Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Georges Rodenbach’ Category

Revisiting Bruges-la-Morte

Image from: Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. Flammarion, 1892.
Photo by Ch.-G. Petit et Cie., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Mort. Flammarion, 1892, page 1.

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.

Atlas Press, 1993

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.
University of Scranton Press

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.
Dedalus Books, 2005

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.
Wakefield Press, 2022

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.
Flammarion, 1892

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.



Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges-la-Mortes

It’s time to go sight-seeing in canal-laced Bruges, Belgium. The city still retains many vestiges of its medieval architecture and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might have already seen modern Bruges in the entertaining 2008 crime/comedy movie In Bruges with Colin Farrell, but you can also see Bruges depicted in two film versions of the nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), a Belgian Symbolist writer. Bruges-la-Morte (1892), probably the earliest novel to ever include photographs, tells the story of a widower whose grief over the death of his beautiful wife has turned him into a recluse in his own home, which is filled with reminders of his life with her. But then he attends an opera where he sees on stage a woman who looks very much like his deceased wife. He courts her, but this only leads to further tragedy. In the novel and in the films, the city of Bruges serves as one of the main characters.

Bruges-la-Morte, a 1978 film by Ronald Chase, has just been re-released and made available on available on Vimeo in a new hi-res, high definition restoration. Ronald Chase is primarily an director known for his innovative use of film and projection in the operas he has produced for companies around the US and Europe. On his website, Chase writes about the attraction that the city of Bruges held for Symbolists:

In the late 1800’s until the first world war Bruges was an escape for a certain type of romantic tourist.  The town had become almost deserted (the canals and waterways had dried up) and heavy fog and a feeling of sadness and despair hung over the city.  The English were especially drawn to Bruges, and often had a second house there.  A school of art around Symbolism was created by a small group of writers and artists surrounding the writer, Georges Rodenbach.  They gave Bruges a nickname – The Dead City.  The Symbolists believed in the power of dreams–they often felt dreams were filled with the real character of people, and were more truthful than waking life. Rodenbach wrote: “The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.”

Film still from Ronald Chase’s Bruges la Mortes

Chase writes more about the making of his film Bruge-la-Mortes on his website.

Film still from Roland Verhavert’s Bruges, die stille

The second version available on the Internet is Roland Verhavert’s Brugge, die stille, a 1981 film in Dutch. More entertaining than Chase’s version, it clearly had a much bigger budget, which means a great musical score, several strong actors, and a wonderful cinematographer in Walther van den Ende. But Verhavert veers off somewhere into cinematic Romanticism, while Chase managed to make a film that retained an integrity to Rodenbach’s Symbolist vision.

You can read more about Rodenbach’s groundbreaking book here at the post I wrote thirteen years ago. Since the publication of this first novel with photographs, many hundreds of novels and volumes of poetry have been written that also include photographs as an integral part of the author’s “text.” You can always see an extensive bibliography of these titles by hovering over the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature at the top of my blog. My bibliography is currently complete from 1970 to 2019. I’ll be adding 1892-1969, in a few months.

Book cover design by Fernand Khnopff for “Bruges-la-Morte” by Georges Rodenbach, 1892, chalk and Indian ink on cardboard
{Public Domain-old}

Finally, for an absolutely wonderful vintage film tour of Bruges, watch the six-minute video of old film footage of the city, people, canals, and even some of the city’s animals from around 1910-12, painstakingly restored by Johan R. Ryheul.

W.G. Sebald, Tacita Dean, Georges Rodenbach, Will Stone & More


A couple of weeks ago I called attention to an exhibition that had just opened in London called “Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.” Poet and translator Will Stone recently paid a visit to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House and wrote a review of the exhibition for The London Magazine. “This exhibition constitutes a rare gift” to the viewer, he wrote. Unfortunately, the magazine doesn’t provide online access to non-subscribers, so I asked Will if I could reprint small portions of his piece.

