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HENRY MURGER & BOHEMIA

Jim Burns

 

Where and when did Bohemianism begin? And who were the first Bohemians? It's obvious that there were always people living the kinds of lives we might describe as Bohemian. Malcolm Cowley once pointed out that the 'trade of letters,' and the impecunious life that went with it, were features of Alexandria and Rome. Francois Villon and others like him in Fifteenth Century France mixed poetry and loose living, and in the Eighteenth century the inhabitants of London's notorious Grub Street (an actual place though also descriptive of a way of life) churned out literature of all kinds and often experienced starvation, prison, and madness. But none of these writers were designated as Bohemians, nor did they think of themselves as such. They were, rather, an intellectual proletariat following a certain path out of necessity and with few, If any, illusions about its charm. It was only with the rise of industrial capitalism that Bohemia became recognised as a state of mind, and sometimes even a place, which represented a revolt against society.

The Latin Quarter of Paris had taken its name from the language used by students when a university was established there in the Middle Ages. It attracted artists and writers as well as students and, by the early 1800s, the term Bohemians was in use to describe the army of misfits the area contained. The French thought that gypsies came from the Central European province of Bohemia and the assumption was that the types found in the Latin Quarter were like the travelling people In their behaviour, dress, and general refusal to conform. The Bohemians for their part were happy to be called that and often went out of their way to flaunt their non-conformity. The first appearances in print of Bohemian as descriptive of a way of life practised by writers, students, and others in Paris seem to have been in the 1830s. 

Paris in the 1830s and 1840s was a rapidly expanding city, attracting large numbers of young men and women from the provinces. The men were often the sons of shopkeepers, small businessmen, and craftsmen, were usually better educated than their parents, and were drawn to Paris by the prospects of work and a richer life-style. The women were perhaps less-educated - the system was, on the whole, weighted against them -and drifted to the city to escape the drudgery of country life or the dullness of a small-town marriage. For both men and women the provinces simply didn't offer enough advantages of any kind, especially if they had artistic aspirations. 

The drawback was that France was only just beginning to change from an agrarian to an industrialised society. Had the people he described lived in England they might well have found employment in offices, mills, factories, etc., but the French economy hadn't developed sufficiently to provide these opportunities. The women instead got jobs, usually badly paid, as seamstresses, servants, or shop assistants, and the men, If they were so inclined, wrote, studied, taught, or obtained minor administrative posts. But the supply of would-be writers, teachers, and clerks was far in excess of the demand for them so poverty became a way of life. And from this way of life that Henry Murger got the idea for a series of stories that established the idea of Bohemia as we now know it. 

Murger was born in 1822, the son of a seamstress and an ex-soldier who, when he settled In Paris, turned his hand to tailoring and acting as the caretaker of a block of apartments. Some of the tenants were involved in artistic activities of one kind or another, so the young Murger acquired a taste for books, the theatre, and paintings, much to his father's disgust. He had friends who were as enthusiastic as he was and began to think of himself as a poet. Like the others, he was heavily influenced by the tradition of Romantic literature, with its heady notions of revolutions in both society and art, though It was later said that Murger rarely joined in the impassioned political arguments that took place. There were suggestions that he always had a taste for comfort and respectability, despite committing himself to a life that wasn't likely to guarantee either. 

Murger managed to obtain a part-time job as secretary to a Russian nobleman living in Paris and with the pittance this provided he moved into an attic room, shared with a friend, and began to mix almost exclusively with struggling writers, artists, and musicians. Most lived on a day-to-day basis, the writers desperately trying to piece poems, stories, or articles with the numerous magazines then in existence. It needs to be noted that these publications were frequently trade journals or daily and weekly newspapers and not the avant-garde literary magazines that later became a characteristic of Bohemia. The Bohemia of the 1840s was closer to Grub Street than it was to, say, the Bohemia of 1920s Paris. Balzac's Lost Illusions gives a vivid picture of the kind of environment that Murger would have known. 

Because of their abject poverty Murger and his companions formed a kind of mutual aid society which they called "The Water Drinkers" because they couldn't afford to drink anything else. It was a grim life with occasional interludes of light-relief, as when the would-be composer Schanne (in later life the owner of a toy factory) threw a party which ended with Murger having to be taken home in a wheelbarrow. Schanne wrote a "Symphony on the Influence of Blue upon the Arts," but was thought of as an amateur Bohemian by Murger who distrusted anyone with a well-to-do father to fall back on in times of trouble. 

The high jinks were few and far between, however, and hunger, a real hunger that could kill, was always waiting in the wings. It wasn't unusual for one or other of the Bohemians to be in hospital. Murger said of some of his friends, "they spent half the day in not eating and the other half in dying from the cold." The sale of a poem or a painting, a bit of private teaching, and even some slightly dubious dealings, might enable them to buy a few meals, but it was mostly a hard life and only youthful optimism enabled them to survive. But the poverty left its scars and when Murger was only in his early twenties he was balding, suffered from a skin disease that discoloured his face, and had generally poor health. 

