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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Georges Rodenbach

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To purchase Bruges-la-Morte

Title: Bruges-la-Morte
Author: Georges Rodenbach
Genre: Novel
Written: 1892 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 164 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Bruges-la-Morte - US
Bruges-la-Morte - UK
Bruges-la-Morte - Canada
Bruges-la-Morte - Canada (French)
Bruges-la-Morte - India
Bruges-la-Morte - France
Das tote Brügge - Deutschland
Bruges la morta - Italia
  • French title: Bruges-la-Morte
  • Translated by Mike Mitchell
  • Includes The Death Throes of Towns, translated and with an Introduction by Will Stone
  • With an Introduction by Alan Hollinghurst
  • With a short piece on 'Rodenbach Remembered ?' by Will Stone
  • With numerous photographs
  • Bruges-la-Morte has previously been published in translations by Thomas Duncan (1903, rev. by Terry Hale 1993) and Philip Mosley (1986)
  • Bruges-la-Morte is the basis for the 1920 opera Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

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Our Assessment:

B+ : over the top, but impressive in its Symbolist excesses

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/1/2008 Nicholas Lezard
The Times . 26/3/2005 .
TLS* . 25/12/1903 Francis Henry Gribble
TLS* . 21/5/1993 Adrian Tahourdin
TLS . 1/4/2006 Daniel Starza-Smith

* refers to a previous translation

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Bruges-la-Morte, though, edges away from allegory, or maintains a pious silence as to whether it is, or is not, allegorical. (...) (T)here is so much to admire in this brief novel. Like many symbolist works, it has a modern feel to it, despite all those stylistic mannerisms we associate with the era (.....) This is one of the greatest novels ever written about grief, loneliness and isolation; and such subjects are, alas, always relevant these days. (Those suffering similar personal circumstances will find it remarkably consoling.) It is the kind of book, I kept thinking, that should have been turned into an opera by Debussy" - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Heavy with a spectral misery, Rodenbach’s symbolist novel, first published in France in 1892, is a compelling albeit flawed work." - The Times

  • "(T)he perusal of Bruges-la-Morte might be the shortest cut to a rough working knowledge of symbolism. (...) A great book Bruges-la-Morte certainly cannot be called. But it is a brilliant tour de force belonging to the age when young men are "sad as night only for wantonness" and it will give any reader a good idea of what the symbolists were after." - Francis Henry Gribble, Times Literary Supplement

  • "With its melodramatic ending and rather two-dimensional characters, the book would not be much more than an appealing conceit were it not for one factor: Bruges. The story is imbued with the spirit of the city" - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The atmospheric novel has been reincarnated, but this has not been a spontaneous occurrence; nevertheless, it is a successful exhumation. The translators remain faithful to the substance and style of the original, and Alan Hollinghurst's introduction is stimulating and heartfelt" - Daniel Starza-Smith, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bruges-la-Morte is, even in its novella-form, an operatic melodrama. The story is quite thin, and Rodenbach does little to fatten it up where he could have, reveling instead in the melodrama -- and in its locale, Bruges, which is much more than a mere backdrop here, becoming an entire Symbolist canvas. This isn't great fiction, but it's surprisingly engaging, and its bizarreness remains quite appealing.
       The novella centers around Hugues Viane, a forty-year-old widower who is so devastated by the loss of the great love of his life that he doesn't know what to do with himself. He doesn't commit suicide (not that he hasn't considered it), and instead does the next best thing: he moves to Bruges. "It was for its melancholy that he had chosen it", and he finds his fill there; yes:

He would leave the world elsewhere to its bustle and buzz, to its glittering balls, its welter of voices. He needed infinite silence and an existence that was so monotonous it almost failed to give him a sense of being alive.
       Much of the fun -- and much that can be admired -- in Bruges-la-Morte is just how well Rodenbach uses this dreary city in his story -- laying it on nice and thick. So, for example:
     In Bruges a miracle of the climate has produced so mysterious chemistry of the atmosphere, an interpenetration which neutralises too-bright colours, reduces them to a uniform tone of reverie, to an amalgam of greyish drowsiness.
       Into this world, and Hugues' dreary existence, comes a ray of light, however -- a dancer who could pass as his dead wife's double, Jane Scott. Hugues sets her up with her own place and suddenly can relive his one great fantasy, of being reunited with his wife. Of course, it is a fantasy, and it only holds up for a while; eventually:
By trying to fuse the two women into one he had only succeeded in lessening the resemblance. As long as they were kept at a distance, with the mists of death between them, the illusion remained possible. Brought too close together, the differences emerged.
       He tries to maintain the illusion, but it's too much -- and Jane has her own ideas, too, unaware exactly of why this man is so obsessed with her. It comes, naturally, to the end that it must -- an operatically grand melodramatic conclusion.
       Yes, it's quite a silly story, better suited for the opera-stage than the page, -- and it's a shame that Rodenbach didn't put a bit more effort into fleshing out his central characters -- but Bruges more than redeems it. Yes, Bruges, as Rodenbach immortalized it, a city where:
You could truly say you were walking in the middle of death there.
       (You can sort of understand how the locals and the local tourist board never really seem to have embraced Rodenbach .....)
       As Alan Hollinghurst puts it in his Introduction, "Bruges-la-Morte is a very strange book" -- but it certainly does have its odd period-piece (and -place) appeal. It remains undeniably a 'classic' -- and is of easily digestible size.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2011

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Bruges-la-Morte: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Georges Rodenbach lived 1855 to 1898.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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