Monthly Archives: June 2015

Georges Rodenbach: One Evening

Idle and alone, the Poet had wandered all day through the streets of the enormous, fevered capital. In the gathering twilight, under a sky of yellow layers of light and turning acid, he felt more alone than ever. He hadn’t met anyone. He hadn’t had the courage to visit anyone. The busy crowd brushed past him, ignored him, returning to near or distant homes. How abandoned it seemed to him that he was! And he walked on, talking to himself: ‘Yes! The Poet is alone. Who among all these people  thinks of the things that concern me? Who at this moment sees the sky of vinegar and Passion that I see? Ah! The Crowd! The Crowd! It’s the many and I’m the Elite. It adheres to facts, me to the Law. Its zeal is for the disorder of events; mine for the order of the Universe. Ah how different I am from the Crowd, the others, all of them! I’m exceptional, unique. I’m the great bachelor – but God is too!…’

The Poet continued walking, jostled by endless passers-by. The evening advanced. After the Calvary sky, the sponge of yellow rays, the sovereign red of a cloud of blood opened by the Lance, the night arrived with all its thorns of darkness on its brow. The Poet, still more sullen, asked himself by what new mischief, that evening, he could alleviate his intolerable ennui and finally revenge himself on someone for the universal incomprehension that at that moment, more than ever, he felt weighing down on him and isolating him in an island of shadows amidst the tide of humans eddying around him. For he had become a mischief-maker, wily, inventive, and avid for his vice. Certainly at the outset it had been less a matter of his loathing for the crowd and the rancorous impulse of his spite. It was above all because he’d never been understood. He felt an exile in this life. Truly, he walked amidst strangers. He didn’t even speak the same language as others. His conversation appeared incomprehensible and ridiculous. Then he saw that he would have to take up arms against an Idiocy that, failing to understand him, was able to mock him. For, in this circumstance, laughter was an expression of incomprehension. Therefore it behoved him to go on the offensive and be the first to jeer. Yes! That was how he’d become a mischief-maker – as a legitimate self-defence!

Then he’d acquired a taste for it. It had become an enticement, a sport of his ennui, a mental diversion. For the hoaxer possesses something of the psychology of the inventor. He found a new approach. Would it succeed? In thought, as on paper, everything works perfectly. In theory it’s good. But in practice? Will his invention (and that’s what a hoax is) come off? It had to succeed.

Then all that matters is the realisation, not for any reason, solely for the proof…

That’s why, after so many laborious deceptions inflicted on high and mighty imbeciles, with the sole aim of revenging himself, defending himself, the Poet arrived at disinterested deceptions, or rather experiments, for which inoffensive folk, even simple folk, served as his tools…

Thus, this evening, under the Golgotha sky wherein the stars now embedded their cruel nails, he suddenly had a new idea that flooded his mournful face with joy while he was passing by a humble shop window. It was a coal merchant’s shop, black as an extinguished factory furnace… But in the rear, clear in the lamplight, a meagre little room, a laid out tablecloth, glasses and plates for a meal; lit up too with the invisible radiance of a home full of happiness. Between a man and a woman, a blond child was eating.

The Poet went in. The merchant promptly approached him, obsequious, awaiting the order, all the happier on account of a client happening by. The Poet inspected. Analogies occurred to him… He looked at the mysterious patterns in the big lumps of coal, like frost on windowpanes… It was like frost in deep mourning. Suddenly he asked,

‘Is all this coal yours?’

The man nodded yes, puzzled.

‘And all these stacked logs?’

Once more the man acknowledged, thinking that the customer was unable to make up his mind.

‘And that, it’s coke, it’s wood cinder? That’s all yours too?’

The Poet carefully considered all the piles of merchandise, calculating the chances of his new invention, still concealed, trying to foresee the outcome, which would be put into effect when he wished it; then suddenly he made up his mind, stared at the coal merchant and said.

‘Why, all this is yours? And you aren’t asphyxiated?

