13 May 2013
In Bruges (with apologies to Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson)
As you may have surmised from the title and my absence from these pages over the last week, I have been spending a few days away in Bruges. Those of you who have seen the film of the same name will already know something about it. I went to discover it for myself and I can report that contrary to Ray’s assertion that it’s a s***hole with nothing to do, there are plenty of attractions with which to fill one’s time, not least of which are the beer and the art. As I went in the company of my wife, we naturally took in quite a bit of art but I can tell you we also did justice to the beer. I’m not going to go on about the beer – but I’m certainly going to go on about the art, although that’s for later.
Firstly, as a background to the art, we wanted to explore the idea of Bruges as an important and influential medieval city. To do this, we visited The Historium where we were told we would learn all about Bruges at the time of the great Jan van Eyck and his famous painting Virgin and child with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436). We were to achieve this by means of a themed journey through seven separate rooms illustrated by a film story. Call me a cynic if you like, but having paid eleven euros each for the privilege, I have to say we learnt more about script writing and film making than we did about Bruges. I suspect it was as a result of attending various writing workshops but I soon recognised the standard formula for engaging an audience – a dramatic beginning, a ‘want’ for the main protagonist, obstacles to be overcome etc. – and needless to say my heart sank.
The story centred on Jacob, Jan van Eyck’s apprentice, sent to the quayside to fetch Anna, the would-be model for the Virgin, and a green parrot which also appears in the painting. Jacob is smitten with Anna (cue the required element of romance) and he’s soon involved in a street brawl. Anna runs off, the parrot escapes and as his master can no longer complete the painting, Jacob is in trouble. All these problems will no doubt be resolved before the end of the film, but what will we have learnt in the meantime? Certainly the fact that women in 15th century Bruges had immaculate hair and make-up and that Jan van Eyck wore a turban - but how he revolutionised painting or managed his studio there was next to nothing. And now I come to think of it, I’m fairly sure that the painting itself is considerably smaller than it was portrayed in the film – but hey, this is Hollywood where everything is larger than life ...
What the film did do however, was confirm my healthy distrust of writing workshops. I have always had my suspicions that they were too formulaic and prescriptive – ok if you want to turn out romance or thrillers perhaps, but of no use to writers of literary fiction. Or me, at any rate.
We learnt far more about medieval Bruges through observing The Procession of The Holy Blood on Ascension Day and the celebratory eucharist the following day. (http://bit.ly/17YTpZA for details). It was my first direct contact with Roman Catholicism and it left me mightily impressed. My family are not Roman Catholic and neither, as far as I’m aware, are any of my friends so my knowledge of it is limited to what I’ve read and what I’ve picked up along the way. I’d also made the subconscious assumption that the Low Countries were essentially Protestant (William of Orange?) but Catholicism continues to flourish in certain areas – notably Bruges. The late 19th century art historian Weale emigrated there – not just to study the art but also because it was an easier place to practice his chosen religion than London. And having spent a little time there, I can understand why.
Roman Catholicism, it seems to me, is heavily dependent on relics. The Holy Blood is one such. It consists of a highly ornate glass vial containing a piece of cloth allegedly stained with the blood of Christ. It’s definitely got some red splodges on it (I got that close) but more than that I can’t say. It is supposed to have been brought back from The Holy Land by 12th century Crusaders and it’s held sacred by The Brotherhood of The Holy Blood (are we getting a sense of something Dan Brown-like here?). Its purpose is doubtless to convince the faithful that they are in the presence of Christ - and in this it’s very successful as thousands crowd the streets of Bruges each year to chart its progress round the town before its return to its regular resting place in the Basilica. It certainly brings the punters in. We were amongst them.
The Procession is instructive. The various tableaux depicting scenes from the Bible are each presented by a different guild of craftsmen dressed in the clothes of the time. There are similarities here with the Mystery Plays of York. I’m quite familiar with these and hence it’s far more meaningful than the romantic invention afforded by Jacob, Anna and the parrot. Some of the women’s make-up, for instance, is not quite perfect ...
