He is chiefly distinguished as the author of Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, from his own experiences as a desperately poor writer living in a Parisian attic, member of a loose club of friends who called themselves "the water drinkers" (since they had so little money that wine was difficult for them to afford). In his writing he combines instinct with pathos and humour, sadness his predominant tone. The book is the basis for the operas La Bohème (Puccini) and La Bohème (Leoncavallo), and, at greater removes, the zarzuela Bohemios (Amadeu Vives), the operetta Das Veilchen vom Montmartre (Kálmán) and the Broadway musical Rent. He wrote lyrics as well as novels and stories, the chief being La Chanson de Musette, "a tear," says Gautier, "which has become a pearl of poetry".
Murger's literary career began about 1841. His first essays were mainly poetical, but under the pressure of necessity he wrote whatever he could find a market for, turning out prose, to use his own expression, at the rate of eighty francs an acre, and scattering his talent in the columns of petty literary journals so unstable financially that they never dared announce anything as “to be continued in our next,” and even in trade periodicals. Like his own Rodolphe, he edited a fashion paper, the Moniteur de la Mode, and the Castor, an organ of the hat trade. His struggles and privations had been terrible, but his position gradually improved, especially under the influence of Champfleury, with whom he resided for some time and who urged him to devote himself to prose fiction.
The piece was produced at the Variétés towards the end of 1849, and met with phenomenal success. From that moment Murger's career was assured. He at once took a position amongst contemporary writers and left the Latin Quarter, though still continuing to draw models for the characters of several of his subsequent works from the associates of his youth. He continued to work steadily for several years, the best part of the last of these being mainly spent at Marlotte in the Forest of Fontainebleau, where he had a little cottage. Seized with a sudden illness during a visit to Paris in January, 1861, he was removed to Dubois Hospital, where he expired a few days later. He was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre in the Montmartre Quarter of Paris.
It is questionable after all whether Murger was at heart a Bohemian. He has, indeed, been reproached that after having swam vigorously away from the Raft of the Medusa, on which so many of his comrades were starving, he opened a fusillade of irony upon them, a task that he might well have left to others. His dress was decent, his manners those of a man of the world, and his conversation, if witty, not over laden with artistic and literary slang. He felt, indeed, that his early life and work told against him in certain quarters, and that there were people who cannot understand that one can cross a muddy street without getting splashed, or that there are pavements in the Latin Quarter. This recalls an anecdote. One day he had only two sous in his pocket and had not breakfasted. But he had to call on an editor, and in order to look smart decided upon having his boots cleaned. The boot-black set to work and was just finishing the first boot when it began to rain. “It would be useless extravagance to go on,” said Murger, handing him one sou and walking off.
Murger's wit is best shown in his works, though one or two of his sayings deserve quotation. His furniture was once seized. "Already,” said he to the bailiff, “see what it is not to have a clock, one never knows the hour one's bills fall due.” When his first success was achieved, he did his best to clear off his old debts, but this only made his creditors keener. “I have watered my creditors and they are sprouting afresh,” was his comment. During his sojourn at Marlotte he became a most enthusiastic sportsman, though it was a standing jest that whilst he sallied out day after day he never hit anything. Indeed, he wrote to a friend when inviting him down, “There are pheasants. I will introduce you to an old cock that I have missed five times. Indeed, he knows me, and now does not trouble himself to take flight at my passage.” Winter he described as “a beastly time, when the sun himself has a red nose.” His early death was in a great measure due to a neglect of the regimen prescribed by the doctors, for as he said: “When I am ill I treat my illnesses with indifference and cure them by contempt.” To the last, however, he retained his cheerfulness, and when in the hospital observed to one of his friends, “I am so weak that even a fly might safely challenge me."
The Bohemians, wild and eccentric as the work may appear, is essentially true to nature. It is a series of sketches of real life. The experiences related are actual ones, and the characters existed and can be readily identified. Many writers have put their heart into their work, but Murger put his life. It was when living with Champfleury in the Rue de Vaugirard that, under the influence of the author of The Bourgeois de Molinchard, he began to abandon the Muses and devote himself to prose; it was during this period that the first germs of the book that was to render him famous were deposited in his mind. The scenes which he has embellished in describing he was present at, the actors who take part in them and whose physiognomy his pen has somewhat poetized he knew and spoke of.