The Poet had gone out. On the opposite pavement, protected by the darkness, he lingered long to watch. He could follow the mute scene through the windows. The merchant hadn’t moved, as though nailed to the spot, fascinated by the shop’s black accumulation, already looking at the coal, the coke, the anthracite with a terrified expression on his face, as though they were instruments of death. He pushed the nearby logs out of sight, as though they were the scaffold. At the rear, the meagre room was still clearly lit. The woman was waiting, the blond child continued calling out with its mouth and with its eyes too, calling out like other mouths. The coal merchant was no longer looking in that direction. He seemed to looking within himself, where the irremediable words had lodged, already inscribing his destiny. He took to reconsidering the shadowy merchandise that he sold and that the singular visitor had slowly enumerated, before indicating the best use that could be made of them…

The Poet was exultant. One more time he had undoubtedly happened upon a fine trick… His invention had succeeded. He continued to watch from the outside… The merchant, visibly, was already under his influence. He stayed in the shop without moving. One could have said that he was unable to rejoin his family, resume the simple joys of life, with his happy family around the lamp and the evening meal… The Poet sneered: – ‘The Poet, enemy of families!’ – And he went away, speaking aloud in a strange soliloquy: ‘Yes! I’ve given him a Taste for the Void…’ And he meditated on how intoxicating was the idea of death. It’s the attraction of the abyss, the homicidal gentleness of the manchineel. One can no longer elude it after it has reared its head. Even at the height of happiness. So it is with lovers; if, in the paroxysm of their kisses, the idea of death insinuates itself between them for a second, their love has no other desire than to die. The bed is already a tomb; and there’s no more hesitation, save the method of suicide…

Just so, the merchant already looked at the coal like it was death, continuing to turn his back on his family, which is to say, to turn his back on life, as though the pessimism of the unknown passer-by had given him an immediate apprehension of bitterness and pointlessness.

Some months later Poet roamed at random along the same path, in the doleful hour of twilight, which was his favourite time. He recognized the little shop where he had entered one evening, but it seemed that everything was changed. The front window shutters were closed. It had a deserted air. An old poster, stuck on the door, was torn, now presented the likeness of a grimacing cut-out face. The Poet recalled his conversation, the ironic advice that he’d given. Had he truly conferred to the last degree, the Taste for the Void? He had to know.  He rang the bell. No-one came to answer. Then he addressed himself to the neighbours, making adroit enquiries. Some knew nothing. Others held their tongues. Finally, an old woman who was related to the merchant and his family told all. The poor people! They really were unfortunate. One fine day, without anyone knowing why, the merchant had started to neglect his business. Always sunk in gloom! That had overtaken him all of a sudden. He was always going out, spent his time at the wine merchant’s, drinking, drinking. He came back drunk. And then the quarrels. He hit his wife. No customer dared enter. And there were debts, seizures, untold misery. In his lucid intervals, the merchant said: ‘Yes, someone cast a spell on me. I thought that people who cast spells only still existed in the countryside, and only for animals. Now they’re in the cities. I would easily recognize him, mine, but he won’t come back.’

‘And what happened in the end?’ the Poet asked, with the breathless anxiety of the inventor who still doesn’t know if the experiment has completely succeeded.

The woman replied.

‘He asphyxiated himself with his last bushel of coal…’

The Poet was satisfied by the logic of destiny, felt no remorse, since he all he’d done was to randomly inflict on someone – who represented the Crowd – one of the innumerable maledictions with which this latter had burdened him.

He resumed his walk, amidst this new evening of crucifixion and yellow rays of light, an evening in every way similar to that on which he had already passed this way. And the evening called to his mind Jesus, to whom Barrabas is always preferred by the crowd.

Georges Rodenbach: The City

 

They had been in the dead city for a few days. They’d made a hasty departure from Paris, as though fleeing. They’d decided on the spur of the moment, weary of the concealments, the lies, the hurried meetings, the fleeting kisses – all the wretchedness of adultery that puts true love to shame, like a king who, to protect himself, dresses as a beggar. Their passion was noble and dared to reveal itself. She would leave her husband; he would leave his wife, since misfortune had decided that they had, each one of them, married badly. They would put right their destiny. And thus it was.

Now, at last, they possessed each other!

And this was what was req            uired, a new country for their new life. A new beginning. Yes! Before this, nothing. They looked like a young married couple, well suited, self-sufficient and who, as with every all-absorbing passion, wanted, to be surrounded by solitude and a silence where nothing is heard beyond the self alone.