The full glory of God is not however revealed until the following day when, in the celebratory eucharist, we are invited to venerate The Holy Blood. To help us do so, the complete panoply of the Church is rolled out in support. It’s a piece of pure theatre and I’m forced to wonder whether this isn’t the origin of opera. Were Puccini and Verdi Catholic? In the small Basilica with its painted ceiling, ornate reredos and complementary adornments, a heavenly choir sings divinely (and it’s not until I’ve actually written those words that I’m struck by their obvious references). The bishop and his mate, dressed in white and red respectively, mirror the colours of the vial. We can see the Blood of Christ, we can taste it in the wine and we can eat of His body in the wafer. We are in a state of grace. On this earth, this as close as we are ever going to get to heaven. We can almost touch it ...
How can we say no? We are intimidated into compliance and it’s rather like being amongst the Arsenal supporters in the away end. Their favourite chant - ‘stand up if you hate Tottenham’ - is very compelling, especially if (like me) you’re the only one left sitting. To do anything other than stand is to invite disaster. As with the Roman Catholic church, the religion where the fear of hell exceeds the promise of heaven, we dare not resist.
The ceremony weaves its magic spell and my wife is so overwhelmed by it all that she is inclined to sign up on the spot. Imagine what it must have been like for the inhabitants of 15th century Bruges. Utterly compelling, I would suggest. The period we are talking about is 500 years BT (before television) and this was the soap of the day, the opium of the people. Not to have practised Roman Catholicism in Bruges at the time was either to languish in prison or not to exist at all, such was the power it exerted. Incidentally, I note it was not even mentioned in The Historium’s film. Ah well, dramatic licence and all that ...
Next week in Part Two, we discover the important role played by art in all this.
20 May 2013
In Bruges – Part Two
The Divinity of Art
So, we’ve talked about the beer and we’ve talked about the religion - now let’s get down to what we really went to Bruges for, which was the art. Life being full of surprises, this came in two forms, one of which was expected and turned out to be delightful while the other came entirely out of the blue and proved abhorrent. How did that happen? Read on to find out ...
The main reason for our trip to Bruges was to look at the work of the Early Netherlandish painters and in particular, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. And before I forget, the van Eyck is at The Groeninge together with the work of some other early artists while to see the Memling collection you need to go to the Hospital of St John. Don’t miss either. For a detailed assessment go to
These artists, active in the Low Countries during the Northern Renaissance of the 15th and early 16th century, are also referred to as the Flemish Primitives. But don’t be fooled by the title. ‘Primitives’ in the context of 15th and 16th century art doesn’t refer to any perceived lack of sophistication but rather identifies the artists as the originators of a new tradition in painting, notably for the innovative handling of oil paint over tempera. Prior to this point, artists had been restricted by the materials at their disposal but the advent of oil based paints opened up a whole new world for them. Some say that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting but the likelihood is he simply perfected the use of it. This, combined with the new discoveries of perspective, allowed these artists to make significant advances in natural representation. In other words, they were able to depict objects, and people, so accurately that it was as if they were real. In fact the word ‘realism’ is often applied to their work. And sometimes, it’s so real, it’s unreal.
Let’s take Jan van Eyck’s painting ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ as an example. This is the work which was the subject of the (dumbed-down) film I wrote about last week. If you search online I’m sure you could find an image of it so there’s no need for me to describe it to you. In fact, I’ll save you the trouble - here’s one.
Housed in the Groeninge Museum, the canvas is protected by a sheet of glass and let me tell you, I’ve stood with my nose pressed up against that glass and the picture is so real I don’t think I could see a brushstroke if I used a microscope. It’s fantastic. The attention to detail is astounding and the representation of the rich colouring of the robes and the armour and the carpet is such that you sense you could reach out and feel the material. Which probably explains the need for the glass ...