Among the better-known of Murger's friends and associates were the poet Baudelaire, the novelist Champfleury, the painter Courbet, and Nadar, later a famous photographer. They often met at the Cafe Momus, owned by a man who, aware of their lack of money, took the view that "what we lose in trade is repaid in fame" and so let them talk and share a single cup of coffee. Champfleury, who had a down-to-earth view of Bohemia, persuaded Murger to become editor of a millinery trade journal but it soon closed down due to it never publishing much about hats. He moved on to other similar publications but the money he earned was never enough to do more than just keep his head above water. Most of his friends were in a similar position and deaths from hunger and disease were not unknown. There is a story of a pauper's funeral for one of their number at which the Bohemians couldn't even provide a tip for the gravediggers. They apologised for having no money and one of the gravediggers weighed them up and said, "Never mind, it will do next time." 

Champfleury had a mistress, a girl Murger called Musette when he later immortalised her in print, and she introduced another girl, Lucile Louvet, into the circle of the Bohemians. Paris in the 1840s was hard for the poor generally but it was especially harsh on women, many of them being unable to survive unless they attached themselves to a man who might provide at least a little food and shelter. Lucile lived with Murger for a time but when their affair ended she drifted around the city and eventually died in hospital. She was, at the age of twenty-four, a victim of  tuberculosis another great scourge of the undernourished Bohemians. 

Murger still thought of himself as a poet but only a handful of his poems had appeared in print. Champfleury kept pressing him to write prose and purely as a means of making money Murger produced a story based on the adventures of the Bohemians. It was published and liked, at least in circles which know that world, but it was 8 year before he came up with another In a similar vein. The editor of Le Corsaire-Satan, the publication In which the stories had appeared, asked for more and Murger began writing them on a fairly regular basis. They ware realistic in their way but with a romantic touch that brought humour and high-spirits into the Bohemian setting. It could not be said that Murger avoided the grimmer aspects of life in Paris, however, and the truth of what it was like to know real poverty was always there. One of the stories opens with a reference to a young sculptor who showed great promise, but as Murger says, "misery did not give him time to carry out his promise. He died of exhaustion in the month of March, 1844, in bed number fourteen, the Saint-Victoire ward, at the Saint-Louis hospital." And he adds that he came from a poor family so was buried somewhere." And when Murger wrote about the affair with Lucile Louvet (who became Mimi" in the stories) he may have made her more colourful than she was, and heightened the level of his feelings for her, but he accurately described her sad and lonely death. 

By 1848 Murger had a minor reputation as a result of the stories but it was mostly confined to the Bohemian world He was approached by a playwright, Theodore Barriere with a proposal to turn the stories into a play - and it's an indication of his still precarious financial situation that, when Barriere called on him, Murger couldn't get out of bed. A friend had borrowed his only pair of trousers, he explained. 

When the play opened in November, 1849, it was an immediate success with both critics and audiences. And it paved the way for a flood of articles about Bohemia - what it was, where it was, who was part of it - and effectively began the myth of Bohemia that led to people going in search of it. In 1851 the stories appeared in book form under the title, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, and Murger's name and fame spread. From around France and other countries on the Continent, and even from Britain and America, young people flocked to Paris to live in garrets, dabble at writing and painting, and have love affairs like Rodolphe (the name Murger gave himself) and Mimi. And It they couldn't get to Paris they tried to set up mini-Bohemias in their home towns, somewhat in contravention of Murgerís dictum that "Bohemia neither exists nor can exist anywhere but in Paris." 

As for Murger, within a week of the play succeeding he had moved to a warm and comfortable apartment on the Right Bank and he lived there or in a small village outside Paris. Some of his old friends couldn't forgive him for abandoning his former haunts but he felt no regrets about it and often spoke out against the tendency to romanticise what, to him had been a necessity. But he also continued to be scornful of amateur Bohemians who would, when the going got too tough, "scamper back in hot haste to the paternal roast, marry their little cousin, set up as notaries in some town of thirty thousand inhabitants, and of an evening by the fireside have the satisfaction of telling what they went through in their artist days with all the pride of a travellers tale of his tiger hunt." There may well have been same sound common sense in Murger's decision to move from the Left Bank as it was recorded that, within weeks of the opening of the play, "curiosity-seekers were now looking for the Bohemians, for the originals of the picturesque characters depicted at the Theatre des Varietes." And the "Cafe Momus had become unbearable," with sightseers packing its rooms and making conversation almost impossible. 

Murger wrote a number of novels between 1851 and 1859 and was in demand for contributions to magazines and newspapers, but some of his old Bohemian habits never left him. He disliked the actual physical effort of writing and frequently missed deadlines and failed to fulfil assignments. He was often in debt, his health was never good, and in 1861 he became seriously ill. He died on January 28th of that year and his last words, spoken just before he passed away, were, "No music, no noise, no Bohemia !" 