Rodolphe himself surely speaks in the following letter written to Leon Noel after he had received three hundred and fifty francs on account of an epithalamium on the marriage of a Russian princess in 184l. ”If I do not send you this message by a courier in my own livery it is solely because you live a little too near. Thirty leagues, it is not worth the trouble, otherwise my means would permit it, for at the present moment I swim in a river of gold, an ocean of fifty centime pieces. It is a regular rain of monarchs and monarchesses of all nations and all kinds of profiles, I wash my hands in Pactolus and in almond paste. I have multicolored gloves, ditto coats, ditto trousers. You see poets are humbugs when they assert that life is evil and gloomy. They do not know life, these howlers of miserere nobis, they do not dream of the existence of a crowd of pleasures which I now enjoy, they have never understood all the enjoyment one feels to hear a cabman ask you for an extra tip, they ignore the amount of perfume there is in a Havana cigar, of luster in the best composites, and of harmony in the creak of a tight-fitting patent leather boot. Well, all this I feel, I see, I hear. You would no longer recognize your stout Fleming. He has vanished; he has crumbled to dust with his old frock coat and his boots with three rows of port-holes like a ship of war. He died an owl to resuscitate a phoenix. What a fine Latin verse that would make I feel sure. Ah! It is so, my dear fellow. At this hour the high and powerful Lord Viscount de la Tour d'Auvergne [Murger was then living in the Rue de la Tour d’Auvergne, ed.] is dazzling. Passers-by draw aside on his passage, beggars ask him for alms and he gives them a franc, women do not ask him for anything and nevertheless he wafts them a smile and what a smile! Such, oh! Great man is my portion, and I conclude from it that life is a fine thing. Now you will no doubt ask whence comes the cloud charged with five franc pieces that has broken over my head. This hurricane comes from the North, it is a magnificent aurora borealis. My employer has advanced me three hundred and fifty francs at once. Judge of my jubilation when this stunning news reached me, I quivered from your late cravat down to my late shoes. I ran at once to cash my draft on Rothschild, from there to the library, from there to the tailor, from there to the restaurant, from there to the theatre, from there to the cafe, from there home, where I plunged into new sheets and an atmosphere of perfumed smoke, and where I dreamed that I was the Emperor of Morocco and was marrying the Bank of France.” Six weeks later Murger was in the hospital with a second attack of purpura.
"After a warm day spent over the old books on the quays Jean Wallon had hung up his drab cloth bookcase, that is to say, his greatcoat, on a peg in the cafe, and was sound asleep on a seat, stretched out in such a way that one of his legs did not touch the ground. I set to work to pull off his heavy and ill-fitting boot, and did so without awakening him. One of us took it, carried it away to the inner room and began to empty a water-bottle into it. At that moment Wallon began to grunt as though his nap was coming to an end. The joker losing his head a little put the boot hastily down on the window-sill, so that it overbalanced and fell crashing through a sky-light on to a billiard table on the ground floor. Imagine the effect of this hydraulic boot and the shower of broken glass in the middle of the game. The staircase soon echoed with the hurried steps of the victims calling for vengeance. Momus, accompanied by all his waiters, brought up the rear. Wallon suddenly awakened and with one bootless foot, was bewildered in presence of this irritated throng. The landlord held the boot and shook it with a threatening air as Samson must have brandished the jawbone of the ass. We were fairly numerous, and hastened to form a rampart about our friend, asking to have the matter explained and offering, if necessary to pay the damage.
"'But,' exclaimed the landlord, 'tell us at least why--' “Without giving him time to finish his sentence, Tabar had the coolness to invent the story that Wallon was a somnambulist, that he had fancied he was putting his boot where he was in the habit of placing it every evening, and that it was very lucky that he had not gone further or he would have thrown himself out of the window thinking he was jumping into bed.
"'Did I do that?' asked Wallon, still unbooted and heavy with sleep.