I don’t think I’ve ever stood in front of a more exquisite piece of work. Of course there are other comparable paintings of the same era and we mustn’t forget the altarpiece by Memling in the Hospital of St John, but van Eyck’s takes the biscuit. I could go on about his use of colour, the way he depicts light (and shadow), his mastery of portraiture, the illusions he incorporates into the picture etc. but I am not an art historian and I leave such things up to my wife. My point is that I find myself in awe of this man’s skill and ability which has given me so much to take pleasure in - I feel I could look at it for hours and still find something to admire. I’m certain that if I studied art and practiced for a hundred years I would never, ever be able to produce anything that would remotely approach what he achieved. And this was 1436 for goodness sake! They hadn’t even invented the printing press!
These were the artists who inspired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the mid 19th century which was recently the subject of the Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at Tate Britain. Both Rossetti and Holman-Hunt visited Bruges and saw what I saw. When I went to Tate Britain I admired their work too for much the same reasons as I admired van Eyck and Memling. At first I didn’t get the connection, but having been to Bruges myself I certainly do now. We’ve all worshipped at the same shrine.
Which brings me nicely on to the topic of religion and the role these Early Netherlandish artists played in relation to the church. Their skills must have seemed godlike to the general public of the day – they seem godlike to me now. They certainly seemed godlike to Canon van der Paele as he kneels before the Virgin. To the right is St George (his name saint) who is introducing him to Mary while to the left is St Donatian, the patron saint of Bruges. Elevated by the company he keeps, the Canon is surely going to heaven. The picture seems a representation of heaven itself as everything is sweetness and light.
He certainly wouldn’t want to go to the other place, depicted in a painting on an adjacent wall by Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was of the same period and while what van Eyck painted was heavenly, Bosch was literally hellish. In ‘The Last Judgement’ we are shown what happens to those who transgress in scenes of the most unimaginable horror. Some are being eaten alive by monsters while others are having their private parts desecrated. In the background the world burns. Think of Salvador Dali with an evil twist. This was the religion, remember, where the fear of hell exceeded the promise of heaven. No wonder the Canon was so keen to pony up to have his portrait painted in the company of the godly. So obvious is his intent that I almost made the mistake of reading Donatian as Donation – you can bet he paid a pretty price for his salvation.
So this painting serves two purposes – it venerates God and it promotes the Canon to a better place. The St John Altarpiece by Hans Memling does much the same.
As a work of art it is, by the way, just as exquisite as the van Eyck and warrants as much attention. As a religious object it is also central. As its name suggests, like many others of its type it would adorn the altar of a church or cathedral where it invited the worshippers themselves to come close to God. As such it was an essential prop in the theatre of Roman Catholic ceremony. Today we talk of Old Trafford as ‘the theatre of dreams’ and we have elevated footballers to the category of saints. Its 15th century equivalent was the Basilica of The Holy Blood.
And just as Canon van der Paele was raised up by his commission, so were the patrons of the St John Altarpiece. Pictured on the rear of the side panels, they are painted with as much care and attention to detail as the frontispiece. Although they appear demoted by comparison, they would probably have been viewed more readily as the panels would have been folded shut for the majority of the time. Only during moments of the highest religious significance would they have been opened to enable us to view the true majesty of God.
So there you have it – magnificent art for a magnificent purpose. And I suppose you’re wondering about the ‘other’ form I mentioned at the start. Well, I haven’t the heart to talk about it in the same space as the wonders of van Eyck and Memling so I’m going to leave that until next time. But I will talk about it, I promise you. And how ...
http://bit.ly/14vVABR (Bosch’s Last Judgement)
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/m/memling/2middle2/13john.html (Doesn’t show the rear of the side panels unfortunately but if you’re really interested you can soon surf around and find them.)
27 May 2013
In Bruges – Part Three
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about my trip to Bruges. I went in the company of my wife to enjoy what the city had to offer and in particular to look at the fabulous artworks of the Flemish Primitives. My wife is an art historian and while I have aspirations as a novelist, I’m an amateur in matters of art which gives me the benefit of being able to view things with an eye untrammelled by the constraints of education. In other words, I’m a layman, so when I write about art, I can say what I feel about what I see and not what I’ve been taught. And in that respect, I like to think that I represent the majority of the art-viewing public.