They had chosen a dead city, now become fashionable thanks to books and the enthusiasm of travellers, up yonder, altogether in the North, in the mists. It seemed so far away and was so close. They found themselves there after scarcely a day’s railway journey. Paris was suddenly so far away. And was the life left behind also distant? Ah! This sudden perspective provided by absence and travel. How different everything was here: the passers-by, the houses, the colour of the air, the sky above the roofs, a low sky, very near, with clouds in relief, and with the look of a sky in a painting. A unique décor, a delicate silver-grey atmosphere, the patina of centuries on the old walls – altogether, a changing marvel for the eyes of a painter. He told himself that he’d work there, in seclusion, replicating these incomparable cityscapes. Virgin material. And the glory of being the painter of all that…

The lovers had taken up residence in old hostelry on the Great Square, opposite the Belfry. They’d chosen it on account of its antiquity; the rose-red brick façade with its cool white lacework of plaster pointing was bordered by the fine steps of the gable-end. And then they’d read that on his travels the great Michelet had stopped here sixty years before. He who had written caressing pages, full of light, on Love and on Women, would be there, invisible, in the air of the mirrors, like a smiling presence, a good patron saint…

Delight of the first days spent together. They were overcome. They became aware of themselves. They became aware of the city. It was a sober inebriation…

The days flowed by monotonously. But isn’t it the case that true happiness is monotonous? They strolled along the quaysides where inanimate waters lay in dream. They sometimes gazed from the high point of bridges into that canal water. Empty water where there was nothing but they two… Their faces came close together and were reflected, but very pale, very distant, in a far perspective comparable to that of absence or memory. Reflected, they looked so sad! One might have said that they were afflicted by already being nothing but a reflection, an ephemeral image that wavers and is going to sink to the bottom…

A grand melancholy hovered. And their love acquired something more tender and languid. It was like the love that is felt before a separation. It was like love in a country at war, in a city where there is an epidemic. Love that was strong from feeling itself close to death. Here death reigned… It might have been said of the city that it was the Museum of Death. Every day he thought of settling down to work. But what was the point of making living works, of creating, in this silence where everything decays? He’d admired with an ecstatic emotion the tableaux of the Primitives conserved there; triptychs of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, reliquaries with medallions as delicate as miniatures, portraits of kneeling donors on the triptych panels – definitive masterpieces of the old painters whose fingers, like the priest’s, touched God!… They’d painted – like one prays.

After them, what was there to do? The futility of the effort was evident. And then, too, the lure of renown, the days speeding past, the cruelty of life that, with less pity for men than for things, preserved intact here all those painted faces while faces of flesh had become who knows what indistinguishable mud and dust.

The lovers passed their days in slow promenades… They chanced to go into some church or other.  But here too the funereal obsession was renewed… The ground was paved with great memorial slabs, the tombs of bishops, churchwardens, illustrious parishioners, whose names, titles dates of birth or death, had little by little been effaced under the tread of the centuries… And they felt the impression that their love walked amidst the dead.

Even during the night, their nights punctuated with interminable kisses, they were sometimes unnerved by the chimes that, from the heights of the Belfry opposite them, resumed their carillon every quarter hour. Slow and vague tolling that seemed to come from so far away, from the depths of the ages… It was like the fall of a funeral bouquet, an autumn of sounds littering the city with their leaves… The lovers listened, – disquieted by they knew not what. Their kisses stopped. Was it that the religious city opposed itself to their love? Hesitantly, their lips met again after the carillon. In a long moment, the kisses retained the taste of dead cinders…

To them the carillon too was like the discouraging proximity of death…

 

The woman was bored. It was she who had the idea of coming here. Thus do all lovers desire solitude, the better to possess each other. They create, both one and the other, a new universe where there are only the two of them. But these two had not counted on death, which suddenly interposed itself here… Yes! Their love walked on the dead. There was no end of dying in the dead city. The woman, like a smart Parisienne, stimulated by her fondness for perfumes, had a subtle, educated nose, a refined sense of smell.