According to Will, the exhibition is really “about destruction, or rather W.G. Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which, once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity.”

With Sebald as a kind of spiritual ringmaster, contributing performers come from a range of contemporary artistic backgrounds and mediums from across Europe. They are Tacita Dean, Susan Hillier, Dexter Dalwood, Guido Van der Werve, George Shaw, Jeremy Wood and Anselm Kiefer. A modest collection of Sebald’s mysterious photographic material is also under glass here, drawn from the Marbach archive. Sebald famously experimented with the insertion of photographic images within text, a trend which has now since caught on. But Sebald’s use of images was highly original, eccentric and complex, a means of suggestion rather than straight depiction, as if he followed the edicts of symbolism with a cheeky nod to surrealism. Sebald’s ‘taking to task’ of those post-war German writers who had repressed the memories of the bombing, lead to a re-evaluation of the so-called ‘Trümmerliteratur’ (Rubble literature) and hence further responses in the visual arts…

Of the remaining exhibits, special mention should be made of Tacita Dean’s “Our Europe” and “I had a Father,” a series of new works on slate specially commissioned for the exhibition and dynamic Dutchman Guido van der Werve’s award-winning endurance-art film project Nummer Vierteen: Home, 2012, a highly personal and searching absurdist work that uncompromisingly explores themes of exile, place and history.


I wanted to highlight Will’s comment on the work of Tacita Dean so that I could also make reference to the latest of the great Cahiers Series, from Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers & Translators. I’ll let the blurb from Sylph Editions website do the describing:

A woman travels to seven ‘invisible’ countries, and from the moment of arrival is surprised, challenged, disturbed by what she discovers. In the brightly coloured and somewhat sinister world conjured by American novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, what is standard – passing through customs, checking in to a hotel, pronouncing words in a foreign language – becomes fraught; the traveller’s urge to escape and seek adventure vies with her sense of melancholy and anxiety at feeling unmoored. Brownrigg explores border-crossing, cultural misunderstanding, touristic voyeurism and naïveté, as her visitor attempts to navigate the environments she encounters. Accompanying the text are images by the celebrated British artist Tacita Dean which extend the traveller’s journeys into spheres that turn almost uncanny in their combination of abstraction and realistic detail.

Dean’s evocative drawings are done in chalk and other materials on blackboards, on found postcards, and on top of black-and-white photographs. Each piece seems to project a world that is slightly atilt, which nicely corresponds to the blend of artifice and reality that dominates Brownrigg’s story.


Finally, if you happen to be in Bruges on October 18, Will Stone will be reading from his new translation of the poems of Georges Rodenbach at 7:00 PM. This is happening at Brugse Boekhandel, Dijver 2, Bruges. It’s co-sponsored by another great book dealer, Marc Van de Wiele Antiquariaat. Rodenbach wrote Bruges la Morte (1892), one of the first novels that deliberately included photographs as an integral part of the text. From the publisher’s website:

This is the first-ever collection of Rodenbach’s poetry to be published in English translation. In it, Rodenbach’s vision of Bruges, so brilliantly portrayed in his famous symbolist novel, Bruges la Morte, is drawn with even more potency. Using the symbolist devices of suggestion and mood, Rodenbach, in these poems, sifts the elements that make up the decaying Bruges. He sees it as a medieval corpse laid out for him to ‘rescue’ through his interpretation of its atmosphere of melancholy, its seductive romantic decline and its loneliness.

Rodenbach poems

Photography and Literature Film Series

Source Photography Literature Cover

In conjunction with their forthcoming issue # 75 on  “Photography and Literature,” Source Photographic Review is putting up seven related films on their website – one every Friday from August 9 through September 20.  More details on the issue and the films can be seen here.

Friday August 9
Bruges-la-Mort (16 minutes)
A Symbolist book about a man obsessed with his dead wife, and fascinated by a dancer who resembles her. Thought to be the first photographically illustrated novel (1892). Film includes interviews with Clive Scott, French professor and Will Stone, a poet / translator who illustrated the most recent translation of the book with his own photographs.

