Friday, December 29, 2006

City of zombies: In the Times of London today, a kind of retrospective-cum-review on 19th-century Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach, one of the great ‘dead-city’ novelists of his era. For some reason, it was fashionable in those days to see cities as in decay, like a lot of literature in the U.S. in the late ’70s. So far, there has always been a resurgence; but that didn’t change Rodenbach’s outlook. After all, he had at hand the example of Bruges, a once-great port ruined by the fates of nature, like New Orleans, and what had been left might as well have been dead:

[Rodenbach] has also been at the fin-de-siècle medicine cabinet for his metaphors of the city’s economic decline: Bruges is “consumptive”, “spits out her stones as from her lungs” and has the “pallor” and “lethargy” of the terminally sick. For all this dramatic imagery, Rodenbach had a point: Bruges had once been a great port connected to the sea by the Zwijn. One day in 1475, the North Sea retreated, and the Zwijn dried up, cutting the city off from the water that had sustained it. In the words of Ernest Reynaud, one of many who tried their hands at writing a Bruges poem, the place became an “estuaire inutile oublié par la mer”, a useless estuary abandoned by the sea. Baudelaire’s ports are buzzing with colours, smells and sounds, they are gateways to other worlds; Rodenbach’s Bruges is both relic and reliquary, tomb and stricken corpse. In his last novel, Le Carillonneur (1897), the hero wants to preserve the old Bruges, Bruges as museum-cum-mausoleum, against the civic authorities’ hope to bring the water back to the city and create a new port. Today’s Zeebrugge, a complex of duty-free hangars and late-night bars, is the result of their wishes, and in Le Carillonneur Rodenbach allows himself a degree of attention to contemporary social reality that is almost absent from Bruges-la-Morte.

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