(March 27 1822
, January 28
) was a French
novelist and poet, born at Paris
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".
Henri Murger was born in 1822 and was the son of a man who exercised the joint calling of tailor and doorkeeper in the Rue Saint Georges, Paris. After receiving a scanty and fragmentary education he entered a lawyer's office, but like many another "youth foredoomed his father's soul to cross,” thought more of scribbling stanzas than of engrossing deeds. His verses, however, gained him the patronage of M. de Jouy, the Academician. Thanks to this gentleman, he obtained the position of secretary to Count Tolstoi
, a Russian nobleman, who paid him much less than his coachman or cook, but who, on the other hand, does not seem to have exacted much in return for the fifty francs a month disbursed.
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.
Development as a Writer
About the year 1844 Murger joined the staff of the Corsaire
, in which, in 1848, he published The Bohemians. The work caused a sensation in literary circles, but the limited circulation of the periodical prevented this from extending to the general public. It may be worthy of note that the author received fifteen francs for each installment of the work as it appeared in the Corsaire
, and that he sold the complete volume for five hundred francs to a publisher who got rid of seventy thousand copies. Murger found life still hard till M. Barrière
, a young dramatic author, proposed to him that they should turn the book into a play. At this time Murger was living in an attic in the Latin Quarter, and on the afternoon when the playwright presented himself there he found the novelist in bed. Presuming that he was ill Barrière was about to beat a retreat, but Murger courteously begged of him to enter and avail himself of the only chair which the room contained. When had broached the subject of his visit Murger readily fell in with his suggestion, and the pair soon became so friendly that the dramatist suggested an adjournment to a neighboring cafe. "I am sorry to say that I can't come,” replied Murger, with some little embarrassment. "Why not? Surely you are not ill,” urged Barrière. "No,” responded the novelist, “but the fact is,” I haven't a pair of trousers to put on.” Then, as Barrière looked at him in amazement, he proceeded to relate that an impecunious Bohemian friend, having to solicit a favor of some functionary, had borrowed his only pair of trousers that morning, and that he, Murger, was compelled to remain in bed until his friend turned up again. After a hearty laugh Barrière offered to go and buy his new acquaintance another pair of pantaloons, but Murger declined the proposal, and they parted,” soon to meet again, however, to set to work upon the contemplated play.
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 possessed a curious and attentive mind, and, as a writer, was careful and exact. Writing was indeed a difficult task to him. He felt his lack of education. He used to work, by preference, at night, stimulating his mind by copious draughts of coffee and surrounding himself with a number of lighted candles. He would put ten sheets of paper before him, write the same idea down in ten different fashions, and then choose the one that pleased him best, or if he could not make a choice would toss up a coin and settle it that way. He would strive to polish a phrase as a lapidary polishes a stone, for the poet of Bohemia was the most conscientious of artists. It was this excessive care that led to his published works being fewer than might have been anticipated, since he devoted so much time to each. The works written in his second manner differ widely from those of his early days, and he is reported to have said of The Bohemians
, “That devil of a book will hinder me from ever crossing the Pont des Arts" and becoming an Academician, which was one of his dreams. The coffee drinking had a very injurious effect on Murger. It led to constantly recurring attacks of purpura
, which as early as 1840 made him the inmate of a hospital and was also, no doubt, the cause of that terrible restlessness which would never suffer him to remain in the same place for more than an hour or so, and caused him to be spoken of as the Wandering Christian.
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.
The Character of Rodolphe
Rodolphe is Murger himself. As Theodore de Banville
has observed, though with some exaggeration, “That which was done by Rodolphe during the month that he was Mademoiselle Mimi's neighbor has had nothing analogous to it perhaps since literature has existed. He passed his days in composing poems and sketching out the plots of pieces, in covering Mimi's hands with kisses like a glove; but the daily bread was the feuilleton of The Corsaire
, and as Rodolphe had neither money nor books to invent anything but his own life, each evening he wrote as a feuilleton for The Corsaire
the life of that day, each day he lived, the feuilleton of the next. It was thus that the morrow of I know not what quarrel, after the style of the lovers of Horace, Mimi leaning on her lover's arm was bowed to in the Luxembourg by the poet of the Feuilles d'automne
, she returned home quite proud to the Rue des Canettes
, and that very evening Rodolphe wrote on this theme one of the most pleasing chapters."
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.
