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Finding a Lost Prince of Bohemia

Morande triumphed in the end, however, because, with the help of the French ambassador, he designed a trap to lure Pelleport to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where Pelleport hoped to speculate on a clandestine publishing scheme. As soon as he set foot in Boulogne, Pelleport was arrested and whisked off to the Bastille. On July 12, 1784, a day after he was locked up, the police also imprisoned his close friend Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, the future leader of the Girondists during the French Revolution. Brissot had joined the expatriates in London, where he attempted to found a philosophic club, or Licée, but the police suspected him of collaborating with Pelleport.

Brissot remained in the Bastille for four months, Pelleport for four years, an unusually long term. He was released on October 3, 1788, only because new ministers had come into power with new concerns—above all, the preparation of the Estates General. While Brissot went on to become one of the leaders of the French Revolution, Pelleport disappeared into obscurity. He has remained there ever since and so has his novel. No scholar has devoted even a minor article to Les Bohémiens—with one exception. In the Bulletin du bibliophile of 1851, Paul Lacroix, an authority on eighteenth-century French literature, wrote a brief notice about Les Bohémiens, which he described as follows:

Here is an admirable and an abominable book. Thanks to its wit and its verve, to the prodigious talent one is astonished to find deployed in it, it deserves a place next to the novels of Voltaire and Diderot. But it also deserves a place next to the infamous works of the marquis de Sade…. Once this remarkable work has attracted the attention of connoisseurs, it will certainly be sought after avidly.

But by then nearly every copy had vanished. I have been able to locate only six of them, in six different countries. Les Bohémiens is a major work of literature that has been completely lost to literary history.

Pelleport wrote it in the Bastille. The archives of the Bastille prove that he was provided with a pen, ink, and paper; and they include some information about his behavior in prison. He requested books, including works by Voltaire and Raynal, an essay on Prussian military tactics, and a treatise on the harpsichord. The police confiscated some of the letters that he wrote from his cell. One, addressed to a friend named Lambert, indicates that he had made an attempt to escape: “I threw the rope out each time that you came, but apparently it did not reach all the way to the ground….” Another shows that he had contemplated suicide: “I have not yet decided… whether I will put a quick end to my life.” And a third, which included some poetry, compares prisoners in the Bastille to “unfortunate Indians and miserable African slaves…. It is better to dance to the noise of your chains than to chew in vain on the ties that bind you.”

Most of the forty-two cells in the Bastille were empty during those four years, but Pelleport had some interesting neighbors, including two writers. One, Jean-Claude Fini, also incarcerated for libeling in London, knew Pelleport well and described him as a “swindler,” a “monster,” and

a disciple of Diagoras [the atheistic philosopher from the fifth century BC], who, when you ask him about the primary cause that rules the universe, replies with an ironic smile and makes the sign of a zero, which he calls his profession of faith.

The other writer was also a marquis, whose time in the Bastille coincided almost exactly with Pelleport’s, and who also was scribbling away in his cell: the marquis de Sade.

Two marquis from the ancient feudal nobility writing libertine novels at the same time in the same prison: it puts Pelleport’s case in a certain perspective. Although they occupied separate cells, prisoners in the Bastille had contact with one another—in the prison yard, where they often took walks, or in the chapel, where they sometimes left notes for one another. Some of them played together at cards, chess, and even billiards in 1788. I have no proof that Sade and Pelleport ever met, but I think it very likely. I find a Sadean strain in Les Bohémiens—but with a difference: Pelleport’s novel is far better written than Les 120 Journées de Sodome.

Les Bohémiens is an erotic adventure story, a bildungsroman, a picaresque tale, a libertine treatise, an anticlerical tract, a collection of philosophical essays, and an autobiography, all at once. Because it is also a roman à clef, one needs to know something about Pelleport’s life and circumstances to appreciate it. A police report, which dates from some time before his arrest in 1784, provides information about his origins:

He is the son of a gentleman [in the household of Monsieur, the king’s brother]. He was expelled from two regiments in which he served, Beauce and Isle-de-France in India, and was imprisoned four or five times at the request of his family for dishonorable atrocities. He spent two years wandering through Switzerland, where he got married and got to know Brissot de Warville. He was a student at the École militaire, not the best one it ever turned out.

