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Posts from the ‘Will Stone’ 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.

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.

Vertiginous Links for the New Year

Five Dials #26 is focused on German writing, with a number of new short stories by young German writers, plus three essays on W.G. Sebald: Uwe Schutte’s “Teaching by Example,” Amanda Hopkinson’s “A History of Memory or a Memory of History?,” and Anthea Bell’s “A Translator’s View.”  These essays are three of the five originally commissioned and aired by BBC radio one year ago.  (The two essays not reprinted here are those of Christopher Bigsby and Georges Szirtes.)

Helen Finch has added her thoughts to the discussion about the recent BBC radio dramatization of Austerlitz in a blog post wonderfully called “Sebald was more interesting than the husband: Austerlitz and l’effet du réel.”   Finch makes the case that we should be judging the radio drama on whether or not it contains “the emotional truth” of the original book.

If Michael Butt tried to present the emotional truth of Austerlitz, as he felt it, in his radio drama, who is to say that his classic BBC drama version, complete with slamming doors and tearjerking music, does not represent that important affective aspect of Sebald’s work which might otherwise be lost behind his complex irony and academic erudition? Or is it the case that if we allow ourselves to be bewitched by Sebald’s artistry into thinking that his work is just a reproduction of the real, nothing more and nothing less, we have consigned ourselves to the realm of kitsch that is the death of art?

Over at The White Review is a nice piece by Will Stone called “Oradour-sur-Glane: Reflections on the Culture of Memorial in Europe” that speaks to some of Sebald’s preoccupations in Austerlitz with Holocaust sites, architecture, and memorials.

Entering Oradour and obeying bold signs to the memorial ruins, I was surprised to find myself in a vast car park, a limitless expanse of tarmac, more suited one would think to a sports complex or shopping mall. There on the sleek asphalt of the car park I observed luxury coaches with their tinted glass and climate controlled interiors spill their chattering cargoes, just as they will now in the newly constructed ‘reception area’ at Auschwitz I in Poland. Cars of suntanned visitors parked obediently between the freshly painted lines, disembarked and moved off all in the same direction, as if drawn by some unspecified magnetic source towards the giant modern bunker of a building that sat in a kind of man-made hollow. I realised as I followed them down the smart new concrete steps to the lower level that this was a relatively new visitors centre, inaugurated in 1999 by President Chirac, a largely superfluous building, the new scourge of every memorial site in Europe, whether merely ruins or formal cemetery. For today it is considered not quite enough to have solely the memorial itself before which to contemplate man’s destructive capability, the intricacies of murderous folly and the resulting nerve straining conclusion. Again and again some shadowy authority slips in between the individual and their private purpose and imposes an artificial construction in their path, which they have to wade through, straddle or circumnavigate before they can get back to the path they thought they were on.

Place in the Country

And finally, among the books we can look forward to in 2013 is Jo Catling’s translation of Sebald’s important book A Place in the Country (originally Logis in einem Landhaus, by WG Sebald.  According to The Guardian, the book is due to be released in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin May 2, but Amazon doesn’t have the US edition coming out from Random House until January 2014.  It looks as if Random House is going to use the same cover as the German edition, which is a beautiful watercolor by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller, who is the subject of one of the biographic essays in this.  The only place I can currently find an image of a possible Hamish Hamilton cover is over at the New Books in German website, which shows something entirely different for the UK edition.

Happy 2013!

Death Nestled within Death

Michael Hamburger’s desk, as shown in The Rings of Saturn.

A little while ago (well, March, to be exact), the poet Will Stone put up on his website an essay he had written in 2007 upon the death of his friend and fellow poet Michael Hamburger. [The website is no longer available, regretably.] “Unpicked Apples – Memories of Michael Hamburger” is a moving and admiring remembrance of Hamburger and a tribute to one of the last survivors of that “‘civilised’ generation of, for want of a better expression we might call ‘men of letters’.” Hamburger was the translator of two of W.G. Sebald’s books of poetry – After Nature and Unrecounted – and he appears as a character early on in Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn.

Embedded within Stone’s memories of Hamburger are his recollections of Sebald’s sudden death in 2001 and some moments Stone and Hamburger shared as they tried to come to terms with that tragic accident.

I also remember an exchange following his attendance at Max [Sebald]’s funeral in Norfolk in which Michael sought to express the severity of the sudden loss of Max, to articulate the onerous sense of vacancy left by his passing, which was that much more than the premature loss of a well-loved creative man in late middle age. I always had the feeling from his often guarded reverence for Max that Michael realised astutely the true reach and sacrifice of Sebald’s vision, not only the writings that had made him an icon in the Anglophone world, but the painstaking assemblage of an entire work through long gestation, the vital consequence of his uncompromising labour of literary absorption…

Vertigo (the magazine, this time)

Will Stone Terezin

Almost a year ago I wrote about Will Stone’ book of poetry Glaciation, which includes a poem entitled SS Fort Breendonk, dedicated “In memory of WG Sebald.”  (Glaciation, by the way, recently won the 2008 Glen Dimplex Prize for poetry from the Irish Writers’ Centre.)  In a few days  the British film magazine Vertigo will publish poet Will Stone’s new essay At Risk of Interment – WG Sebald in Terezin and Breendonk, which deals with the holocaust-related aspects of Sebald’s book Austerlitz. Stone’s essay will includes his own photos of Breendonk.

Stone, Ice, Birds, History

I’ve been on the road recently and spent a bit too much of the past week staring at embroidered words that seemed to read: FAST! EAT BELT WHILE SEATED. That may be why I decided to read a new book of poems when I returned home.

Will Stone’s Glaciation came out in 2007 from Salt Publishing in Cambridge, England. According to the book jacket, he is a poet, photographer, and translator, with a degree in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia. In an earlier post on Georges Rodenbach, I wrote about Stone’s translation of Rodenbach’s seminal photographically-illustrated novel Bruges-la-Morte, in which Stone updated the late 19th century photographs of Bruges with his own contemporary versions.

Stone’s poems dwell on the brute power of nature, the unending tragedy that is history, and the probable futility of throwing out fragile life lines in the form of art. Over and over, birds articulate the bitter truth like a Greek chorus.

Birds cry out sadly as they wheel again
back and forth over the sucking abyss,
over the monstrous plaster limb of ice.

[from Glaciation]

Toward the end of Glaciation, Stone includes a poem entitled SS Fort Breendonk, which is dedicated “In memory of WG Sebald.” Only a few pages into Sebald’s book Austerlitz, the title character Jacques Austerlitz gives what amounts to a brief history of the architecture of fortifications. The following day the book’s narrator takes a train from Antwerp (where the fortress conversation had taken place) to visit nearby Fort Breendonk, which had been a German prisoner of war camp run by the SS during WWII. “A monolithic, monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence”; so begins the narrator’s desciption of his visit, which runs for some ten pages or so.

The narrator of Stone’s poem also explores “the surgical tunnels” of the fort where “men like us but not like us howled.”

They propped the condemned at the stake,
and afterwards got the Jews in
to collect the clogs, hose down the posts.
And the birds sang after the execution,
as was the custom.

And, like Sebald, Stone questions official attempts to memorialize places of horror and to educate present generations about the nearly unimaginable past.

‘The complexities of human nature are displayed here,’
states the tourist literature.
‘We welcome schoolchildren.’ And
‘It must never happen again.”
That sort of thing…

“Poems”, Stone writes, “are trapped passengers”

unable to decide how to tackle
the assailant.

[from Explanation to an Academic]

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.