Saturday, 17 January 2009

Bruges-la-morte 2 Die tote Stadt

Hugues keeps locks of his first wife’s hair in a crystal box. It never changes, but Jane is getting older. She gets wrinkles, starts having new friends, goes shopping, doesn’t stay passive. So Hugues resolves to leave her. “You’re kidding” she mocks. She knows he can’t face “un second veuvage”. That night he goes home, filled with free floating anxiety. Death seems to have returned, “emmaillotée en linceul dans le brouillard.” The swans, so normally calm, are screaming. It’s a bad omen.

Soon it’s the Feast of the Holy Blood, when there’s a procession in the streets, Barbe, Hugues' pious old servant decorates the sombre mansion with masses of flowers, so it’s perfumed like a sacristry. Into the house pour sounds of bells from all round town. She’s exalted, as if in the presence of angels. Then Hugues rings, and says a lady is coming for dinner. Barbe is in shock, for she knows about her master’s secret “concubinage”. Then she leaves. Moments later Jane arrives. She wants to open the shutters but Hugues is afraid it will attract attention. Meanwhile, the procession draws close. People are singing, Hugues visualizes the ancient knights of Flanders, smells the incense, sees the massed crowd in the street, falling to their knees as the Reliquary approaches. Jane and Hugues sit together on the sofa. Then

La musique des serpents et des ophicléides monta plus grave,
charria la guirlande frêle,
intermittente, du chant des soprani.
Jane looks round the strange mansion with its portraits of Hugues' dead wife. Then she spots the crystal box with the dead woman’s hair, opens it and laughs. To Hugues, it’s a “profanation”. He’s never dared touch it, all these years. He goes berserk and strangles Jane with her own hair, wrapped around her neck. Jane’s cadaver turns pale, like his dead wife, long ago. Outside, the procession has passed, the streets are empty, silence descends once more.

Et Hugues continûment répétait: «Morte... morte... Bruges-la-Morte...» d'un air machinal, d'une voix détendue, essayant de s'accorder: «Morte... morte... Bruges-la-Morte...» avec la cadence des dernières cloches, lasses, lentes, petites vieilles exténuées qui avaient l'air--est-ce sur la ville, est-ce sur une tombe?--d'effeuiller languissamment des fleurs de fer!

This novel was the inspiration behind Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, who used the pseudonym Paul Schott to write the libretto. I do wonder how Freudian it must have been to young Erich, utterly dominated by his father's personality. The tales differ, of course. But the original is worth reading because it’s so atmospheric and beautifully written. Long out of copyright, it can be read in full at

Interestingly, one of the features of the original novel is that it was illustrated by actual photographs, so the reality of the setting blends into the unreality of the narrative. Maybe there is a house on the quai du Rosaire. Maybe it’s still stuffed with 19th century furniture and dusty mirrors ? Maybe Hugues and Jane remain suspended in time and space in a different dimension ? After posting this I received a message from someone who knows Bruges well. There really is a Quai du rosaire and there really are ancient houses there. Uncanny! see


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rogergthomas said...

Yes, quai du Rosaire is there alright. Bruges-la-Morte lives. You might find it easier to find if you visit if you look for the Flemish name – Rosenhoedkaai. Other streets that Rodenbach mentions that are very much alive include quai du Miroir -- look for Spiegelrei – and quai Vert – look for Groene Rei.

In Rodenbach's day in the 1890s French was the top-dog language in Belgium and the elite (even the Flemish) used it in business and literature. Since then there has been a Flemish cultural and hence regional revival so street names in such places as Brugge (Bruges) are in Flemish.