The Character of Schaunard
Schaunard is Alexandre Schanne
, “the sole survivor of the quatuor Murger” when he published his memoirs at the beginning of last year (1887), a few months only before his death. He was the son of a toy-maker in the Rue aux Ours, and was at first destined for an artistic career, becoming a pupil of Leon Coignet. Champfleury, however, paints him as “quitting the easel for the piano and asking himself at all hours of the day, “Am I painter or a musician?” and although he once figured in the Salon and contributed illustrations to periodicals, he was more successful in his musical compositions. The celebrated symphony “On the Influence of Blue in Art” was really composed and frequently executed by him, though never published. He ascribes it to his having painted a good deal on the summit of the towers of Notre Dame, a consequence of sky-gazing at that height being that he began to see blue and to paint blue. He became acquainted with Murger in 1841, and for some time they lived together in the Rue de la Harpe, their friendship continuing to the close of the author's life. Schanne had amongst other nicknames that of Schannard-sauvage, and in the opening chapter of The Bohemians as originally published in the Corsaire Murger wrote of him as Schannard, which by a printer's error left uncorrected became Schaunard. On his father's death Schanne abandoned his artistic career and took charge of the toy-making business, which he carried on to the last.
The Character of Marcel
Marcel is composed of two artists who ended very differently, Lazare and Tabar. Lazare was a tall, powerful, fair-haired, and rather red-faced young fellow. The best off of all the set, he lived with his brother in the Rue d'Enfer, in a house inherited from their father. There was no other Bohemian so well to do, and perhaps it was sheer love of contrast that led him to take such interest in the seamy side of Parisian life, to hunt out odd industries like Champfleury
, and haunt strange dens like Privat d'Anglemont. Tabar was a young painter of some talent and extraordinary strength. “One evening,” says Schanne, “when seven or eight of us had started on an excursion into the country, he thrashed and routed a gang of roughs who attacked us near the Barrière du Maine
. This Hercules of a painter hit so hard and so fast that there was no need of us even helping him. It was a sight to see him at work, note that he was in a dress-coat, his favorite attire.” The incident of the Passage of the Red Sea is connected with Tabar. He, indeed, began a large picture of this subject, but the cost of models, costumes, etc., proved beyond his means. He resolved, therefore, to modify the composition of the picture, which worked out successfully figured in the Salon of 1842 under the title of Niobe and her children slain by the arrows of Apollo and Diana. It was a heap of fourteen corpses, Tabar having experimented on the devotion of his friends, who in modest undress posed in turn, and had the satisfaction of viewing their bodies in the Louvre wept over with oily tears by Mobe. Tabar continued his career not without success, and obtained a medal in the Salon of 1882 for his work. He died lately.
The Character of Colline
Colline was made up of Jean Wallon
, the former, a native of Laon
, who was introduced into the circle by his fellow townsmen, Champfleury
, supplying the outward model. He was a strongly built young fellow of middle height, wearing his hair long. Tadar wrote, “I can still see him as when we were young, with his unkempt chestnut hair under his broad brimmed hat, his long brown great coat of coarse cloth, his books under his arm.” Schanne adds, “His thin nose, grey-blue eyes, and plump hands, completed one of those envelopes in which mystic souls love to dwell. An hereditary rentier, he lived with his mother at the Ile Saint Louis, whither his stomach took him twice a day. Despite these advantages he was not lively, or else his liveliness was the reflection of that of others. His ecclesiastically-cut coat was stuffed with books at the four cardinal points, each of the pockets bore the name of one of our public libraries. It was from the shelf of Greek authors that he prompted me in my part during the.famous evening when I imitated the ulliletic sports of the 4th Olympiad. After dining he came to Momus's to philosophize with Trapadoux, another library on two legs.” Tsodar goes on to state that it must have been from this contact with Trapadoux that Wallon derived his own mania for mystery. Every evening he would discreetly escape from the Cafe Momus and vanish no one knew where. On several occasions his companions strove to follow him, but he always managed to throw them off the scent. They, therefore, imagined a little romance, and created out of their own minds a lady who, though nobody knew why, received the title of “The lady with the green umbrella.” The truth was, that Wallon was about the quietest of the set. "He represented amongst us,” says Nadar, "where naturally everything had its representative, a dead science, theology...he bore all his life upon his strong shoulders the weightiest and also the vainest of chimeras, the reconciliation of the primitive Church with modern society, that dream of some tender souls.” He became a voluminous writer on ecclesiastical and theological topics, his works including a history of the Church of France
, and after being for some time manager of the Imprimerie Nationale
he died in 1882. Trapadoux
was a tall, spare, strongly built fellow, with a thick heard and shaggy hair, who wore a tall hat and a long green coat, whence he derived his nickname of the "Green Giant.” No one ever knew whether he had private property or some remunerative employment. He was only seen on the quays book-hunting on Sundays and holidays. At dusk he would go to the Café Momus where he dined, and where the landlord in exchange for certain literary counsels used to give him a special wine. He too wrote a theological work, Jean de Dieu
, and also some dramatic criticisms, notably one on Madame Bistori.
