Perspectives

The Bohemian Spirit

Henri Murger's little-known masterpiece — By Tristan Bera

On the occasion of Claus Guth’s futuristic production for the Paris Opera, we turn back to Scènes de la vie de bohème, the little-known work by Henri Murger that inspired Puccini to write one of his most beautiful operas.    


Appearing first in serial form in 1845 in Le Corsaire Satan, then performed at the Théâtre des Variétés in 1849, Scènes de la vie de bohème became a novel in 1851 at the instigation of the publisher Michel Lévy, only too pleased to prolong the commercial success of the play, and with the agreement of its author, equally delighted to sign a new contract ensuring, in the short term at least, some additional income. Like his characters - Rodolphe the poet, Schaunard the musician or Marcel the painter, Henri Murger was himself bohemian.

It was directly from incidents in his own existence that Murger drew the raw materials for his novel, thus making his opus an example of auto-fiction before the time. The motherless son of a tailor, self-taught, a poor Latin scholar though hardworking and not without talent, he worked first as a painter and a poet before frequenting the publishing houses where, in the mid-nineteenth century, business was booming (Balzac’s Illusions perdues comes to mind) and devoting his time to prose. On the advice of a journalist friend, with a view to launching his career and in a flight of literary fancy, he changed his name to Henry Mürger, anglicizing his first name and germanising his surname. In 1841, he founded the Buveurs d’eau (the Water-drinkers), an informal collective for artists with Romantic ideals, with headquarters in the Nouvelle-Athènes neighbourhood in Paris, in the Rue de la Tour-d’Auvergne, to be precise. The name of this association, which was dedicated to mutual assistance and solidarity among penniless artists in want of patronage, originated in the fact that they generally met over a carafe of water. The chapter entitled “L’Ecu de Charlemagne” in the novel is a thinly veiled transcription of those meetings – gatherings improvised in a garret by candlelight during which a succession of performances, recitals and readings were given with unavoidable economy of means. Within the cenacle of bohemian life, poverty rubbed shoulders with the most poetic spirit of invention.    

Henri Murger (1822 – 1861)
Henri Murger (1822 – 1861) © AKG images / Imagno / Pierre Petit

So what does bohemian life really refer to? Besides being an auto-fiction, the novel is also a vivid sociological portrait of a particular fringe community within the population of Paris. Indeed, “Bohemian life only exists and is only possible in Paris”. The term was not actually invented by Murger, it can be traced back to 1830. Deriving from Bohemia, an area in central Europe, and designating a Romany or Gipsy nomadic traveller, the term took on new significance in the work of Balzac who modified its spelling by adding an accent to make bohème rhyme with poème, and used it to qualify a marginal type relegated to society’s side lines for its classless, transgressional or even monstrous character. Unknown or rather, unrecognised Parisian artists, became the bohemians of the period and figures of the media society that the newspapers, magazines and other press organs were in the process of founding. In 1837, George Sand, who contributed to the creation of the romantic myth surrounding the Nouvelle-Athènes neighbourhood, stated in La Dernière Aldini, “Vive la bohème!” Why did Paris house such a concentration of bohemians? A major nineteenth-century capital, the Ville Lumière was the ultimate cultural metropolis where not only provincials but also foreigners converged to try their luck. In the midst of industrial transformation and the crystallisation of the capitalist system, Paris was to undergo an initial, and unprecedented, inflation of its cultural life in relation to the local demand. As a result, the well-known law of supply and demand condemned an entire population of artists to temporary or endless poverty. La bohème is a road with three lanes (the garret, the café and the street) that leads either to glory or to the gutter.

Murger, in the wake of such illustrious pioneers, and as a genuine insider, becomes the chronicler of the milieu, “the common historian of the bohemian saga.” Combining lyrical, epic, tragic, ironic and pathetic registers, the preface to the novel is, so to speak, the phenomenon’s founding text, as it definitively consecrates the terminology and the definition: “La bohème is an apprenticeship for artistic life; It is the preface to the Academy, the hospice or the morgue”. The heterogeneity of Murger’s phraseology, varying from romantic parody to social realism, from academic or aristocratic culture to popular culture, makes the work eminently contemporary. Although the use of a vernacular bearing the hallmark of the 1830s requires the odd footnote, the miserably precarious situations faced by the artists and the sparkling resourcefulness with which they survive them, seem to have remained resolutely timeless ever since the emergence of the media society.    

Rodolfo et Mimi, Marcello et Musetta dans la rue (acte III). Série d’illustrations pour La Bohème, Puccini, 1905
Rodolfo et Mimi, Marcello et Musetta dans la rue (acte III). Série d’illustrations pour La Bohème, Puccini, 1905 © AKG images

The success of Murger’s play is undeniable. Indeed, in 1849, the Prince-President, the future Napoleon III, even attended the first performance. In spite of everything, the novel, still not widely read, and the name of its creator, who died in penury at the age of thirty-nine, have not attained equal glory. Giacomo Puccini’s opera was performed for the first time in Paris in 1898 at the Opéra-Comique, in French, under the title La Vie de bohème. Today, the libretto, inspired by the theatrical version of Scenes and written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, has eclipsed the literary work and become the focus of all critical and literary acclaim. However, it has tended to simplify the plot of the novel which, in describing bohemian life episodically, sketched an artistic map of Paris that was absolutely new and radical. Even more than the bildungsroman or coming-of-age novels of Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, or the anthologies and destinies of the poètes maudits, Murger’s book is a vade-mecum: essential reading for any artist starting out in a metropolis because it is addressed to those “who enter the arts, with no other means of existence than art itself”. La bohème is an obligatory rite of passage.

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