"' Yes,' we replied in chorus. Tabar then added that somnambulism never failed to punish hyperphysical philosophers for their hyperphysical philosophy. Then addressing Wallon he even persuaded him that he had been talking to his boot, calling it 'old fellow,' and making it partake of refreshments after excusing himself for having made it so heated on the asphalt of the quays. Plalf satisfied with our explanation, or seeing that they could only get paradoxical excuses from us, the invaders resignedly retraced their steps downstairs."
At that time not only in the Latin Quarter but throughout Paris, people hardly went to a cafe except to drink coffee. Beer was only known as a strange and accidental beverage. As to liquors of a supposedly appetizing character, they were but rarely seen, and were looked upon as potions only good for constitutions debilitated by a sojourn in Africa. Punch and mulled wine were drunk in the latter part of the evening. The pipe now replaced by the cigarette was in high esteem; the students even made it an accessory to their costume, and when it was not in their mouths, they wore it in their buttonhole.
The Café Momus was not the only haunt favored by the Bohemians. Schanne says: “We went preferentially to the Rotonde, at the western corner of the Rue Hautefeuille and the Rue de l’École de Médecine. When I say 'we,' I mean Murger and all those who willingly grouped themselves about him, posing unconsciously for the characters of the book he was to write. It is even as well that it should be known that we never formed, like the Water-drinkers, a club with rules and a constitution. We saw one another frequently, and that was all. Every evening the same scene took place at this Café de la Rotonde, a real scene of Bohemian life. The first comer, at the waiter's enquiry 'What will you take, sir?' never failed to reply, 'Nothing just at present, I am waiting for a friend.' The friend arrived, to be assailed by the brutal question, 'Have you any money?' He would make a despairing gesture in the negative, and then added, loud enough to be heard by the dame du comp-toir, 'By Jove, no, only fancy, I left my purse on my console-table, with gilt feet, in the purest Louis XV style. Ah! What a thing it is to be forgetful.' He would sit down, and the waiter would wipe the table to appear as if he had something to do. A third would come who was sometimes able to reply 'Yes, I have ten sous.' 'Good,' we would reply, 'order a cup of coffee, a glass and a water-bottle; pay and give two sous to the waiter to secure his silence.' This would be done. Others would come and take their place beside us, repeating to the waiter the same chorus, 'We are with this gentleman.' Frequently we would be eight or nine at the same table and only one a customer. Whilst smoking and reading the papers we would, however, pass the glass and bottle. When the water began to run short, as on a ship in distress, one of us would have the impudence to call out 'Waiter, some water.' The master of the establishment, who understood our situation, had no doubt given orders for us to be left alone, and made his fortune without our help. He was a good fellow and an intelligent one, having subscribed to all the scientific periodicals of Europe, which brought him the custom of foreign students. Murger, Léon Nöel, Karol, Pifremann, Ganidol, Berger, Bazin and Privat d'Anglemont were usually present at these meagre festivities."
“Murger now issued from his hiding-place and said, in his natural voice: 'The gentleman surely does not think of being painted in a tail-coat.' ' Is it not the fashion ?' asked Esperance Blanchon. I divined the need of a dress-coat felt by Murger to go and take tea that evening at an influential critic's. We pleaded in favor of a frock-coat on account of the fuller folds of its draping. Murger offered his, which at once passed on to the gentleman's back. This done, in the studio usually so noisy, nothing was heard but the scratching of the charcoal on the canvas. At half-past five the sun failed us. But it was important not to let Esperance Blanchon go, as he would have taken away his coat, so we kept him to dinner. He at first declined our gracious offer, which did not suit us, but he ended by accepting it on the express condition that he should find the money, and that in order to put us quite at our ease, the expense should be strictly confined to the sum represented by my day's work. It was a payment already due and not an advance that he made. Murger spread himself round the town and returned with a caravan of pastry cooks, cooks and butlers bearing eatables and drinkables. He had also stuffed his pockets with several pounds of candles. It was, indeed, his mania and his luxury to give himself what he called a ' feast of light.' The forty francs of the Russian prince at the time when he received them passed away in a great measure in private illuminations. He, who only worked at night, had nonetheless a passion for light and light most intense, believing that to see clearly with the eyes added to the lucidity of the mind. We dined cheerfully, despite the scant supply of crockery, and dessert was farther enlivened by the expected arrival of Mimi and Phemie Teinturiere. Murger was still in a tail-coat as his frock continued to drape our young pork-butcher in its folds. He profited by this to slip away and go to the tea-party of the no less well furnished than influential critic. I therefore remained with the task of amusing the guests, and above all, of gaining time, for from one moment to another Esperance might have a wish to go off, and how, in that case, was one to restore him his coat? Ten struck, and then eleven, and no Murger. My piano was of great assistance, and the ladies also devoted themselves; Mimi waltzed and Phemie sang. Still Murger did not return. Midnight had struck and the bottles were empty.
