A first version of this essay was given as a lecture in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague on August 31, 2006. The University of Pennsylvania Press is planning to publish Les Bohémiens in an English translation by Vivian Folkenflik.
Bohemianism belongs to the Belle Époque. Puccini set it to music and fixed it firmly in late-nineteenth-century Paris. But La Bohème, first performed in 1896, looked back to an earlier era, the pre-Haussmann Paris of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, first published in 1848. Murger drew on themes that echoed from the Paris of Balzac’s Illusions perdues (first part published in 1837), and Balzac’s imagination stretched back to the ancien régime, where it all began. But how did it begin? The earliest Bohemians inhabited a rich cultural landscape, which has never been explored.
In the eighteenth century, the term Bohémiens generally referred to the inhabitants of Bohemia or, by extension, to Gypsies (Romany), but it had begun to acquire a figurative meaning, which denoted drifters who lived by their wits. Most of them lived down and out in Paris, surviving as best they could by hackwork and scraps of patronage. Although they crossed paths with grisettes like Manon Lescaut, there was nothing romantic or operatic about their lives. They lived like Rameau’s nephew, not Rameau. Their world was bounded by Grub Street.
Of course, Grub Street, both as an expression and as a milieu, refers to London. The street itself, which ran through the miserable, crime-infested ward of Cripplegate, had attracted hack writers since Elizabethan times. By the eighteenth century, the hacks had moved to other addresses, but Grub Street had become an important milieu in the literary imagination, and it was celebrated in many works of literature—not merely the Grub-Street Journal but masterpieces like The Dunciad by Alexander Pope and The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.
Did something comparable exist in Paris? Certainly: Paris had an even larger population of scribblers, but they were scattered in garrets throughout the city, not in any distinct neighborhood, and they never dramatized or satirized their lot in works that captured the imagination of posterity. Yet not before Balzac and Murger did any writer bring La Bohème to life—no one, that is, except the forgotten author of a lost masterpiece.
I must admit, however, that I may be succumbing here to hyperbole. Having found the book, Les Bohémiens, a two-volume novel published in 1790, I want to believe it is a masterpiece. A sounder assessment would rank it as an extraordinary novel, written with wit and brio, but more important for its picture of literary life under the ancien régime than for its excellence as a work of art.
I also must confess to a case of biographical enthusiasm. Having pieced together …