Here, everything smelled of death… The age-old walls sweated all along the quays… The salt odour of old tears! Stains of damp on the antiquated façades prompted thoughts of poisonous tattoos. In the churches there lingered a reek of mould, of faded communion-cloths in a sacristy cupboard whose key had been lost for centuries. Smell of death, dispersed and uniform in every part of the city. It was as though somewhere or other the coffins of mummies had been opened – or as though the old tomb of the dead centuries had been re-opened…

The woman suffered from that obstinate smell which every day stole from her a little more of her joie de vivre. Above all in that her lover also seemed, little by little, to distance himself from her, and from everything. Their kisses became less frequent. The peal of night-time bells no longer harassed them. They slept without embracing, with their love between them, already cold and immobile, like the waters of the canals between the stone embankments… Seeing that he was bored and unoccupied, she said to him, ‘Why not get on with some work?’

‘Tomorrow.’

He always replied ‘tomorrow’. He made plans, chose a favourable location, started a sketch, then stopped, put it off yet again. He felt himself dispirited, he who believed that he would work so well here, who started out with so much enthusiasm for these arrangements of water, trees and turrets under a unique silver sky. To render that light! To be the painter of this dead city as Turner was of Venice.

Here was an impressionistic ideal, and a modern one too. This was what he’d initially thought. In continuing to stay, by what sorcery was it that, after having admired, adored, these Primitives of the race, he was little by little subordinated to their influence? The tones darkened on his palette, as though covered by the shadows of the dead. The gestures of his brushes clotted. He started too to paint Virgins, merchants weighing gold, donors. He imitated the old masters. Soon thereafter he found himself doing no more than copying them. Here it seemed that any ideal of art other than theirs was sacrilegious. What a mockery, to want to be oneself in their midst! It was the poverty of a candle that burns in the sunlight… The painter was defeated. Here once more death was triumphant. Death got the better of life… The dead city withered the new art just like it had withered their new love.

The lovers felt more and more distant from themselves and from everything. The man seemed to have changed so much! He was morose, wearied… He didn’t complain, but regret wept in his eyes. He was once more seized by his old life. When his companion on occasion talked about Paris he quickly interrupted her, as though to banish a temptation that he couldn’t continue to vanquish… A great coolness fell between them. They seemed detached from each other, almost indifferent. And to think that during the months of clandestine love they had so desired to belong to each other, completely, day and night… And yet nothing had happened, no disillusioning of the one by the other through complete intimacy and a shared existence. Neither was there any conflict or quarrel.

What was it then that occurred between them? The man now went out all the time and always alone… He was away for entire afternoons, returned late, retired to bed without speaking. One evening he announced that he’s received a letter from Paris. His dealer wrote to him; an important matter and he needed to deal with it personally.

‘Don’t lie. You no longer love me. And you want to leave,’ the woman said in a tone of resignation, one that was not darkened by any inner annoyance, merely sad, as one is before the inevitable.

The man didn’t try to deny it. ‘Yes, it’s the city’s fault!’

The woman agreed, pale and mournful. ‘It isn’t our fault. Here, death is stronger than love.’

They remained in a long silence, thinking about the dead city, about their dead passion, about themselves, who had, as it were, effectuated a mutual suicide at the zenith of their love, and who now, resurrected like Lazarus, had to relearn how to live, – each one separately!

Georges Rodenbach: The Lover of Mirrors

Sometimes madness is nothing other than the paroxysm of a feeling that in the first instance seemed to be purely subtle and artistic. I had a friend who was committed to an asylum where he died a dramatic death that I’ll relate shortly, and whose illness commenced in a harmless manner, and with utterances that, seemingly, were merely those of a poet.

Initially, he had a fondness for mirrors, nothing more.

He loved them. He dwelt on their fluid mystery, he contemplated them like windows opening onto Infinity. But he feared them too. When, following a customary long absence, he had returned from his travels, I found him one evening at home, in a state of anxiety. ‘I’m going away again tonight.’

‘But this time weren’t you planning to spend the winter here?’

‘Yes, but I’m leaving again, immediately. This apartment is too hostile to me… Places leave us sooner than we leave them. I feel that I’m a stranger in these rooms, among my own furnishings that no longer recognize me. I can’t stay… There’s a silence that I disturb… Everything is against me. And just a little while ago while passing in front of the looking glass I was frightened… It was like water about to open up on me and close again!’