In Bruges - Part Two dealt with my reaction to paintings by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling and in the words of the layman, I was ‘blown away’. If you remember I found myself captivated by their immense technical skill, their precision, their use of bright and vibrant colours, the complexity of their composition and the ‘realism’ they were able to convey. I also found interest in the context in which these works were produced ie. the religious nature of 15th century Bruges and how they reflected that.
We had visited the Groeninge museum to see them and we were on the point of leaving when our attention was caught by an artwork hung in the entrance to the Flemish Primitives gallery. On entry we had been anxious to avoid a large party of tourists and I can only imagine that in our haste to get beyond them we had missed it. Let me describe it to you as best I can. It must have measured eight feet in height and about four feet in width (my apologies to those who think in metric) and consisted of a background of a mucky green colour. Slightly to the right of centre was a single vertical brushstroke in red which stretched most of the height of the piece. To get some idea have a look at this image.
On reading the accompanying ‘blurb’ I discovered that this was part of an exhibition by the contemporary French artist Fabienne Verdier. As we were due to go elsewhere I might not have taken any further interest were it not for the fact that this exhibition of her work was headlined ‘A Tribute to the Flemish Primitives’. As you can guess, I was then intrigued and decided to make further investigation. Here’s what I discovered – and lest I be accused of any form of bias, I quote directly from Wikipedia.
Fabienne Verdier spent 10 years in China in 1980s learning Chinese painting when she was 20 years old. In 1984 Verdier enrolled at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing. She met Huang Yuan, a Sichuanese calligraphy master and landscape painter, who reluctantly became a mentor. Verdier was eventually apprenticed to Huang for 10 years, before returning to France. On her return, Verdier revisited western art by going to the museums and rediscovered European painters. She draws her inspirations from Flemish painters such as Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. Based on her studies of their works, in 2013 she had an exhibition at Brugge’s Groeningemuseum, where she was the first contemporary artist to be housed in the permanent collection.
This is an abbreviated version of her biography but it tells you what you need to know. For the full wording go to
Ms. Verdier’s technique is unusual. Here’s Wikipedia again. (I’m not responsible for the grammar or the spelling, by the way).
Fabienne Verdier began the process by conceiving pictorial concept through drawings. Before painting, she prepares herself by mediatating on the work to come and rehearse the movements on the floor with the canvasses spread out on the floor and large Chinese brush that are mounted to an iron beam that hangs from the 12 meters high ceiling in her studio. The brushes made of 35 horse's tails absorb a big amount of paint that its weight has to be counterbalanced by being supported and suspended from the ceiling. To aid in the mobility of the brush during painting, Verdier attached a sort of bicycle handlebar onto the pulley or furrule of the brush. This technique allowed her to move around the large space of the canvas with speed and smoothly.
For a full understanding, I actually found a video of this technique which is worth watching.
All this, of course, one might find interesting for a number of reasons – none of which seem to have very much to do with the Flemish Primitives other than that she claims to draw inspiration from them. And as her exhibition is supposed to be in homage to them, it naturally made me wonder how or why. For the ‘why’, I guess I would need to ask the curators of the Groeninge Museum - but for the ‘how’, I thought I might try and evaluate it myself. In an attempt to be as objective as possible, this is what I came up with.
What is it then that typifies the Early Netherlandish painters? As I suggested earlier, for me there are a number of factors, so let’s try and look at these one by one.
Firstly, I am in awe of their immense technical skill. Do I hold such reverence for Ms. Verdier? I have to say I do not. Notwithstanding her 10 year apprenticeship in China, I venture to suggest that whereas I could never paint as well as van Eyck or Memling, I could learn to do what she does in the space of an afternoon. Nul points.
Secondly, their precision. The Flemish Primitives paid incredible attention to detail. Is this reflected in the work of Ms. Verdier? I don’t believe it is – and in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. Paint appears to have been applied to the canvas in a random and careless way and the word ‘daub’ springs to mind. Ms. Verdier might contest this and say these ‘splashes’ are finely formed. I dare say that may have been her intention but it’s not the impression I receive. Also nul points.