“Happily my 'Symphony on the influence of Blue in Art' was ready in my head and at the tips of my fingers, an excellent piece under the circumstances because it lasts long. I attacked the fragment of it entitled 'The Elephant's March' with copious verbal explanations, to which the young pork-butcher listened with amazement, the elephant being an incomprehensible animal to him, unknown as it is in his trade. ' I begin,' said I,' by warning you that we are in C minor, a key with three flats. I do not spare flats to give you pleasure. How many avaricious composers would you not meet in life who would only put in one or two at most. But see what a picture. The elephants slowly advance, one, all white, at the head of them bearing under a magnificent dais the corpse of the Indian maiden. The sun flames on the horizon; it is hot, very hot. Here, to convey this idea, I pass into the major key as you would have been the first to advise me. However, the moon rises, and I return to the minor, it was self-evident. Do you now mark the hoarse voice of the tigers in the jungle ? do you also hear the Indian poet singing in verses of thirty-two feet the virtues of the young deceased? It would be the oboe in a European orchestra that would be entrusted with this discourse. Here an uncle of the young girl blows his nose loudly; unfortunately the exact note, which is found in the scale of the bassoon, does not exist on the piano. The elephants still advance, pan, pan, pan. But is not someone knocking at the door ?' I went and opened it. Murger at last. But the situation was not so difficult as might have been believed, for Esperance Blanchon was in such a little hurry to leave us that he would not go away at all, and even asked leave to sleep on our sofa. “The next day I had to resume my brushes to again earn commercially a little festival that was in preparation. The same thing happened the following days. Only my model gave me a great deal of work and trouble, for under the influence of his libations the tint of his skin kept continually altering, passing from a kind of green inclining to violet to a sort of yellow tinged with grey. Hence the portrait scarcely advanced. ' There are really months when one is not in working humor,' said I to Murger, who in his book has altered months to years. Finally Esperance, who had never laughed so much in his life, would not leave us. One saw that he was seeking to distract his thoughts. We asked ourselves during his ' brief absence whether a criminal was not concealed beneath this lamb-like envelope. Some words that escaped him reassured us; he had lost one dear to him, a victim, through nursing him, of the terrible malady that had so disfigured him.
"All this was very well, but a notice to quit in due form came from my landlord. My neighbor on the floor below, a lithographer, complained of no longer being able to get to sleep, and the doorkeeper had backed up his protest. We had, therefore, two enemies to be revenged on. Esperance Blanchon undertook to deal with the lithographer. He had the patience to copy off the bills, stuck up about the district, the names of everyone advertising for lost property. Then he wrote to them in terms something like this: ' Sir (or Madam) you wish to recover your dog (or your parrot, your bracelet, etc.), You will find it at M. X's, lithographer, 50, Rue de la Harpe. Insist on having it back, for you will have to do with a man who, without being positively dishonest, will begin by saying he does not know what you mean. Yours, etc.' The following morning there was started at the lithographer's a din of ringings at the bell and strong language which I cannot reproduce by any known method of typography. We might have complained in turn of a noise that hindered us from exercising our liberal professions, but we disdained such a mean revenge. As to the door-keeper, I brought back from a country excursion a dozen hideous toads and let them loose in the court-yard at one in the morning. Then we lowered a sponge, saturated with alcohol and set on fire, at the end of a wire from our window on the fifth floor, and gave the door-keeper a sight of such a will-o'-the-wisp as is scarcely seen save at the opera in Robert the Devil. We heard a cry of terror as the lodge was lit up. In the morning Murger went down and asked Madam Cerberus whether she had any letters for him ? Without replying she told him how the house was haunted by ghosts who made punch at night and were not ashamed to get drunk with toads, adding that it was unbearable, and that he and his friends were lucky in having notice to leave. During the five weeks we remained there the lodge remained lit up all night.