Friday August 16
Austerlitz (30 minutes)
WG Sebald’s last novel, like its predecessors, is illustrated with mysterious photographs. Sebald scholar Jonathan Long visits locations featured in the book and explores how the photographs correspond to (or conceal) reality. Clive Scott, Sebald’s former colleague, recalls conversations with the author about the book. Michael Brandon-Jones, the technician who prepared Sebald’s manuscripts for publication, talks about how the books were arranged and the different sources of the visual material they contain.

Friday August 23
Roma Tearne: Using Photos to Write Novels (12 minutes)
Roma Tearne has an extensive collection of found photographs and, although her novels do not include illustrations, as the author (and artist) explains, they played a key role in their composition.

Friday August 30
The Home Place (12 minutes)
Unusually among those who have produced photographically illustrated books, Wright Morris was as skilled a photographer as he was a writer. Mick Gidley, who writes about American literature and photography, introduces the themes of the book and its inspirations.

Kafka Amerika Film

Friday September 6
Amerika (10 minutes)
Kafka had never visited America but used photographs from travel books as inspiration for his novel. Carolin Duttlinger explains how Kafka’s very approach to writing was formed by his experience of photography.

Friday September 13
Photography & Literature 1 (20 minutes)
Part 1 of an essay film with contributors discussing the underlying relationship between photography and literature. Participants include Lindsay Smith (Victorian photography and Literature), Colin Graham (Modernism: Ulysses, Proust, Wilde), Matthias Uecker (photography and documentary literature, Weimar period Germany), Andrew Stafford (post-war French literature and the phototext), James Casbere (an American photographer inspired by William Faulkner), Rut Blees Luxemburg (inspired by Holderlin), Patrick Hogan (learnt from Chekhov how to edit his photographs).

Friday September 20
Photography & Literature 2 (20 minutes)
Part 2 of an essay film with contributors discussing the underlying relationship between photography and literature.

Books Becoming Butterflies (more on Georges Rodenbach)

After my most recent post on Georges Rodenbach‘s novel Bruges-la-Morte, artist and Airform Archives blogger Steve Roden sent me a link to his 2008 project in Kortrijk, Belgium called when books are like butterflies.  Loosely inspired by Rodenbach’s book, Steve created an environment that visitors could walk through while listening to sounds that were generated using Rodenbach’s text.  The ambient sounds emanated from speakers placed within folded books with specially made dust jackets.

i began by notating every sound in the book as well as every color that appears in sequence, and used these lists to generate a sound work, a text work, and a set of images. the installation consisted of a series of 15 sculptural forms, each using two books and an audio speaker. the text and images exist in the form of printed dust jackets which cover the books, and visually frame the sound as it emanates from the speaker. the text follows the description of every sound in the book, in sequence, with each text also following the color sequence of the book. the images are mostly background images from victorian photographs i have collected over the years, that somehow relate to the generator of every sound in the text (such as swan’s wings, or a bell).

…my main interest was in creating a space of intimate wandering…

Enjoy the links!

I Might Give Up Reading for This (Almost)

As a big fan of Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte, the first fictional work to include photographs, I’m delighted to learn about the LibriVox version of the book.  LibriVox (“accoustical liberation of books in the public domain”) creates free, easily downloadable audio books.  Because they use works that are in the public domain (at least within the US), many of the titles are fairly obscure.  Tucked in and around long-forgotten works like The Briefless Barrister by John Godfey Saxe and The Romance of Modern Chemistry (1910!) by James C. Philips, one can find other titles by Sophocles, William James, Wilkie Collins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, just to name a few authors whose works were added in the month of July.

Take a listen to Bruges-la-Morte (in French), excellently read by “Ezwa.”

(Thanks, Anette!)

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.

Page from Sebald’s The Emigrants

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).

Eugene Atget, Un Coin, Rue de Seine, 1924

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.