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The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter
Henri Murger
Translated by Ellen Marriage & John Selwyn
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
$26.50, 392 pages, ISBN 0-8122-1884-I

Marialana Wittman
California State University, Long Beach

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.

Murger’s 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!

The first chapter introduces us to the four protagonists and relates the story of their union as “The Brotherhood.” Alexandre Schaunard, a musician and a painter, evicted from his apartment due to his inability to pay rent, sets out in the hope that Chance will pass him on the street and provide him with the seventy-five francs he needs to settle up with his landlord, M. Bernard, in order to collect his belongings. Before he can make it to the street, Schaunard is stopped by the concierge and his exit is barred until his account is cleared. Schaunard, however, negotiates his escape with the lie that he is only going out to get change to pay the landlord and a cart to remove his belongings. Just as Schaunard leaves, the concierge’s fear that the new tenant might arrive before Schaunard’s furniture is removed comes true. As the concierge and landlord try to stall the new renter, a letter arrives from the War Office. M. Bernard’s hope that it is a nomination as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor is dashed when he reads it is only from Schaunard. The letter states that he will not be able to pay the seventy-five francs until Luck shines upon him in the better days that are to come for him and France. In the meantime, Schaunard entrusts M. Bernard with his furniture “and to the protection of the enactment which forbids you to dispose of them within a twelvemonth, should you feel tempted to try that method of recovering the sums for which you stand credited on the ledger page of my scrupulous integrity” [13]. The predicament that M. Bernard is now in with the new lodger ready to move in is solved by the fact that Marcel, a painter, has no furniture and is glad to take the place as it is.

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” [95].

Despite 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.


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