Thirdly, their use of bright and vibrant colours. The Flemish Primitives revelled in the use of paints at their disposal – from what I’ve seen of Ms. Verdier’s work I can’t recall one comprised of more than two colours. The piece at the entrance to the gallery was, as I said, a daub of red on a mucky green background, and her ‘installation’ at The Hospital of St John purely black brushstrokes on a white sheet. Nul points.
Next, complexity of composition. The paintings of van Eyck and Memling were full to the brim with icons and meanings and invariably set out to tell us a story or impart some message. I see no complexity in Ms. Verdier’s paintings which are by complete contrast simplistic and minimalist in nature. If there is any story or meaning contained within them, then I am unable to discern it. Nul points.
Now let’s look at ‘realism’. I don’t think I need say much here. Ms. Verdier makes no pretence at physical representation of real-life objects and her work is entirely abstract. Nul points again.
Finally, context. The paintings of The Flemish Primitives told us much about the life of 15th century Bruges and how heavily influenced it was by religion. Although Ms Verdier’s work doubtless says something about the place of contemporary art in modern society (a subject I might pursue at another time) it says nothing to me about either religion or Bruges. Or much else for that matter. Nul points there either.
So, totting up the scores as they say, I find nothing that relates Ms. Verdier’s work to that of The Flemish Primitives. My point here is not to be critical of Ms. Verdier (I can do that later), but rather to point my finger at the curators of The Groeninge and ask them what they were thinking of when they agreed to the exhibition? I could ask them but I doubt that they’d reply and instead refer me to the weighty book Ms. Verdier has written on the subject (L'esprit de la peinture : Hommage aux maîtres flamands) which is available on Amazon for £42.25 – or from the museum shop at 45 euros.
As eager as I am to discover any connection, I’m not prepared to pay 40 odd quid for the purpose although I have a confession to make. To be fair, I did not have time (or take the opportunity) to browse the contents of the book, but I suspect it will be couched in terms unintelligible to the layman ie. me. As an example of what I mean, here is what the Ocula website has to say about Verdier.
Fabienne Verdier uses space to capture the intrinsic forces of life in a perfect stroke. It is a complete dialogue through the chosen spiritual elements transcending to the material world that drives her creations. The cosmic power of existence is expanded through her art in a philosophical manner at a given instant, beyond boundaries. Verdier works vertically using gravitational forces as tools to enhance the transmission of the matter through movement, captured into a moment’s time in the essence of equilibrium. Painting with animal brushes such as horsehair or rooster feathers, her instruments funnel energy onto the work from their own living spirit. The canvas arena is occupied by incandescent colors that bring the artist back to her western sparkle and black, to the ultimate power: “the color by which all is materialized”. Ten years in China working with masters in traditional ink painting and a lifetime of... Read More inspiration through the icons of art history, have led the artist’s innate East-West spirit to be driven by the quest of oneness with the universe.
Hmm … Get the picture? No, neither do I. And as for ’a complete dialogue through the chosen spiritual elements transcending to the material world’ or ‘led the artist’s innate East-West spirit to be driven by the quest of oneness with the universe’, do you suppose that was what was in Jan van Eyck’s mind when he painted ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’?
Somehow, I doubt it.
3 June 2013
In Bruges – Part Four
Rodenbach and Shute
In my fourth - and final - article inspired by my visit to Bruges, I want to talk about literature. I’ve done art (although I may soon have more to say on the subject in the general sense) and touched on religion but now I want to deal with the written word. After all, I’m supposed to be writer, so that should be what matters most.
So who are Rodenbach and Shute? They sound like a comedy double act – or more plausibly, the leading characters from an American police drama – but they are in fact both novelists. Many of you will be familiar with Nevil Shute (or if not, you should be) but I suspect few of you will have heard of Georges Rodenbach - I certainly hadn’t before my trip to Belgium. Until then, my only encounter with Belgian literature was the work of Herge and his Adventures of Tintin, something I read avidly as a boy and whose series collection still adorns our bookshelves. So Rodenbach was new to me and, like Bruges itself, something to be explored.
