The Photograph in Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte (1892) [1]

By Edwards, Paul | Journal of European Studies, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Photograph in Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte (1892) [1]


Edwards, Paul, Journal of European Studies


PAUL EDWARDS [*]

Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898, a Belgian author who lived in Paris and wrote in French), published his novel Bruges-la-Morte in 1892, with 35 half-tone reproductions of original photographs supplied by the Parisian 'image banks' J. L[acute{e}]vy and Co. and Neurdein Fr[grave{e}]res. For nearly a century, every new edition failed to reproduce the photographs, indeed, the first to include them all only appeared in 1998. [2] The illustrations, however, are an essential element of this poetic enterprise and have made it a reference point, perhaps a cornerstone, of an imaginary canon of photo-literary works. From the point of view of photo-theory, one can say that it brings to bear on the popular -- mainly twentieth-century -- idea that photography is a reminder of death, and a vehicle for nostalgia, for being a trace or relic of the real. One might go a step further and say that Bruges-la-Morte, being a novel about relics and the psychology surrounding them, is also a novel about photography -- in so far as photog raphs are conceived of as relics. Tracing the history of photoliterature is, also, to determine what ideas of photography exist in texts. In the case of Bruges-la-Morte, one such idea -- that the photograph is a memento mori - is taken to an extreme. It would therefore be logical to see how the text gives meaning to any melancholy effect that these photographs may have on the reader.

The journalist and author Andr[acute{e}] Ibels published an inquiry citing contemporary writers' opinions on the photographically-illustrated novel in the review Le Mercure de France in 1898, to which Rodenbach replied. It must be said that the survey focused on the recent publication of two such novels by the innovative editor Nilsson: Totote by Gyp and Amoureuse Trinit[acute{e}] by Pierre Gu[acute{e}]dy, one sentimental and anti-Semitic, the other erotic and anti-feminist. Aesthetically they are very na[ddot{i}]ve, but it is difficult to know if they appeared as burlesque to the readers of 1900 as they do a hundred years later. The context is unfortunate and one understands why Mallarm[acute{e}] and Zola replied with short, throwaway comments. [3] This context notwithstanding, Rodenbach seems to be thinking of his own novel when he writes (evasively): 'in novels that deal with modern life, the photograph will be an element of reality one more document (...). But to conclude, everything depends on the photo graphs, and it all depends on the reader.' [4] How might this comment, the only direct comment we have by Rodenbach on the illustration of Bruges-la-Morte, how might these words be relevant to his own book, published six years previously? Could it be said that the photographic illustrations of Bruges-la-Morte are 'an element of reality, one more document'? The photographs are certainly not slices of 'modern life', for both life and modernity are manifestly absent from them. Rodenbach's words have to be read as those of a Symbolist rather than those of a Naturalist. If we think of his own novel, we might propose that the photographs of Bruges are well and truly documents, but documents of themselves, of photography itself as an element of modern life: the photographs and not what they represent are the elements of modern life that are to be studied. One of the subjects of his modem novel is photography, or rather one or two particular ideas of photography: the photograph as memento mori, and the photograph as a relic.

A very brief summary of the plot may help to underline how the book is, in the words of the Foreword, 'the study of a passion'. Hugues Viane is still mourning his wife five years after her death; being a man of leisure, he elects to move to Bruges, as he finds this town perfectly melancholy. He worships the relics of his late wife, most of all the golden tress of her hair. He avoids all social life, preferring to walk about and 'to seek analogies to his bereavement in solitary canals and ecclesiastical districts' (p. …

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