Sex, Death and Topography

Bruges-la-Morte is the first seriously photographically-illustrated novel, so the question naturally arises as to why its author, George Rodenbach, decided to include photographs. The novel is a deliciously doom-laden symbolist tale about a man, Hugh, obsessed with his dead wife. In style it most closely resembles other books of the period like Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' or Huysman's 'À rebours'. The writing is richly descriptive, especially of the brooding presence of Bruges itself, which could almost be considered one of the characters in the book, but not in such a way as would suggest the inclusion of photographs. There is nothing 'photographic' about the writing or obviously left out of the story that photographs could supply.

In fact, the publication history of the book, although it has remained fairly constantly in print, has generally been of editions that omitted the original illustrations. The contemporary interest in the original photographs is largely due to the academic Paul Edwards who has championed the book and written extensively about it. I spoke to Clive Scott and Will Stone who had different ideas about why Rodenbach included photographs. The puzzling thing for me was the contrast between the morbid story of Hugh – pursuing a dancer, Jane, who resembles his dead wife – and the cool, empty, topographical photographs that Rodenbach selected. As Edwards has explained, these photographs, taken from Parisian stock agencies, were old-fashioned even in 1892. Will Stone describes them as being 'scenes like you would see on postcards'. By contrast Clive Scott notes their very inscrutability. Like the town of Bruges in the story – which is constantly seen as observing and judging Hugh's actions – for Scott the photographs make the reader ask 'what are they trying to tell me?'

Even if the novel is not 'photographic' in style, by which I mean having some of the descriptive quality of photographs, it does contain an underlying photographic metaphor. One of the themes of the book is 'resemblance'. The novel was first serialised in a newspaper, before being collected in one volume with an extra chapter which begins, 'Hugh pondered on the indefinable power of the likeness'. In this chapter and throughout the book Hugh ('a connoisseur of all nuances of the soul') considers whether resemblance is a kind of hallucination: 'No fascination is more irresistible than that of a new woman who resembles her predecessor!'. As time passes he discovers 'the underlying treachery of the similarity'. In this light Jane is like a photograph which has fooled Hugh into believing his wife has returned from the dead, eventually with tragic consequences.

Bruges-la-Morte, like the photographically illustrated novels that have followed it, works on two levels. The photographs both explain and illustrate the setting of the book but also supply a kind of parallel commentary which is more mysterious. They might even just be a naive mistake, or telling a different story, independent of the text, containing a secret perspective on Hugh's fate.


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