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Little-known Belgian writer Rodenbach provided artistic inspiration

August 11, 2016

Probably not many people have heard of Georges Rodenbach. Although he published eight volumes of poetry, four novels, several essays and short stories, he’s not a widely studied writer in school. However, he influenced other writers and artists who succeeded him, and he has a stunning gravesite in one of the most famous cemeteries in the world: the Père Lachaise in Paris, where he lies in respite with Jim Morison, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Marceau, Edith Piaf, and Maria Calas, among many others. Rodenbach was a Belgian Symbolist poet and novelist in the 19th century. He wrote ‘Bruges-la-Morte,’ the first work of fiction illustrated with photographs, published in 1892. Throughout the pages, Rodenbach interspersed 35 black-and-white photographs of Bruges. In his work, he idealized the towns of his childhood and youth. In the introduction of ‘Bruges,’ he wrote that he wanted to “evoke a city… in its essence, [as] a person whose shifting moods persuade or dissuade us and determine our actions.” The novel ‘Bruges-la-Morte,’ the eminent Symbolist novel among critics, tells the story of Hughes Viane, a widower who has moved to Bruges, mired in grief over the loss of wife several years before the novel’s opening. He pines away amidst her clothes, letters, and a lock of her hair, wandering around town and meditating on death. In the novel, Rodenbach describes his main character: “As he walked, the sad faded leaves were driven pitilessly around him by the wind, and under the mingling influences of autumn and evening, a craving for the quietude of the grave … overtook him with unwanted intensity.” One day, however, he ventures out and attends the opera, ‘Robert de liable,’ where he observes a dancer who strongly resembles his dead wife. He begins a relationship with this woman he takes to be a doppelgänger for his lost love, but later his illusions are shattered when he realizes the differences between her and his wife. Ultimately, their romance ends in tragedy. The striking part of Rodenbach’s tombstone in the famous Parisian cemetery, known for its artistic sculptures, is the bronze figure that appears to be emerging from the grave. He rises from the block of granite with a rose in his hand—as if he will not be immobilized by death. What is important about Rodenbach, besides his position as the penultimate Symbolist novelist and the writer of the first “illustrated” novel? He influenced musicians who created well-known works, writers that we still read today, filmmakers whose movies we watch, and one particular musician who was an integral figure of 20th century pop music. Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold used Rodenbach’s ‘Bruges’ as the basis for his opera ‘Die Tote Stadt.’ Rodenbach’s work inspired Belgian visual artist Ferdinand Khnopff to create artwork evoked by the novel. The novel influenced writer W.G. Sebald, a German writer and academic who died in 2001. Purportedly, French crime novelist Boileau-Narcejac based his book D’entre les mortsby on Rodenbach’s work, and later, Alfred Hitchcock recast the crime fiction as ‘Vertigo,’ starring James Steward and Kim Novak. On his 2013 album ‘The Next Day,’ David Bowie has a song, “Dancing Out in Space,” in which he mentions the phrase “silent as Rodenbach.” Here he likely refers to Rodenbach’s book of poems ‘Le règne du silence,’ meaning ‘The Reign of Silence,’ in which the last poem of the compilation is titled “Du silence.” Rodenbach’s story is interesting because it leaves one to ponder—beyond the scope of widely-read writers—whose well-deserving prose or poems we might be missing. If nothing else, he leaves behind a vivid image of his own particular stark landscape and a haunting portrait of melancholy. (Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)