I wasn’t surprised, knowing that my friend was sensitive to moods, familiar too with these impressions of homecoming, dust everywhere, the smell of closed and shuttered rooms, the disarray, the melancholy of things that during our absence are a little bit dead. The sadness of evenings after festivities! Evenings of homecoming, after the forgetting of travel. It seems that all our old complaints, having remained behind, welcome us back…

This was how I understood the feelings that my friend felt on his return, and that are felt more or less by everyone on having to resume their all-too-regular life… Because he was rich and without ties it was understandable that the deciding factor would be the impulse of the moment…

However he didn’t go away again. A few days later I met him again. He told me that he was unwell.

‘And yet you look in good health.’

‘You’re saying that to reassure me. But I see my reflection in shop windows… Look! You don’t know how much it torments me, how much I suffer. I go out. I believe that I’m healthy, that I’m well again. The mirrors are watching out for me. They’re everywhere now, in milliners, hairdressers, even grocers and wine merchants. Oh, these damned mirrors! They feed off reflections. They lie in wait for passers-by. You go out, you pay no heed. And all of a sudden you see yourself, scrawny, ill-looking, your eyes and lips like smitten flowers. Perhaps it’s they who steal our healthy complexion. It’s through giving them their colour that we’re pale… The good health that we had is dissolved in them, like fine cosmetics in water.’

I’d listened to my friend as though he was once more enjoying one of those subtle conversational games in which he excelled. He was an unsurpassed talker… abundant if precious. He saw mysterious analogies, marvellous passageways between ideas and things… His speech unfurled ornamental phrases in the air, and that often ended in the unknown. But this time, he didn’t seem to be indulging in caprices, in the dilettantism of a leisured visionary. He seemed genuinely upset, worried by the symptoms of a malady that the reflections of shop windows confirmed to him.

‘Everybody looks unwell in the glass of those windows,’ I told him. ‘You see yourself distorted, pale or livid, your lips bloodless or purple. You see yourself bow-legged or obese, elongated or enlarged, like in concave and convex fairground mirrors. You always look ugly. But they’re liars. And we’re only ugly on account of their ugliness, and pale on account of their illness…’

‘Possibly,’ my friend replied, becoming thoughtful, looking somewhat reassured; ‘these windows have low-quality glass, inferior glass; and for that reason they can only show us ourselves in poor health…’

Without my meaning it too, my conversation had a decisive effect on my friend’s ideas and his life. Convinced that the reflections of the shop windows were untruthful, he wanted sincere mirrors in his home, that’s to say perfect mirrors with flawless tain, able to express his face to him in integral form, down to the slightest of nuances. And as the testimony of one alone wasn’t sufficient, proved nothing, he wanted several, and yet more, into which he gazed at himself endlessly, confronting himself, comparing himself. A growing taste for valuable mirrors possessed him, thanks to his detestation of the poor shop window mirrors, hypocritical mirrors, sick mirrors that had made him believe that he himself was sick. There was no doubt that he started collecting… Looking glasses in antique frames, Louis XV and Louis XVI, whose tarnished gold ovals encircled the mirrors like a coronet of October blossoms on the rim of a well… Looking glasses bordered with Venetian glass. Mirrors with tortoiseshell surrounds, with engraved metal, marquetry garlands. Pier glasses. Every kind of rare, antique and original looking glass.  Some were a little tarnished by the years. You saw yourself in them as though in pools of water. But that no longer hurt my friend as the shop windows had hurt him.  He was forewarned now. He made allowance for it and gazed as though at another self, projected beyond time, journeying into the past. He saw himself at a distance, as he would appear later, as he must already look to his friends, made vague and pale by absence, for he shut himself up in his house…

The glass of display windows had been altogether too disturbing, robbing him of all hope of health. Now, in his own mirrors, new and in frames, he looked healthy, with clear skin and red lips.

‘I’m cured,’ he said to me one day when I went to visit him. ‘Look how healthy I am in my mirrors. It was the street mirrors that made me ill… So I don’t go out any more…’

‘Never?’

‘No; one gets used to it.’

My friend spoke with nostalgic detachment and calm. I still thought that this was one of those subtle and ironic utterances in which his peculiar temperament sometimes indulged. If not, my friend was evidently going mad. To determine the matter I tried to lead him back to toward the most basic of realities.

‘And, in this total isolation, what about women? You who loved them and followed them through the streets?’

My friend assumed a mysterious air, looking into all his mirrors one by one.