Some additional material culled from other sources fills out the picture. According to a summary of Pelleport’s dossier in the archives of the Bastille, he was born in Stenay, a small town near Verdun. When he moved to Switzerland in the late 1770s, he married a chambermaid to the wife of Pierre-Alexandre DuPeyrou, Rousseau’s protector in Neuchâtel. They settled in the Jura mountain town of Le Locle, where she bore him at least two children and he found employment as a tutor in the household of a local manufacturer. By 1783, Pelleport had abandoned his family in order to seek his fortune in London. That led to libeling and the four years in the Bastille.

When at last he was freed, Pelleport joined his relatives in Stenay, then returned to Paris just in time to witness his former captors being lynched by the crowd on July 14. He tried to save de Losme, the major of the Bastille who had treated him kindly, but the crowd turned on him and he barely escaped with his life. That exposure to street violence may have deterred Pelleport from throwing in his lot with the revolutionaries. He disappeared from view after July 14, and when he produced something for the press during the next few months, it was a bizarre, anonymous novel that had no relevance to the great events of 1789.7

No direct relevance. But Les Bohémiens has an antihero, none other than Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who appears in the first chapter as its main protagonist: “Bissot” (the “sot” suggesting stupidity), a harebrained, flea-bitten philosopher. After being mocked throughout the text for his dogmatic absurdities, he reappears at the end as a bone-headed old-clothes dealer in London named “Bissoto de Guerreville” (a pun on Brissot’s full name, Brissot de Warville). Having drafted the text during his long stay in the Bastille, Pelleport may have published it in 1790 in order to undercut Brissot’s growing power as editor of Le Patriote français and champion of the left.

But there is no reason to suspect that Pelleport had any sympathies with the right. The novel had no overtly political message, and it condemned many of the injustices in pre-1789 France. Pelleport probably published it for the same reasons that move other authors—in order to see it in print and to make some money. But why did he harbor so much hostility toward Brissot? While being interrogated in the Bastille, Brissot tried to clear his name and persuade the police to release him, by informing them of Pelleport’s activities as a libeler. Pelleport’s sense that he had been betrayed probably explains the circumstances and even some of the passion behind Les Bohémiens.

Pelleport’s Bohemians do not yet have an “ism” attached to them, but they are not simply gypsies or vagabonds, as in the earlier usage of the word. Pelleport plays on that association, because he describes them as a troupe of drifters who wander across northern France, living off the land—for the most part by stealing chickens from peasants. Along the way they pick up Bissot, who fits right in, because the Bohemians are marginal men of letters, the very same Grub Street characters who had collaborated with Pelleport and Brissot among the French expatriates in London.

Instead of appearing in a relatively favorable light, as in The Devil in the Holy Water, they now are pictured as a pack of rogues. They deliver endless philosophic harangues, one more absurd than the other, bawl and brawl like schoolchildren, and pause only to gobble up whatever they can poach from the barnyards along their route. Pelleport disguises their names and even changes the disguises, so the characters reappear under different pseudonyms as the scene shifts and the narrator leads the reader through a succession of extravagant episodes.

The narrator also interrupts the action by stepping out of the story and addressing the reader directly, sometimes with comments on the action, sometimes with digressions, sometimes even with a dialogue in which reader and narrator match wits, disagree, quarrel, and make up. The digressions account for more than half the text. They are essays on all sorts of subjects, whatever suits the narrator’s fancy—travel, military tactics, poverty, women, and especially the hard lot of authors. The principal author is the narrator himself, an anonymous voice in the first-person singular. His last digression turns into a full-fledged autobiography, which gives him an opportunity to insert himself into the action under a disguise of his own—he is a wandering poet just released from the Bastille—and to bring the book to an end, though hardly to closure, by joining the Bohemians for a meal in his favorite tavern in Stenay, the town where he was born.

