There are certain periods in history that always seem to be more romantic than others. Nineteenth-century Paris is one and it has inspired many stories of life and love—the opera La Bohème (1896) being one of the most famous. Puccini’s opera was based on Henri Murger’s The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter; however, the novel depicts the Bohemian lifestyle in slightly different hues. Although Murger’s work is not as romantic as Puccini’s, it does reveal a great deal about art and economics as the bourgeois class increasingly asserted its power. The novel is actually a collection of glimpses into the lives of four young artists, who struggle through life’s adventures. Art and love are side notes to the constant concern for money and the escapades they must go through to maintain their “status” as Bohemians.
novel starts with a preface that seeks to clarify the meaning of
“Bohemian.” He creates a history for the Bohemians that
dates back to the beginning of time and has an illustrious genealogy
that includes the Greeks, “melodious vagabonds” of the
Middle Ages, the famous artists of Renaissance Italy, and Jean Jacques
Rousseau (xviii). He puts forth that only men who pursue Art with
no other means of support other than that earned by their craft
reside in Bohemia. Bohemia is also given a location by Murger; it
can exist only in Paris!
Meanwhile, Schaunard searches the streets of Paris for someone who can loan him money, and he ends up at La Mère Cadet to dine. An odd exchange between a singer and Schaunard causes a mysterious man to address Schaunard from behind a stack of books. A conversation ensues between the two men over several bottles of wine. Gustave Colline, a philosopher who makes his living by teaching, and Schaunard become great friends as the hours progress and the alcoholic consumption continues. They soon change venues and upon entering another establishment, Colline recognizes someone he has seen in the library several times. Rodolphe, a poet, joins the two in drink and in sharing “confidences.” As the night grows late, the three acquaintances grow even fonder of each other. However, their enjoyment is in danger of ending when they are asked to leave the café. Colline and Rodolphe live on opposite sides of Paris and thus, Schaunard, forgetting he no longer has a residence, suggests they return to his for the night. When they return to Schaunard’s former apartment, he is shocked to hear his piano being played and find a key in the door. Marcel soon opens the door to all the voices outside and the confusion continues until they all sit down to eat and drink while Marcel narrates the events of the morning. Within an hour of more conversation, the four all fall asleep.
This unrealistic, but comedic, beginning to the “Brotherhood” is followed by one story after the next in which some issue over finances is resolved by trickery, wit, or the kind hand of Providence. Murger’s Bohemians are like the aristocrats of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, who avoid misfortune simply because of the superiority of their very being. True financial responsibility never seems to burden the Bohemians as Luck always steps in to ensure that these artists do not have to go without too much. Whether it is money for a party that the four had promised for years but had yet to throw, or Rodolphe’s smooth talking to evade paying his debts on April 15 by confusing the landlord, the reader never gets the sense that these artists are really struggling for their craft.
While romance blooms throughout the novel, it is never the centerpiece of Murger’s storyline. When Rodolphe seeks out his friends to escape the noise of the lovers in the room next to his, he finds that every place he goes he is confronted by yet another couple. Every friend’s doorstep at which he arrives is yet another refusal to let him in as a lady was visiting. He wanders to the Luxembourg Gardens and he imagines the gods descending their pedestals to pay homage to the goddesses. He surrenders to Cupid and has a short affair with a woman named Louise. However, the story is about Rodolphe’s journey and not the romance. In fact, women play a minor role in Murger’s novel. They are the entertainment for the four male protagonists—whose superiority is elevated even more in contrast to the women who make considerably less than the men, are concerned with only trifling matters, and who “[murder] grammar in a way that [recalls] the Massacre of St. Bartholomew” .
the fact that by the close of the book the reader is yet to be enlightened
on the artistic side of Bohemianism—but does know the price
of a pair of woman’s gloves at the end of the nineteenth century,
Murger’s The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter is an
enjoyable read for pleasure or research. This English translation
opens the classic work up to a greater audience to step back in
time and roam the streets of Paris with the people who started the
“Bohemian” concept. Murger’s words paint vivid
pictures of a time in Parisian history that will always be slightly
elusive and very alluring. At the very least the next time you see
Puccini’s La Bohème you can impress your friends
with your knowledge of the true Rodolphe and Mimi.