Over the last fifteen years, I have written about or mentioned Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte numerous times, mostly because it has the distinction of being the first work of fiction in which an author embedded photographs as part of the text, which is one of the themes that I write about often on this blog. But Rodenbach’s novel is also a terrific book to read. Hugues Viane, the main character, is despondent over the death of his wife, which occurred five years earlier. He spends much of his time walking the streets and along the canals of the ancient city of Bruges. During one of these walks he will spot his deceased wife’s doppelgänger, a dancer who looks exactly like her. At this moment, his grief becomes transformed into an obsession. He must possess this woman! He pursues her and woos her and ultimately convinces her to try to live and act like his previous wife. Needless to say, this ends in tragedy.
The photographs Rodenbach selected for his novel came from a French commercial photographer and depict a city of ancient buildings, melancholy canals, and bridges nearly emptied of people. He wanted to echo Viane’s inner loneliness and longing, but he also realized that photographs would help convey his idea that the city itself was a principal character in his book. “What we seek to suggest,” he wrote in his Preface, was that the city was “directing the action; its urban landscapes no longer mere backdrops.”
Rodenbach (1855-1898) was a Belgian lawyer turned writer who is variously described as a Symbolist or a Decadent. Ironically, although his father and grandfather had lived in Bruges, Rodenbach never lived in the city himself. “Every city is a state of mind,” he wrote, and Bruges seemed to be his state of mind.
And that is why, since these scenes of Bruges impinge upon the story, it is vital to reproduce them here interspersed between the pages: quays, deserted streets, old houses, canals, beguinages, churches, silversmiths offering liturgical wares, belfries, so our readers will also be subject to the presence and influence of the City, feel the contagion of the neighboring waters, sense in their turn the shadow of the high towers reaching across the text.
The writer, poet, and translator Will Stone has made a new translation of Bruges-la-Morte for Wakefield Press, which is “devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities.” This edition is also notable for being the only English edition of Rodenbach’s novel still in print to include all thirty-five of the original photographs that appeared in the first French edition.
The English speaker who wishes to read Bruges-la-Morte actually has four choices, so I thought it might be useful to briefly compare the editions available. I will also quote the translation of the book’s second paragraph so you can get a tiny sense of each translator’s voice.
The first is a 1903 translation by Thomas Watson Duncan, done for the London publisher Swan Sonnenschein & Co. (I’ve taken the quote just below from the Google Books version of this edition). In 1993, London’s avant-garde Atlas Press reissued this translation, newly revised by Terry Hale (who also wrote an introduction). Perhaps because Duncan was still writing within the same time period as Rodenbach, his translation feels very evocative to my ear. This edition also reprinted the original photographs from the first French edition. It is now out-of-print, but used copies can be found online here and there.
Hugh Viane made his preparations for the desultory ramble with which it was his wont to close the afternoon. Solitary and unoccupied, it was his custom to kill the ennui of his existence by reading a little among the old volumes that lined the walls of the vast apartment of the Quai de Rosaire which he rarely quitted; smoking a great deal, and dreaming much at the open window of a bygone happiness.Translation by Thomas Duncan, 1903.
In 1986, Philip Mosley, professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State Scranton, made the first contemporary translation of Bruges-la-Morte for the Scottish publisher Wilfion Books, but it is now kept in print by the University of Scranton Press and distributed through the University of Chicago Press. This stripped-down version of the book contains an Introduction by Mosley but no images at all. Mosley has also written Georges Rodenbach: Critical Essays (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), a French/English bi-lingual book that is now out-of-print.
As was his daily custom in the late afternoon, Hugues Viane was getting ready to go out. Lonely and idle, he tended to spend whole days on the first floor in his vast bedroom, whose windows overlooked the Quai du Rosaire along which, mirrored in the water, stretched the frontage of his house.Translation by Philip Mosley, 2007.
The Dedalus Books edition from 2005, with a new translation by veteran translator Mike Mitchell, has been frequently reprinted and is also the only edition currently available as an ebook. It has a wonderful Introduction by the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst, and it took the innovative step of substituting contemporary photographs made by Will Stone for the nineteenth-century ones of Bruges that Rodenbach had used. While I longed for the original images, this fascinating experiment demonstrated how little Bruges has changed in some ways since Rodenbach’s day well more than a century ago. The Dedalus edition also includes a bonus translation by Will Stone of a shorter Rodenbach essay called The Death Throes of Towns, written in 1889, that “leads the reader to the ‘cemetery’ of dead towns in old Flanders” and “feels like a blueprint” for Bruges-la-Morte, according to Stone.
Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his daily habit at the end of the afternoon. Solitary, with nothing to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his room, a vast retreat on the first floor whose windows looked out onto the Quai de Rosaire, along which the façade of his house stretched, mirrored in the canal.Translation by Mike Mitchell, 2009.
The newest kid on the block is the translation made by Will Stone, although he is no newcomer to translating Rodenbach. In addition to his translation of the essay The Death Throes of Towns, he selected and translated the poems and wrote the Introduction for Georges Rodenbach: Selected Poems (Arc Publications) in 2016. In this newest edition, Wakefield Press has wisely gone back to the original French photographs. This Wakefield edition is is comfortable pocket-sized volume (7 x 4 1/2 inches) with French flaps, which I like.
Hugues Viane was preparing to go out, as was his custom toward late afternoon. Solitary and with little to occupy his time, he would spend the whole day in his large room on the second floor, whose windows gave onto the Quai du Rosaire along which his house extended, mirrored in the water.Translation by Will Stone, 2022.
If you’d like to try your own hand at translating, here is Rodenbach’s paragraph in its original French.
Hugues Viane se disposa à sortir, comme il en avait l’habitude quotidienne à la fin des après-midi. Inoccupé, solitaire, il passait toute la journée dans sa chambre, une vaste pièce au premier étage, dont les fenêtres donnaient sur le quai du Rosaire, au long duquel s’alignait sa maison, mirée dans l’eau.Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892.
Just ordered a copy of the Atlas Press edition, thanks for the mention again about Rodenbach, this book has intrigued me for a while now. Wanted the original photos in it so now looking forward to receiving and reading it.
I have just looked this book up and there is a copy in storage at my local university library. I am most intrigued. On the surface of it, I am reminded of Patrick Modiano and his flaneur-like wanderings around Paris. Thanks for all of your work with Vertigo. I enjoy it immensely and am always learning.
Thanks for the comment, Anthony. There are also a couple of film versions of the novel that you can see on the Internet for free. Here’s my link to them: https://sebald.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/bruges-la-morte/