Full of lively prose, parody, dialogue, double entendre, humor, irreligion, social commentary, outrageous incidents, and obscene acts (but no vulgar language), Les Bohémiens is a tour de force. In style and tone it evokes Don Quixote, which Pelleport cites as a main source of inspiration. But it also bears comparison with Jacques le fataliste (which Pelleport could not have read because it was not published until 1796), Candide, Gil Blas, Le Compère Matthieu, and Tristram Shandy. When Pelleport suspends his satire of contemporary philosophers and reveals his own allegiance, he pays tribute to a thinker whose ideas might seem to be incompatible with the libertine tone of the book: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Thou who dared to desire equality reestablished on earth, virtuous citizen of despicable Geneva, thou who dared unveil to men the secret of their tyrants, receive the incense that I shall burn on your altar, and from the vault of heaven, guide my steps and my sentiments.

A paraphrase of Rousseau’s declamation against property in the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité follows this confession of faith, but then it is followed by more ribaldry and social satire. The narrator’s Rousseauism turns out to be strangely Rabelaisian, miles apart from the gushy enthusiasm of Bissot. Bissot, however, like all the other philosophers, proclaims elevated principles and lives by stealing livestock from peasants. The narrator contrasts this hypocrisy unfavorably with the anti-philosophy of the donkey who carries the baggage of the troupe: riénisme (“nothingism”), as he calls it, which consists of rejecting all systems of thought while satisfying one’s appetite.8 The pursuit of pleasure, unimpeded by social constraints, stands out amid all the pontificating as the only value worth pursuing.

In that respect, despite their pretentiousness and hypocrisy, the Bohemians represent something positive. Their president describes them as “a troupe of persons who lack neither appetite nor gaiety” when he introduces them to Bissot. They devote themselves to

free and delightful liberty…. This it is that has brought us together from every corner of Europe. We are its priests, and its cult can be reduced to the principle of not impeding others.9

The Bohemians share an attitude rather than a philosophy. They take a stance toward the world that already looks like bohemianism.

Sex is a vital part of it—literally, because Pelleport describes sexual desire as a vitalistic force that courses through nature, something comparable to electricity, friction, fire, and phlogiston. He releases this force in the most Sadean episode of the novel, a nighttime encounter between the Bohemians and a band of monks, who enter the narrative as if from some libidinal underworld. Ostensibly on a pilgrimage, they wander through the countryside just as the Bohemians do, plundering from peasants. At first the Bohemians take them to be satanic creatures celebrating a witches’ sabbath but soon realize that they are fellow spirits intent on debauchery. The two troupes join forces and settle down for a feast around a fire. They guzzle and gorge themselves into a stupor, wake up, and start to copulate—in twos and threes, then as heaps of bodies piled up and linked together in nearly all the combinations celebrated in the libertine literature of the eighteenth century, Sade included.

The polymorphous perversion degenerates into a brawl. Fists fly, noses splatter, blood flows everywhere along with muck and fluids discharged from numerous orifices. The donkey leaps into the fray, braying and flailing about deliriously. It is a Dionysian donnybrook, worthy of the best punch-ups described by Rabelais and Cervantes.10 As dawn appears, the rioters stop for breakfast. They enjoy another hearty meal together, then go their separate ways. A good time was had by all.

Les Bohémiens is also, among other things, a book about literature, literature understood broadly as a system of money, power, and prestige. Speaking through his narrator, Pelleport views the system from the perspective of Grub Street. To his regret, he explains, he has no powerful connections and therefore cannot find a patron. So he must try to live from his pen. In one of his many asides to the reader, he asks:

Have you ever been printed alive [tout vif]), my dear reader? Under pressure from your baker and your tavern-keeper, have you pounded the pavement, in shoes without soles, to the shops where rag-and-bone men, merchants who deal in writing, flog the thoughts of the wretches who are reduced by misfortune to making a living by dreaming?