Whenever I travel, I often try and take something to read that relates directly to my destination. Hence my choice of Zorba the Greek for Crete, The Yacoubian Building for Egypt and Galileo’s Daughter for Florence. One could while away a few pleasant minutes thinking of other appropriate examples - On Chesil Beach for instance, or Amsterdam (both by McEwan). Then there’s Farewell to Berlin and these days no doubt many people take The Da Vinci Code to Paris. For Spain I think of Hemingway although for something lighter you could try Chris Stewart and Driving over Lemons. And if you’re really desperate there’s always Feria by yours truly of course.
For Bruges, I was recommended Rodenbach and Bruges-la-Morte. My dear lady wife (bless her) had already read it and had a copy so there was really no choice. It’s a short book - in effect a novella – and thinking that it would just about last the train journey and no more, I hurriedly snatched something else off the shelf before I left. Which explains the Nevil Shute and A Town Like Alice, a book more relevant to the Far East and Australia than Bruges but one I have always meant to read. And yes, the Rodenbach was done before I stepped off the train but the Shute took longer and although I had trouble putting it down, it did at least last out a few more days.
And what a difference! I can hardly think of two novels further apart in terms of style, content and setting yet both intrigued me for various reasons. So much so that I felt bound to compare them, as I am wont to do. Let me remind you, by the way, that just as I am an amateur in terms of the study of art, so am I in respect of literature. Informed critique is not my forte and my worst mark at ‘O’ level was gained in Eng Lit. I can only tell you what I ‘feel’ about something and the effect it has on me rather than delving into the nitty gritty of how or why. Detailed analysis I leave to the so-called ‘experts’.
Firstly, the Rodenbach. For his details, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Rodenbach where you will find that Bruges-la-Morte was his most famous work. It was allegedly the most successful French literary publication of 1892 – which was some achievement as it was written at a time of great artistic activity in Paris where Rodenbach lived. And here is our first contradiction. His fellow poet and friend, Emile Verhaeren, wrote of the novel
Rodenbach sang the praises of Bruges because of all the cities in the world he considered it most in tune with his sense of melancholy ... Bruges is the book’s protagonist and nothing better explains the novel or tells us more about the poet himself.
And yet Rodenbach chose to live in Paris - a place that excited his mind and without its stimulation, he might never have produced what he did. In a letter to Verhaeren in July 1879, he revealed his frustration with his native culture, writing
I am out of my element, sad, lost, woebegone. To go in for literature in Belgium, in my opinion, is useless and impossible.
Ah yes, the problems we have with our Muse ...
Anyway, I think you’re getting the flavour – melancholy, poetic writing, sad goings-on in Bruges etc. Here’s an extract from the Introduction to Philip Mosley’s much acclaimed translation (he won the 2008 Prix de la Traduction Litteraire).
‘Bruges-la-Morte’ is a love story – Rodenbach calls it a ‘study of passion’ – not only the author’s love for the novel’s ‘protagonist’, the city of Bruges, but also the obsessive love of the human protagonist, Hugues Viane, for his dead wife, of whom he has made an almost religious cult centered on a tress of her hair as a kind of holy relic. In his mind, he discerns similarities between the dead woman and the ‘dead city’, to such a degree that he can imagine that ‘Bruges was his wife, while she was Bruges’.
This direct association between the character of Viane and his wife and the character of Bruges is an integral element of Symbolist fiction of which Rodenbach was reputedly a master. If you really want to get into it and find out more about the Symbolist movement, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)
Here you’ll also come across Fernand Knopff (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernand_Khnopff) who famously provided the illustrations for the book. The frontispiece for the original edition seems to have been based on Millais’ Ophelia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)) a painting you might recognise if you like the Pre-Raphaelites (as I do). It depicts a dying woman floating in a river, singing - another highly Symbolic image. The cover of the current edition is taken from Pandora’s Box by Rene Magritte – need I say more.