The Character of Barbemuche
Barbemuche was a fancy sketch of Charles Barbara
, who was by no means flattered by it, and who to some extent revenged himself on Murger in the Assassinat du Pont-Rouge
. He was the son of a musical instrument maker at Orléans, and though a good fellow at the bottom, was not very taking at the outset. His dress and manner smacked of a situation he had held as master at the college of Nantua, he willingly enveloped himself in mystery, and the group to which Murger introduced him when tutor in the family of fr:Drouyn de Lhuys
never visited his residence. After a fairly successful literary career, he suddenly lost his wife and child during the cholera of 1865. Taken ill himself and removed to a hospital, he committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window.
Many of the minor characters, too, are traceable. The Jew Medicis, alias Salomon, really kept a shop in the Rue du Musée
, one of the little streets formerly encumbering the Place du Carrousel. M. Benoit was the well-known landlord of the Hotel Merciol
in the Rue des Canettes
. Even Baptists had his prototype.
"Mimi” was, for Murger, a kind of generic appellation. His first love was undoubtedly one of his cousins, named Angèle, the daughter of a stove maker, more or less Piedmontese. But this love was more than platonic, it was ethereal, for his young relative was never touched by it, neither bouquets nor madrigals in prose and verse could move her. She married, and he, full of her remembrance, paints her under the name of Helene in the Buveurs d'eau. She had, however, a friend named Marie, who became Madame Duchampy
in the Scènes de la vie de Jeunesse
, and partly lends her features to the Mimi of the present volume. She was more compassionate towards the poet, and her very effective compassion lasted a considerable time, although she was married. Schanne mentions meeting them together several times at the masked balls at the Opera. She was a frail, delicate looking woman with a pale complexion and blue eyes. As to the girl who was his chief model for the Mimi of The Bohemians, and whose real name was Lucile, Murger's own description of her may be supplemented by Theodore de Banville
's. “The real Mimi was one of those sickly Parisian flowers that are born and grow up in the shade without a ray of sunlight, and who afterwards go mad with joy, when at length they see the sun one day at Marlotte or at Bougival. Very pale, with dead white skin, somewhat faded looking chestnut hair and bluish-grey eyes, one saw that she had suffered with resignation, that poverty with a poet seemed to her paradise.” Both of these descriptions are over eulogistic, for Murger and De Banville saw Mimi with artists' eyes and through spectacles washed with the waters of youth. Mimi was indeed a sickly plant grown up in the shade, a Parisienne of the Faubourgs, and if her face at times wore an angelic expression, she was nonetheless devoid of all moral sense. She was a shameless little hussy. When Murger’s friends would urge on her the decency of at least keeping up appearances and giving apparently valid excuses for a night spent away from the lodging-house in the Rue des Canettes
where she was living with him, she would only laugh. She seemed to experience pleasure in keeping a man of superior intellect chained to her feet and mad with jealousy. Her end was a lamentable one. She died of phthisis at the hospital, for M. Benoit would not allow a death in his house, and Murger not having been informed in time could not claim her body, which according to rule went to the dissecting-room. This incident is connected with that of the muff of Francine. The latter personage never existed, and the muff was really a dress promised to Mimi. Schanne adds that there was a third Mimi who did not play a very prominent part in Murger's life. She was a blonde named Juliette, well behaved and respectable looking. She willingly offered a cup of tea to her lover's friends who made her cough with their tobacco smoke, but whose long discussions on art she listened to with politeness, perhaps even with interest. As by some fatality Mimi III also died of consumption. Some love tokens Murger always carried with him, and they were displayed on the wall of all his abodes, from the half naked garret in the Latin Quarter to his first comfortable dwelling in the Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. They consisted of a velvet mask, a woman's gloves, and a faded bouquet. They had been Marie's.
