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

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