Beatniks Then and Now

Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A Full Fifty Years Before the Opera Came the Novel

A hundred years before Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation came into being, there were the “original” Bohemians—although, possibly, one could make a case for tracing them all the way back to François Villon in the 15th Century—popularized by Henri Murget in Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (or Bohemians of the Latin Quarter). We are probably much more familiar with the operas based on this popular novel of the 1840s, including Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Ruggiero Leoncavallo also wrote an operatic version, and the Broadway musical Rent is loosely based on  Murger’s novel of 1846-1847.

The big difference between the Beats and Murget’s Bohemians is that, while the Beats were more heavily into booze and drugs, the Parisian artists and artistes of the 1840s were more into surviving. The whole picture of the starving young artist really came into fruition around then. We see pieces of it in Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions) and some of his other works, but it was Murger who popularized it, while graciously acknowledging Balzac’s contribution.

In Murget’s novel, there were four main heroes: Rodolphe, Marcel, Colline, and Schaunard, along with their mistresses, especially Mimi and Musette. What distinguishes Murget from Balzac is that he is nowhere near as dark. His Bohemian artists are impoverished, but generous and good-hearted. Although it has a “where are the snows of yesteryear” (itself a quote from Villon) sadness to it, we do not feel there is any evil present, except perhaps in the landlords who persist on asking for rent. As Marcel cynically says at one point toward the end:

It is no longer possible for us to continue to live much longer on the outskirts of society—on the outskirts of life almost—under the penalty of justifying the contempt felt for us, and of despising ourselves. For, after all, is it a life we lead? And are not the independence, the freedom of mannerism of which we boast so loudly, very mediocre advantages? True liberty consists of being able to dispense with the aid of others, and to exist by oneself, and have we got to that? No, the first scoundrel, whose name we would not bear for five minutes, avenges himself for our jests, and becomes our lord and master the day on which we borrow from him five francs, which he lends us after having made us dispense the worth of a hundred and fifty in ruses or in humiliations. For my part, I have had enough of it. Poetry does not alone exist in disorderly living, touch-and-go happiness, loves that last as long as a bedroom candle, more or less eccentric revolts against those prejudices which will eternally rule the world, for it is easier to upset a dynasty than a custom, however ridiculous it may be. It is not enough to wear a summer coat in December to have talent; one can be a real poet or artist whilst going about well shod and eating three meals a day. Whatever one may say, and whatever one may do, if one wants to attain anything one must always take the commonplace way.

Unfortunately, not many people today read Murger. It is interesting, however, to trace an idea back to its origins; and Murger makes for pleasant reading. You can find a free English translation on Gutenberg.Com.