Then he turns on the reader and accuses him (not her, judging from the context) of living in luxury, thanks to dubious maneuvers within some business or bureaucracy, while the poor author starves. Very well, then, reader, he says: let me tell you what it is like to live as an author who lacks independent resources. You walk into the office of an important publisher, Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, clutching your portfolio. Would Monsieur be interested in some verse about a recently deceased great man or perhaps a novel in two volumes (that is, Les Bohémiens)? It won’t sell, Panckoucke replies, and waves you to the door: he can’t find time to talk with the likes of you; he has to catch up on his correspondence.

So you drag your manuscripts to a publisher of the second rank, Nicholas- Augustin Delalain. His daughter greets you politely in the bookshop; but when she learns you are an author, not a customer, she turns you over to her mother, in order to spare papa from wasting his time. Maman won’t even look at the poems: she has already rejected three dozen batches of verse this morning. And when you offer her your “philosophical novel” (again, Les Bohémiens), she falls into a fury and runs you out of the office.11

The only remaining hope is a dealer at the very bottom of the trade, Edme-Marie-Pierre Desauges, a specialist in hackworks and forbidden literature who has already spent two terms in the Bastille. He finds your work excellent, just the thing that he can sell through his contacts in Holland. You return to your garret, overjoyed. Your landlord, baker, and wine supplier agree to extend more credit. You scribble away, adding last touches to your manuscript, until late at night.

When at last you have collapsed in bed, there is a knock at the door. In comes a police inspector accompanied by the dread undercover agent Receveur, the antihero of The Devil in the Holy Water; out you go straight to the Bastille. While you rot in prison, Desauges, who has had your manuscripts copied after denouncing you to the police, prints your book and sells it through the underground. Your hunger verges on starvation; your health gives out; and when at last you are released, you have no choice but to turn yourself in to the poorhouse (Hôtel-Dieu) and die.12 The picture is overdrawn, like one of Hogarth’s caricatures that Pelleport probably saw in London, but every detail, including the names of the booksellers, corresponds to the realities of Grub Street, Paris.

In a similar digression, the narrator picks a quarrel with the reader. I know you are tired of digressions, he says. You want to get back to the narrative. You want action, but I won’t give it to you, because you should learn something about what went into the very book you are holding in your hands. You should acquire some knowledge of the literary marketplace. So here is another digression. Books have plenty of readers but not buyers. The ratio is roughly ten to one. One person may be willing to part with some change for a book, but ten or more borrow it or steal it and pass it around in ever-widening circles: from masters to lackeys, mistresses to chambermaids, parents to children, neighbors to neighbors, and booksellers to subscribers in reading clubs (cabinets littéraires)—all at the expense of the author. The situation is hopeless—unless the king were to deliver an edict that would transform the basic conditions of literature. For example, he could issue a decree with a long preamble about the importance of authors and a series of articles, beginning with the following two:

  1. No book may be loaned, except within families and then only as far in the collateral line as first cousins, subject to a penalty of 500 livres to be paid to the author.

  2. No servants may pass around their masters’ books, subject to a penalty of a year’s wages or, failing that, physical punishment: they will be branded on the left ear with the letters PDL for prêteur de livres [loaner of books] and whipped in front of all the bookshops in the town.

Pending such a measure, Pelleport proposes a temporary solution: price fixing. This same book, the one that you are now reading, must be sold only in a fine binding and at a high price, which is to be maintained for the benefit of its author. The publisher is therefore forbidden to sell it in sheets, boards, or paper coverings. The digression ends with a remark delivered directly at the reader, who is deemed to demand that the author get on with the story:

Your impatience is getting out of hand, but before giving in to you, it was only just that I looked after my own interests. Every man for himself. No, I won’t be a martyr to some ridiculous selflessness and neglect my own business. I do go on a bit about myself, I admit, but what author forgets himself while writing?

In fact, of course, the author has inserted himself in the narrative throughout the book. The digressions reinforce that tendency by showing how the author’s autobiography bears on the condition of literature in general—and how the reader is complicit in perpetuating that condition.