‘Each one is like a street’, he said. ‘All these mirrors intersect with each other, like streets… It’s a great, clear city. And I still follow women, women who were reflected there, you see, and who stay there always… Women of past centuries in these antique looking glasses, powdered women who have seen Marie Antoinette… Of course I still follow women… But they go away so quickly, don’t want to let themselves be approached, elude me between one mirror and another, just like between one street and another. And I lose track of them. And sometimes I catch up with them. And I arrange rendezvous…’

Soon my friend showed clear symptoms of mental derangement. He lost his sense of identity. Passing by the mirrors, he no longer recognized himself and greeted himself ceremoniously. He also lost awareness of how mirrors functioned. Certainly he still loved them, even expanded his collection, and hung them facing each other everywhere so that the walls of his house, retreating before and beyond themselves, became undefined, self-mirroring rooms. An endless journey of the self in front of himself! But my friend no longer understood the reflections. Not only did he consider his own reflection to be a stranger, but it seemed to him that instead of being a face, it offered the physical reality of a being. And, on account of so many mirrors juxtaposed and placed facing each other, he found that the single, solitary silhouette was multiplied to infinity, ricocheted everywhere, gave endless birth to a new double, grew to the proportions of an countless crowd, copies of the original who remained isolated and separated from them by who knows what void…

At that time I met my friend in his house for the last time. He seemed happy and, while showing me all his rare and rich mirrors, his profound looking glasses, where he multiplied like a voice in a grotto of a thousand echoes, he told me: ‘You see, I’m no longer alone. I was too much on my own. But the friends, they’re so foreign, so different to us! Now I live with a crowd – where everyone is just like me.’

Soon afterwards, it became necessary to lock him up, on account of some eccentric behaviour that had caused a crowd of people at his windows and a scandal. He was tractable, very quietly behaved, only disappointed at having just the single looking glass of his asylum room instead of his collection of mirrors. But he soon made the best of it. He loved it, it alone, as much as he had loved all the others… He gazed at it, and continued to bow to it. He claimed to see wonderful things there, to follow women who were going to love him. As his illness worsened, and as he was frequently feverish, he said, ‘I’m too hot.’ Then, a minute later, ‘I’m too cold.’ And his teeth chattered. One day he added, ‘Things must be so good inside the glass. One day I’ll have to get in there.’ Those who were looking after him had understood nothing. They were used to his mysterious soliloquies. And then again such a quiet and docile patient gave no-one cause for concern, one who only seemed mad on account of exceedingly beautiful dreams.

One morning he was found in front of the fireplace in his room, covered in blood, in the throes of death, his skull broken… During the night he had hurled himself against the mirror in order to really get inside, to accost the women that he’d followed for so long, to mingle with a crowd where finally everyone looked like him!

Georges Rodenbach: Three Stories

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Fin-de siècle Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach (1855-98) needs little introduction as the author of the classic novella Bruges-la-mort. Although the last 10 years of his life were spent in Paris he was known as the poet of Bruges; the symbolist artist Lévi-Dhurmer painted an atmospheric view of Bruges as backdrop for his portrait of Rodenbach.

The three stories below are taken from Rodenbach’s final, posthumously published collection, Le rouet des brumes (loosely translatable as The Spinner of Mists). These are very short pieces, often anecdotes and sketches rather than developed stories. The three appropriately dark items I’ve selected for translation here aren’t altogether typical of the collection as a whole, which ranges widely in topic and mood, each story being determined by the social or psychological type of its protagonist rather than an overall mood or perspective; what the stories share is Rodenbach’s elegant and considered prose style. The three pieces given below all feature neurasthenic, artistic or extreme characters. ‘The Lover of Mirrors’ ‘(L’ami des miroirs’) is a study in morbid psychopathology, though it also qualifies as a symbolist tale; ‘The City’ provides a pendant to Bruges-la-mort – the unnamed, implicitly vampiric ‘dead city’ is clearly identifiable as Bruges (the story also provides a modest anticipation of Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’, reminding us how close Mann was to the fin-de-siècle spirit). The third story, ‘One Evening’ combines a conte cruel with a study in nihilism that perhaps nods in the direction of Dostoievsky’s Stavrogin.

The Lover of Mirrors

The City

One Evening