The Musette of Murger and the Mariette of Champfleury are modeled on one and the same person, though both writers have deviated somewhat from their original. Murger, for instance, ascribes to her vocal qualifications she did not possess. This was a trait he borrowed from Lise, the wife of Pierre Dupont
, who at that time used to charm their circle with the inexhaustible store of country ditties she sang in a rather sharp but true voice. Mariette, for such was Musette's name, was remarkably well made, and was a model highly esteemed by both painters and sculptors. Her features were not so regular, and her face acquired a mocking aspect from the fact that when she smiled the left side of her mouth was drawn up, whilst the right retained its normal position, a fact that led her friends to remark that she “squinted with her lips.” She was fully conscious of her plastic value, and was ready at the slightest provocation to reveal it. “One evening, at Lazare's,” says Schanne, “a dozen of us were met, amongst whom was the austere Jean Journet, who had constituted himself in the name of the 'phalanatere,’ the lay apostle of virtue. The idea struck our host to offer us the spectacle of the Temptation of St. Anthony, for to suggest it to him he had on his mantelshelf amongst other trifles a herd of six little pigs in gingerbread. After he had whispered to Mariette, she suddenly threw everything that covered her to the ground, and went and sat down on Jean Journet's knees…The apostle remained for a moment confused and undecided. But he suddenly rose, which caused the temptress to slip to the floor. Then he rushed out like a madman, and the staircase echoed with his maledictions.” Mariette ended by leaving the Latin Quarter
for the Rue Breda
, where she lived an irregular life in more regular fashion, and pursued the career she had chosen in this world more seriously. Murger may say that her life offered alternations of broughams and omnibuses, but it would seem that she only rode in the latter from economical motives. She was careful without being miserly, and amassed a large sum. With this she resolved to proceed to Algiers where her sister was living. Accordingly, about 1863, she embarked at Marseilles
on board the Atlas
. This boat was never more heard of from the moment of departure, and poor Musette and her treasure lie at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
As to Phemie Teinturière Schanne has surely the most right to speak. “It was at the period when one Alexandre S. wore a nankeen suit of the most revolting yellow, and played on the hunting horn without being a hunter. One evening he had accompanied into a free-and-easy in the Rue Saint Martin a jeweler, the owner of a tenor voice, who wanted to have his accompaniment played by the author of the "Symphony on the Influence of Blue in Art." Whilst he was at the piano the said Alexandre S. noted out of the corner of his eye the nervous agitation produced by his music in the young dilettanti of the locality. Soon approaching the instrument in order to be nearer the instrumentalist, she ventured to ask for a few notes to accompany a ballad she knew. This featherless linnet was named Louisette, and was never called Phémie save in Merger's book. Why now the surname of 'Teinturière’ under which she is known in story? I will tell you. Louisette worked all day at an artificial flower maker's in the Hue Saint Denis. She was a ‘dipper,' that is to say, that having to dye the materials used in imitating foliage her hands were continually of the brightest green. She was a plump little woman, with blue eyes, despite her dark hair. Her nose was saucy, her mouth laughing, and behind teeth, as white as if they were false, lay hid the voice of a songstress. She was devoid of all instruction, but had the spirit of repartee of a Parisian street Arab. She was indeed so turbulent and foul-mouthed that she was often caught slandering the boys in the street in their own language, and having no regard for the dignity of her sex, would ride behind carriages like these youngsters.” She also seems, as we learn from Alfred Delorme, "to have gone to and fro from the barracks to the studio, from the Carbineers to Schaunard, and from Schaunard to the Chasseurs de Vincennes.” Hence, as Schanne remarks, "All the same when Murger speaks of Phemie Teinturière as 'the idol of Schaunard’ I think he goes a little too far."
Setting in the novel
Places as well as persons are copied from nature. The Café Momus
was a real establishment, and has been immortalized in fiction by Champfleury as well as by Murger. Schanne writes of it as follows: "The Café Momus
was located at No. 15 of the silent and gloomy Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois. The house still stands, but now shelters other industries. Murger and his friends preferred the upstairs room where smoking was allowed. There they were to some extent private and free from intrusion, the master of the establishment seeing to this. But if he overwhelmed us with attention it was on account of the ambition he himself had to write. He even showed himself more especially friendly towards Trapadoux and other literati, whose advice he would ask. At closing time this refreshment housekeeper and courtier of the Muses would stand beside the counter smiling or not at the customer, according to whether the latter was a wielder of the pen or the brush.