His influence didn't end with his death. Scenes de la Vie de Boheme continued to be read throughout the latter part of the 19th Century and well into the 20th, and numerous followers came along to cash in on the taste for Bohemia. George du Maurier's Trilby is an example of a novel which makes Bohemia into something mysterious and alluring, and writers like Henry Harland and Robert W. Chambers turned out stories emphasising its romantic aspects. The privations of the Water Drinkers even made it into the Opera works when Puccini wrote La Boheme. it was largely through the work of people like du Maurier, Harland, Chambers, and Puccini, all of them producing their celebrations of Bohemia in the 1890s, that Bohemianism began to mean simply a way of life associated with writers and artists.

In Murger's day, Bohemia had been a necessary home for an intellectual proletariat, mostly with working-class or lower middleclass backgrounds. It's significant that the well-to-do Goncourt Brothers resented Murger because, they said, he was responsible for "socialism dominating literature." By "socialism" they meant the interests, attitudes, and tastes of the intellectual proletariat. It's also always worth noting that, in the 1840s, the term Bohemian didn't only apply to writers and artists. It could be used In that way, but Murger was careful to make a distinction between his Bohemians and what he called "the followers of a thousand and one vague and mysterious callings in which the principal occupation is to have none whatever," though I suspect that his innate yearning for respectability made him overlook the disreputable behaviour of some of his companions. Social conditions in 19th century Paris often pushed the intellectual proletariat into close contact with the lumpen proletariat that both Murger and Marx were wary of. There have been suggestions that both groups were represented on the barricades during the insurrection of June, 1848. 

Murger, however, had little interest in politics and his friends usually thought of him as a conservative by nature and intellectual inclination. In one of the few references to politics in Scenes de la Vie de Boheme he describes how Rodolphe, desperate for money, meets a "phalansterian" (a follower of the theories of the utopian socialist Fourier) and has to listen to a lecture before he can scrounge a few coins from the man. It isn't just the fact that he's almost had to earn the money by listening that annoys Rodolphe but also that what he's listened to has been political theorising of a specious sort. Murger's own dislike of such talk is made obvious by the anecdote. 

Was Murger right to propose that Bohemia could only be found in Paris? Probably not and perhaps the old Greenwich Village anarchist, Hippolyte Havel, was nearer the mark when he was asked to define its boundaries and replied, "It has none, It's a state of mind." There are suggestions by current commentators that Bohemian values, or at least some of them, have now entered the mainstream, and if this is true then it may make the need for Bohemian enclaves and the literature about them less relevant. Certainly the well-known places - Greenwich Village, Montparnasse, Soho have long since declined as centres of creativity, even if they are known for entertainment. But my own feelings are that a wider acceptance of more-relaxed attitudes about sex and drugs and even some work patterns do not constitute an understanding of Bohemianism. There is little evidence to show that the mass of people display radically different attitudes towards questions of property, money, and status. It's probably also still true that anyone willing to accept some material disadvantages and devote their time and energy to writing, editing a little magazine, and soon, will be looked on as odd if those occupations are not likely to result in success of both a financial and popular kind. Surface appearances in the wider society should not be taken as representing basic shifts in tastes and interests. Philip French once remarked astutely that when he went to work for the BBC in the 1950s it was full of bohemians disguised as bourgeoisie whereas now it's full of bourgeoisie disguised as bohemians. Universities, arts associations, and even some business premises, are replete with people who may look unconventional but have routine ideas, not to mention bourgeois ambitions. 

Henry Murger may well have turned to the respectable life as soon as he could but his book remains an entertaining and informative account of Bohemian experiences at a certain time and in a certain place. And it could be that it still has the capacity to persuade some individuals that getting along in Bohemia, for all its financial drawbacks and. whether it means a place or a state of mind, might be preferable to fitting in with the conformities of the wider society. The places may come and go, and it's often necessary to quit them when they start to attract attention, but a state of mind can last for a lifetime. 

NOTES

The most recent biography of Murger in English seems to be Robert Baldick's The First Bohemian:The Life of Henry Murger, published by Hamish Hamilton, London, 1961. Scenes de la Vie de Boheme was published in an English translation by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City. USA, 1988. This is a reprint of the edition published by Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1930 and Jarrolds, London, 1931, and includes illustrations from 19th Century French sources, among them the work of Gavarni. 

Jerrold Seigel's Bohemian Paris:Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1850-1930-' Penguin Books, New Work,1987, is essential reading and includes information about Murger, along with some challenging ideas about the nature of Bohemia. 

Joanna Richardson's The Bohemians: La Vie de Boheme In Paris 1830-1914, Macmillan, London, 1969, and Malcolm Easton's Artists and Writers In Paris: The Bohemian Idea 1803-1867 Edward Arnold London, 1964, are also well documented and useful Linda Kelly's The Young Romantics:Paris 1827-1837 Bodley Head, London, 1975, Is interesting as a guide to the activities of the French Romantic movement.