So that’s pretty much it – a wonderfully tangled web of arty-farty stuff involving a melancholic late nineteenth-century poet, a dead woman floating down the river, a man who keeps a lock of his deceased wife’s hair in a glass case as a relic and Bruges – which begins to sound like the saddest place on earth. No wonder I was recommended to read it.
The problem I had with it was that I didn’t find Bruges melancholic or sad at all. The city that seemed so evocatively depressing to Rodenbach in 1892 is now a bustling town full of tourists. Yes, you can still hear the bells that Rodenbach made so much of, but today they remind us of the film (In Bruges) rather than his book. As for its actual content, if the writing was supposed to be ‘poetic’ I’m afraid I didn’t get it, and I failed to engage with the main protagonist, be that Viane or Bruges itself. As a result, I cared little as to how it ended, however dramatic that may have been. Don’t let me put you off, however. It’s worth reading as an exercise in understanding but you really need to do your homework first. This article by Alan Hollinghurst in The Guardian will help.
Now, let’s compare that to A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. This is a book that needs no background reading or preparation, it’s simply a tremendously compelling story that’s well told. In fact, I’m not even going to give any references for Shute because they don’t seem relevant to the work – unlike Bruges-la-Morte, the piece stands alone from its author and, as far as I am aware, is not representative of any particular movement. Here’s Daniel George’s introduction to the Pan Books edition of 1961.
Hailed as Nevil Shute’s greatest and most compelling novel, ‘A Town Like Alice’ tells a richly human story of courage, enterprise and love – in war and in the aftermath of war.
It is the story of how Jean Paget, a young English girl, became the leader and the mainstay of a party of British women and children, prisoners of the Japanese, in a nightmare trek through Malaya. Stricken by illness and utter exhaustion many of them died – those who survived owed their lives to Jean’s fortitude and strength of character. It tells too how she came to meet again the young Australian who had helped them – whose ghastly torture they had been forced to watch. How she starts a new life in the wilds of Northern Queensland becoming the driving force behind the transformation of a near derelict collection of houses into a thriving town like Alice Springs.
This novel – so exciting, so eventful, so moving – is a parable: constructive effort is possible even at the very edge of despair. ‘Never lose heart’ is the ultimate theme of most of Nevil Shute’s novels, and this, I think, is his best.
I couldn’t agree more – and I personally found it so exciting, eventful and moving that I was unable to put it down. So come half past ten each night in our hotel room when my dear lady wife (bless her) was wanting to turn out the light and go to sleep, I was wanting to read on. We compromised by my sitting in the bathroom with my book for an extra hour before sneaking into bed once she’d nodded off.
Of course, it’s a fundamentally different read to Bruges-la-Morte. It does not rely on poetic language or symbolism or the evocation of a particular place to engage the reader. In fact, the nature of the prose is such that one doesn’t notice it and the focus is on telling the story. That doesn’t mean to say that the book is not well written. I actually think that it’s extremely well written for that very reason. The prose is so elegantly simple that it doesn’t get in the way of the narrative and let me tell you, that is an extremely hard thing to achieve. You try it! It’s damnably difficult. It puts me in mind of Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), another author whose writing style I envy and admire. It seems effortless, but believe me, it’s not.
And just like Revolutionary Road, it’s not as though A Town Like Alice is essentially plot-driven. Just as Bruges-la-Morte, both these books are an exploration of character and I read them because I am as much interested in the people themselves as I am in the ending they arrive at. But they’re set out in a different way and what Rodenbach attempts through poetry and evocation of setting, Yates and Shute do through simplicity of language and story.
I personally find this latter approach more persuasive. For all the poetic language and imagery of Bruges-la-Morte, it did not arouse in me the same level of emotion as did the straightforward story-telling of A Town Like Alice. Perhaps it was the power of the story itself, but whereas Rodenbach left me cold, Shute produced a sizeable lump in my throat.
I’d like to think I have similar stories to tell and someday, hopefully, I will. I just wish I could tell them the way he does.