"The almost daily frequenters of the Café Momus
were, besides Murger and his group of intimates, Champfleury
, already known to the reading public, André Thomas
, the romance writer, Monselet
, fresh looking and plump as an abbé of the last century, Jean Journet
, the chemist of Carcassonne
, who had constituted himself the apostle of the phalanstère
, Gustave Mathieu
, the poet, Pierre Dupont
, the bucolic songster, the strange but captivating Baudelaire
, author of the Fleurs du Mal
, who already handled the graver, whilst hoping to handle the pen, Gérard de Nerval
, who related to us his travels in the East prior to writing them, the bibliophilist Asselineau
, with his eternal white cravat
, etc. We had also, though more rarely, a visit from M. Arsène Houssaye
. The editor of the Artiste did not sit down, he only came to ask how the copy he had ordered from his young protégés, Champfleury
, Murger, and Monselet
, was getting on. Nor must I forget on the list of those who have passed through the smoky temple of Momus, the painter Bonvin
, Bonvin, whose death is recorded while these sheets are passing through the press, was the son of a rural constable. After commencing life as inspector of the market at Poissy, he studied painting. His works have often fetched high prices, but he never profited by them, as they were sold by him to picture dealers for very moderate sums. He was, indeed, always a poor artist, though two of his more celebrated paintings, "Saying Grace” and "The "Woman at the Well,” are hung in the Luxembourg Museum
. Last year (1886) Bonvin was in such poverty that in order to help him several artists organized a charity sale of artistic works, which was so productive that it placed him in comparatively easy circumstances. He was 71 years old when he died., ed.] the actor Rouvière, who at that time was a pupil of Delacroix
and went in for painting, and finally Privat d'Anglemont, the arch-Bohemian.
"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."
Incidents from the Novel
Turning from persons and places to incidents we find plenty of these scarcely exaggerated by the author. As for the scene of the borrowed swallow-tail, it was founded on fact, and indeed, Schanne's account of it is almost as diverting as Murger's. The hero was really a young fellow named Espérance Blanchon, who had inherited from his father a respectable fortune gained as a pork-butcher. But let Schanne speak. “Murger was sharing my studio in the Rue de la Harpe. One morning we were trying to warm up some coffee with bits of lighted paper when there was a knock at the door. It was a young fellow, bearer of a letter of recommendation from a student friend of mine who had assured him that I was a good painter. He was, he told me, going on a long journey and did not want to start without leaving his portrait for his mother. He was between twenty-five and thirty, and was pitted with small-pox to such an extent that if a handful of peas had been thrown into his face not one would have fallen to the ground. Whilst he was taking a seat in the patient's armchair I passed behind the rich tapestry masking my bed and the entrance of the garret that served as a kitchen. I went to join Murger, who would, perhaps, have drunk all the coffee without me. We agreed that on returning to the studio I should make an eloquent patter speech to my client, and that at each pause in it Murger, hidden behind the tapestry, should play on the tambourine. Accordingly I returned to the scene of action with the words, 'Your lucky star did not deceive you, sir, when it guided your steps to this sanctuary of art.' 'Broum, broum, broum,' from Murger, who, faithful to our agreement, was strumming with wetted thumb on the parchment of his instrument, 'Pay no attention,' I resumed; ‘it is a poor friend of mine with a very bad cold who is amusing himself with reciting verses. You recognize Ponsard's style. But learn that you are in the studio of the painter-in-ordinary to Queen Pomaré, who is so much talked about just now.' 'Broum.' 'I am entrusted by her Majesty with the task of allegorically depicting seven theological virtues and not three, a number recognized as inadequate to equilibrize the seven deadly sins.' ' Broum, broum.' ' You see in what line I exercise my talents. If, therefore, you have not a pure conscience, a stainless soul, it will be useless to persist in your project of being painted by me. I would not guarantee the likeness and not even a vague family resemblance--” you would turn my oil!' Somewhat bewildered he replied,' I will do my best to--' 'Broum, broum.' 'Is your friend no better?' he added. ' No,' I replied, ' those verses from Lucrece are so chilly. But we are losing time in vain discourses; let us seek a position suitable to a 'No. 20 canvas and that I can reproduce with my finest colors. The head a little less forward, if you please, more ease about the body. Please cast one of those looks that express all the joys of youth joined to those of a heart without remorse. Look pleasant, confound it, or I won't begin.'
“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."
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.