriages clip-clop over cobbled streets and swathes of stale oil and caramelized sugar, spilt beer and ground coffee linger in the town’s public squares.
This index of contemporary life, attended—even in the freezing mists of a wintry Sunday–by a Babel of foreign tongues, all but bleaches out the moribund qualities that furnished Rodenbach with a simile for loneliness and bereavement.
“It’s melancholy had brought him here”
wrote Rodenbach of the city in which his sorrowing protagonist, Hugues Viane, recognizes the embodiment of his deceased wife and sees, on perambulations undertaken at dusk,
“windows like ruptured eyes, gables reflected in water as black beribboned steps.”
Following a chance meeting with an actress who appears to him as his wife’s doppelgänger, Viane’s spirits revive. Now he walks to the house in which he has set up his mistress as through a comforting stillness. “Bruges itself,” he feels, “had been resurrected.” But respite is temporary and acknowledging that the reincarnation of his wife is little more than a tawdry showgirl, Viane vacillates between obsession and remorse, seeking solace in the town’s many churches. Repeatedly, the city mirrors his despair, “transfixing him once again with its mystical countenance.” The narrative reaches an overwrought climax on a day in May when a vial of Christ’s blood, venerated in a local basilica, liquefies and is carried in state through the town, gruesomely reflecting the ecstasy and agony that Viane struggles to reconcile.
Neither Rodenbach’s fascination with the city nor his perspective on it are unique. Before him came Wordsworth, to note the noiseless feet treading “grass-grown pavement.” Longfellow followed, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Zweig and Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote of “waters … wherein things grow mellowed and impearled.” But even in such illustrious company Rodenbach remains first and last in embracing the city’s symbolic potential with such disconsolate fervour. In terms of analogy, of a correspondence between place and person, Bruges-La-Morte remains an unrivaled cipher for fin-de-siècle preoccupations with sacrifice and loss.
So why not? Why not come, to Bruges, and re-discover the silence of its churches and the reflections that haunt its canals? Setting a potent literary precedent Rodenbach included 35 prints of streets and waterways in his novel for this very purpose, exhorting readers in the foreword to submit actively to the city’s presence, to embrace its encroaching waterways and absorb the “shadows cast by tall towers” over his text.
It’s in search of the locations on these images that I begin my pilgrimage. The views, when I find them (just a handful) have hardly changed. Here are the two arched windows that turn out to be a side view of Old St. John’s hospital. The Grand Place, the bridge leading to the Beguinage, the Groenerei canal and quayside, Notre Dame Church and the Place Jan van Eyck. These are the easy, the apparent ones, now repossessed by three million tourists a year, cheerfully abrading Rodenbach’s parchment of grief. Other, lesser known prospects of spires and suburbs remain frustratingly obscure. Passing restaurants and cafés, I catch myself reading menus and assessing the charms of timbered tea-rooms.
Where I sit and ruminate on the failure of life to imitate art. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, my perspective shifts, superimposing a palimpsest of scenes seen out of the corner of my eye onto those summoned by Rodenbach over a century ago. A frowning nun sloshing away something distasteful from the flagstones in front of the Béguinage church displaces Rodenbach’s piously frocked Beguines. Couples posing, artfully entwined at the Minnewater, edge out his protagonist’s doleful devotions. An elderly couple on bikes, rising serenely into view as they sail over a bridge and round a corner, hop off to unlock a front door and reveal, briefly glimpsed, a narrow hallway, a mirror and some chipped floor tiles.
Here it is. The threshold opening up onto a passageway in which impressions pass each other, coming and going, laden with reflections, coalescing into memories. We are memory, as Borges says. Those of others, and our own, absorbed and assimilated.
Somewhere, on a small square in Bruges, a merry-go-round starts up. The tinkle of a familiar, hurdy-gurdy tune, of a day spent, decades ago, with my family at Battersea fun fair, stretches out a welcoming hand to a shadowy cortege of regretful poets. Art and life caught in an unlikely embrace.