I had never heard of the Flemish (he wrote in French) Belgian poet/novelist Georges Rodenbach until I read an article about him in the Review section of the weekend edition of the "Wall Street Journal" a couple of weeks ago. I was particularly struck by the picture which the paper reproduced of the 1890 portrait of Rodenbach by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer. It's the face and shoulders of a pale blond sad youngish man in an open-neck shirt with the misty, medieval city of Bruges in the background. It's a compelling portrait but less a portrait of Rodenbach than it is of the protagonist of "Bruges la Morte," the widower Hugues Viane. Rodenbach was a symbolist author. According to the British poet and translator of Rodenbach's essay "The Death Throes of Towns" appended at the end of the novel, "Melancholy, solitude, morbidity, neuropathic tendencies and unresolved longing for an imagined past are all classic hallmarks of the symbolist mindset." "Bruges la Morte" is all of these and more. It is a story of Hugues Viane who chose to live in Bruges following the premature death of his wife, with whom he was very much in love, because it was a "dead town." "His deep mourning demanded such a setting. Life would only be bearable for him there. . . . He needed infinite silence and an existence that was so monotonous it almost failed to give him the sense of being alive." He has turned his grief for his wife (we are never told her name) into a religious cult. He keeps a room in his large house devoted to her relics, especially the long golden braid of hair which he cut off after she died and keeps in a locked glass reliquary. He visits the room every morning touching and kissing the photos and other objects, except the hair, as if they were the relics of a dead saint and he could be sanctified by them. Viane wanders through the town every evening thinking of his dead wife. On one of the walks he sees a woman who looks exactly like her, Jane Scott. He follows her and eventurally discovers she is an opera dancer. The plot of this short novel is the working out of the deeply disturbing relationship between Hugues and Jane. The affair violates the morals of this pious pre-Vatican II provincial Catholic town. ". . . the gables shaped like mitres, the streets adorned with Madonnas, the wind filled with the sound of bells -- an example of piety and austerity streamed towards Hugues, the influence of a Catholicism ingrained in the very air and the stones." There is so much beauty in this novel -- the close observation that underlies the description of Bruges' quais, the canals, the swans, the churches their bells and the great art to be found in their interiors funded by the wealth of nobles from the era of its greatness during the High Middle Ages, the gossips of the town who have attached mirrors to the outside of their windows so they can sit inside their houses and observe the goings on of the street reflected in these mirrors without themselves being observed, and above all the community of convents of the Beguinage and its fantastically dressed nuns, which is itself a town within a town. This is a very fine novel which evokes a time, place and culture very much like the finest travel writers. While reading it I couldn't help thinking of Colin Thubron's book "To a Mountain in Tibet" which is the story of his assent of a mountain sacred to Buddhism and Hinduism and is infused with thoughts of death and solitude. Hugues has written a work of art. I hope more people will read and appreciate it.