Shadows Across the Text
Some of the photographs in the “Max Ferber” section of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants harken back to what is probably the earliest work of fiction ever to embed photographs, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Somehow I feel that Sebald knew this seminal work, which was first published in book form in 1892 (after appearing serially in Paris’ Le Figaro). Rodenbach’s Symbolist novel is the story of love and murder in the “dead” city of Bruges. From the author’s Foreword:
In this study of passion I have tried first and foremost to evoke a city as one of the principal characters. This city, associated as it is with states of the soul, can advise, dissuade and persuade people to act in certain ways…
What I wish to imply is this: that it is the town which directs all that occurs there…
Illustrations from Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Mort, 1892.
Hugh Viane, despondent over the death of his wife, frequently wanders alone through Bruges:
…engrossed in his musings he mechanically wended his way among paths which his imagination had peopled with sombre images, a sense of the isolation of his existence weighed heavily upon him. From the windows of the funereal dwellings that stretched in spectral fashion along the margins of the canals, with their gable-ends reflected like skeletons of crepe in the waters, a mortuary impression was conveyed that seemed like the foreshadowing of a speedy dissolution.
A little more than a half a century later, the Manchester of Sebald’s “Max Ferber” is also a dead city, one “built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.” A page later Sebald’s narrator describes his arrival by taxi into Manchester:
Views opened up across the wasteland… that had once been the hub of one of the nineteenth century’s miracle cities, but, as I was soon to find out, was now almost hollow to the core. As we drove in among the dark ravines between the brick buildings, most of which were six or eight storeys high and sometimes adorned with glazed ceramic tiles, it turned out that even there, in the heart of the city, not a soul was to be seen, though by now it was almost a quarter to six. One might have supposed that the city had long been deserted, and was left now as a necropolis or mausoleum.
In the final paragraph of Rodenbach’s Foreword, he explains the strategy behind his inclusion of photographs:
It is because of this essential connection between these scenes of Bruges and the events described in the story that photographic reproductions of the former have been inserted in the text – the quays, deserted streets, old dwellings canals, béguinage, churches, goldsmith’s shops where sacred objects are made, belfries, – so that all those who read this work may themselves feel the presence and the influence of the city, experience the contagiousness of the long shadows of the high towers as they fall across the text.
Rodenbach’s choice of words reveals his Symbolist leanings – “presence”, “influence”, “contagiousness.” He sees these photographs of the unpeopled streets and buildings of Bruges being suggestive rather than literal, and for this reason I think he is a legitimate predecessor to Sebald. Even the most dumbly literal of Sebald’s photographs usually operate on multiple levels.
I assume that Rodenbach’s use of photographs in Bruges-la-Morte (it went through a number of editions between 1892 and 1914) must have been some kind of an influence on the Surrealists, who were also drawn to the photographs of Eugène Atget (1857-1927).
My quotes from Bruges-la-Morte are taken from the edition published in London by Atlas Press in 1993. The Atlas Press edition describes itself as a revision by Terry Hale of the original 1903 translation by Thomas Duncan. Without looking into accuracy at all, I found the Hale/Duncan version considerably more evocative and smoother reading than a newer translation by Mike Mitchell and Will Stone, published in 2005 by Dedalus Press. However, two points distinguish the Dedalus edition and make it a great shelf-companion to the Atlas Press book. The Dedalus Press edition has a worthwhile Introduction by British novelist Alan Hollinghurst and it also replaces the original photographs with contemporary ones by Will Stone, a fascinating (almost conceptual) experiment demonstrating that Rodenbach’s Bruges may still be found today.