“But Espérance Blanchon had arrived at the last hour of pleasure that was to strike for him in this world. His portrait being finished was varnished, framed, packed and forwarded to his mother. He then left us, and hearing nothing more of him, after some time we made enquiries and learnt that he had written to a member of his family that he was to be looked for at the bottom of the pond at Plessis Piquet. Murger and I at once went to Plessis Piquet and saw Father Cens, the innkeeper. He had seen the poor fellow come along in a deluge of rain holding up an umbrella as though to protect Murger's frock-coat, which he still wore. Father Cens thought, and rightly, that he recognized one of his customers, and great was his surprise when he saw him, instead of turning to the left, resolutely walk into the pond with his umbrella still up. It was impossible to do anything in that deserted locality to hinder the suicide. Some days later a man-servant of his mother's came and had the body placed in a coffin to be taken away to Normandy. Nothing more was ever known. But with all this Murger remained in a tail-coat, and was thus condemned to show himself in this ceremonious get-up under the most commonplace circumstances of life, such as buying four sous' worth of tobacco or taking a cassis and water at Trousseville's drinking-shop."
The incident of the piano has also some foundation. Schanne was living with the painter, Tony de Bergue, in the Rue du Petit Lion Sauveur, when one day the commissary of police sent for him. An opposite neighbor, who was a Greek professor, had lodged a complaint about his piano-playing. The commissary read the regulations, which may be just but are very severe, and told him that he was obliged to consider him as carrying on a “noisy calling.” He therefore duly warned him that his “noise” must not begin before daylight in winter, and six in the morning in summer, and must cease at ten at night. This was all very well, but the musician felt that he could not regale his enemy with such pieces as the Derniere Pensée de Weber. He resolved to worry him by practicing nothing but scales. Tenacious in his rancor, he kept this up for months. Sometimes the exasperated professor would throw up his window and vociferate insults in Greek but without effect, and when Schanne decided to put an end to the infliction he found for his own part that his fingers had acquired an agility previously lacking to them.
Nor is the desperate poverty in any way exaggerated. The sufferings of Murger and his fellows, especially of the Water-drinkers, are hardly to be imagined. In a work jointly written by three members of that society, Pierre Tournachon, better known as Nadar, Adrien Lelioux, and Leon Noel, some harrowing details are given. One poor fellow lived a week on some raw potatoes sent him up from the country by his mother, having no fire to cook them by, though his greatest suffering was having to eat them without salt. Another spent three days and three nights without food, whilst to do so for a couple of days was common. A third passed the bitter winter of 1838 without a shirt, and with only a blue cotton blouse over his waistcoat. One night, clad like this, without having tasted food all day, and without a shelter for his head, he walked up and down between the Madeleine and the Bastille till he dropped exhausted in the snow and fell asleep. Karol really lodged, as Rodolphe is said to have done, in a tree in the Avenue de Saint Cloud, whilst Nadar himself had to spend several days dressed as a Turk, being unable to redeem his own clothes, which he had pawned to obtain this costume for a fancy-ball.
The programme of the celebrated fete has been several times more than rivalled by such passages as:
“At midnight experiments in dissection on a voluntary subject. The future Dr. Nicol will demonstrate the utility of the liver.
“The matches will be found in the third gunpowder barrel to the left on the bottom shelf of the cupboard.
“Performers are requested to wipe their feet before playing on the piano. “During the evening M. Alexandre Schanne will give an unconscious imitation of the actor Charles Perey in the part of Schaunard."
Editor’s Note: This biographical essay first appeared in an edition of Murger’s seminal Scènes de la Vie de Bohème published by the Société des Beaux-Arts as part of their Comédie d’Amour series of French masterworks in translation. This text was prepared from OCR scans with some additional copy editing. The text's copyright has expired, as it was produced in 1888 in America.
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