Did readers actually respond in the way called for by the text? Probably not, because the text had so few readers—next to none, judging by the number of copies that have survived and the lack of reviews and references in contemporary sources. The publication of Les Bohémiens was a non-event situated at the heart of the most eventful period of French history. Even if a few copies made it into the hands of readers, they can hardly have provoked much of a reaction. The French in 1790 were creating a brave new world and doing so in deadly earnest. They had no reason to be interested in a satirical account of life in a republic of letters that no longer existed. Pelleport’s novel was out of date before its publication. Pelleport himself was out of tune with his times. While his contemporaries threw themselves passionately into the Revolution, he stood apart and looked upon the world from a perspective that combined disenchantment with derision—or “nothingism.” Yet he deployed a prodigious talent when he evoked the life of Grub Street under the ancien régime. Seen from the twenty-first century, his novel looks extraordinarily modern, and his Bohemians appear as the first full embodiment of bohemianism.

  1. 7

    La Bastille dévoilée, Vol. 2, pp. 66–75. This account was obviously touched up for dramatic effect in some places, but there is no reason to doubt that it provides accurate information from Pelleport’s dossier in the Bastille, which has disappeared since then. It agrees with a similar description of Pelleport’s early life by Brissot, which includes some additional details about Pelleport’s married life in Le Locle (Brissot said he had two children; La Bastille dévoilée said he had four) and his activities in London: Brissot, Mémoires, Vol. 1, pp. 303, 346, 318–321, 395–396, and Vol. 2, p. 8. Pelleport seems to have been born in Stenay in 1756 and to have died in Paris around 1810. The only information I can find about his last years comes from a report by the Préfecture de Police dated November 10, 1802, Archives Nationales, F7.3831 and published in Paris sous le Consulat: Recueil de documents pour l’histoire de l’esprit public à Paris, edited by Alphonse Aulard (Paris, 1903–1909), Vol. 3, p. 386:

    Le préfet de police a fait arrêter le nommé Aimé-Gédéon Lafite de Pelleport [sic], prévenu d’avoir tenu des propos contre le gouvernement. Pelleport est âgé de quarante-six ans; il a servi dans les îles; il a été mis à la Bastille, comme prévenu d’avoir fait des libelles contre la Reine. Il a été ensuite employé comme capitaine à la suite de la cavalerie sans être attaché à aucun corps. Il paraît qu’il a servi comme espion sous l’ancien régime et depuis la Révolution. Il convient avoir émigré, se targue de sa noblesse et ne nie point les propos qui lui sont imputés. Il n’est porteur d’aucuns papiers en règle. Ses moyens d’existence ne paraissent pas même assurés.

    There is a brief notice on Pelleport in Biographie universelle (Michaud) ancienne et moderne (Paris, 1843–1865), Vol. 32, p. 398, and in Charles Monselet, Les Originaux du siècle dernier. Les oubliés et les dédaignés (Paris, 1864), p. 6. Pelleport probably served the French government as a spy in 1793 and then joined the royalist army in the Rhineland. See L’Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux (Jan. 20, 1904), Vol. 49, column 7, and Vol. 50, columns 634–637.

  2. 8

    Les Bohémiens, Vol. 1, p. 59. “Riénisme” suggests the “zéro” mentioned above that Hypolite Chamoran claimed was Pelleport’s “profession de foi.”

  3. 9

    Les Bohémiens, Vol. 1, pp. 45–46.

  4. 10

    Pelleport invokes Don Quixote at the end of the description of the brawl: Les Bohémiens, Vol. 1, p. 214.

  5. 11

    This scene, recounted in Vol. 1, p. 113, takes place in the bookshop of the publisher of the Almanach des muses, who at that time was Nicolas-Augustin Delalain. But the text identifies him as “P…”; so I may have failed to pick up the allusion intended by Pelleport.

  6. 12

    Les Bohémiens, Vol. 1, pp. 111–118. This long passage, brimming with concrete details, demonstrates a thorough familiarity with life among the hack writers of Paris, but it also conforms to a genre, the dangers of life as a littérateur, which was a favorite theme of well-known writers such as Voltaire and Linguet.

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