The Birth of Bohemia in Paris

Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis
A production in Beijing of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, 1986

In Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), a bookseller rescues from the Seine an uncivilized free spirit named Boudu, who proceeds to call down chaos upon the bookseller’s tidy existence. Boudu, large, hairy, and inarticulate, is a clochard—a word, derived from cloche (bell), signifying a bum or hobo. There are various theories about its etymology: that it alludes to the bell announcing the end of marketplace hours, when scavengers were free to collect unsold produce; or to when beggars rang bells to accompany their pleas; or to when the post of bell-ringer at churches was given to the neediest member of the congregation. The writer Jean-Paul Clébert supposed that the cloche is the sky, and all who sleep under it are its children.

A North African immigrant who became a clochard explained:

It’s easy to become a clochard in Paris. One day you put on a jacket and you say, that’s my shirt, and then you put on another jacket and this time you say, that’s my jacket, and then you slip on a third—my overcoat. After that you go sit on the quais and you meet other guys like you, also clochards, and with them you smoke some butts and you drink some liters. At night you sleep under the bridges or on top of the sand heaps. When winter comes the clochards die like flies, because it’s cold and they don’t have on enough jackets, but that’s how it goes. In spring others will come and the cycle will start all over again.

The clochard drinks and sleeps, and scrounges or begs or steals or sells junk at the flea market or sometimes takes on labor at Les Halles or on the docks. There were old and young clochards, mostly men, some women, quite a few couples. Some were lifers, at it since they were kids. Others had had previous lives, real or imagined. This one had been a professor of philosophy, that one was retired from the Bibliothèque Nationale, another had spent forty years in the Bat’ d’Af—the Bataillons d’Afrique, the disciplinary corps—and had the tattoos to prove it.

The occasional clochard could become a character, appreciated by a wider audience. One of these was André-Joseph Salis, known as Bibi-la-Purée (purée signifies, basically, “trouble”), an occasional porter, shoeshiner, artist’s model, go-between, beggar, thief, and police informer, who served as boon companion to Paul Verlaine and was described as his secretary, his duties consisting chiefly of getting the poet home safely when he was blind drunk, which was often. Known for wearing unpredictable assortments of random clothes, Bibi was painted by Picasso, Théophile Steinlen, and Jacques Villon. After Verlaine’s death in 1896, he made a living selling forged autographs and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.