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scènes de la vie de bohème
8 july 2014
Henry Murger's 1851 collection of linked sketches, Scènes de la vie de bohème, introduces some of the best-known characters in the Western artistic tradition. But it's hard to get hold of the book in English, and even if you read some French, it's hard to understand a lot of Murger's obscure contexts and topical references. Scènes de la vie de bohème is therefore at the same time extremely famous and extremely obscure – a fate that sometimes befalls works that become classics only in adaptation.
I'm not even sure if there is an English rendition of Scènes in conventional print; the ones available seem to be new, self-published translations, or on-demand versions of long-ago ones. Fortunately you can get the French original free on iBooks. Free sounds to me much in the spirit of Henry Murger. As a result, I spent some time in Paris recently – in a Latin Quarter apartment that held two modern travelers snugly and would easily have hosted all four of Murger's bohemians back in the day – reading this surprisingly lively 19th-century fiction on a 21st-century device.
Scènes de la vie de bohème is a set of studies of profligacy and improvidence. It's melodramatic and formulaic. But the thing is, we've all known profligate and improvident people, folks who, far from delaying gratification, anticipate it and bully others away from their pleasures. Mimi, Rodolphe, Marcel, Musette, Schaunard, Phemie, and Colline fall into that category – though I think we have to forgive Colline his excesses, since most of them take the form of compulsive book-collecting. (His beloved books, which he keeps in his famous coat, are "nombreux que la vie d'un homme n'aurait pas suffi pour les lire [so numerous that a single life wouldn't be enough to read them]," Chapter I.) We all know people who make life more melodramatic just by existing, and whose penchant for sensation (in many senses) becomes more formulaic the longer we know them.
Over and over in these Scènes, the bohemians come into some money, spend it lavishly on food, drink, and gifts for girlfriends, and then find themselves inexplicably poor again.
Rodolphe, qui avait eu la prodigalité pour marraine, dépensait toujours sa pension en quatre jours.They resort to fraud and effrontery to make it through to the next windfall – while the girlfriends leave for better-heeled big spenders. "Demain, c'est une fatuité du calendrier [Tomorrow is an idiocy of the calendar]" (Chapter XIX)
[Rodolphe, who had prodigality for his godmother, always spent his income within four days.]
I never saw Puccini's La Bohème till a couple of years ago, but it is a very simple, memorable opera, arguably the most famous in the repertoire just because of that simplicity. It's all the more impressive in the spectacular Franco Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan, which dresses its humble story up in enormous sets and a street-scene cast of apparently thousands. But Murger's source is anything but spectacular. It's made up of domestic scenes and intimate dialogues, with a party or two sketched in here and there at the margins. And as its author freely admits, it is neither novelistic nor dramatic. Its very repetitiveness prevents it from having much of an overall arc.
Puccini's libretto, by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, creates drama by conflating two of Murger's many plot threads. In the book, Mimi and Rodolphe are an on-again-off-again couple with prodigious sexual appetites and limited attention spans. Much of Murger's text is taken up with the vagaries of their relationship, but it's a relationship that goes nowhere, not an operatic arc. Meanwhile, in a section interpolated for motives of what one might call "tragic relief," the life and death of another couple, Jacques and Francine, is set in contrast. Jacques and Francine meet when her candle goes out and the two of them start groping around his apartment in search of a key neither wants to find. Francine is dying of a lung complaint (she is "poitrinaire," consumptive) even when we first meet her. She and Jacques do not have any fallings-out – life is literally too short – and they approach their last days together with a fierce appetite for love and each other. Francine gets cold and demands a "manchon," the famous muff that Mimi gets fixated on in the opera (and that too often balances on her chest after she dies, belying her departure with its rising and falling). The Jacques/Francine story is treacly, perhaps, but it's unironic (though even there, Murger can't help introducing a cynical implied reader who interrupts the narrative by complaining about how sad it all is).
Mimi eventually dies too (I hope this is not too much of a spoiler), but her death scene, far from being final-aria material, is laced with Murger's bitter sense of humor. They've broken up again, and Rodolphe seems almost on the way to forgetting Mimi, when she shows up at his door disheveled and weak. A career as a nude model has led to her catching cold, and there's no place for her but the charity hospital. Rodolphe takes leave of her and hears the next day that she's died. He goes on a bit of a bender only to learn eight days later that she's still alive, wondering WTH he hasn't been visiting her: reports of her death were apparently somewhat exaggerated. He runs back to the hospital but she's dead for real this time.
Oddly enough, Murger's despatching of Mimi is a plot device too twisty for grand opera. It might feel more at home in Rent, the Broadway avatar of Murger's Bohemia. Rent, like Puccini's opera and Murger's book, basically asks us to empathize with poor people who are down-and-out by choice, in the service of their own dubious artistic talent. Not that tuberculosis or AIDS are trivial problems, mind you, but that that all these Bohemians wear the elective, self-reinforcing poverty proudly on their sleeves. The stage versions try to win us over to their side with catchy tunes; Murger doesn't elicit our sympathies, preferring to distance himself (except in the Jacques/Francine story, and even there, obliquely) with corrosive irony.
Murger presents Rodolphe (his main character and, because he's a writer, the one we assume is based most closely on him) as a big kid who actively resists growing up. Mimi's very immaturity keeps him young, and if she goes,
avec lui cesseraient à jamais ces fièvres de jeunesse.Marcel, the painter who has heretofore frittered away his talent even while trying cynically to commercialize it, evolves into the spokesman for putting on one's big-boy pants:
[the fevers of youth would go along with her] (Chapter 14)
Nous avons fait notre temps de jeunesse, d'insouciance et de paradoxe. Tout cela est très-beau, on en ferait un joli roman; mais cette comédie des folies amoureuses, ce gaspillage des jours perdus avec la prodigalité des gens qui croient avoir l'éternité à dépenser, tout cela doit avoir un dénoûment.And as if requested by his own characters, Murger kills off Mimi and gives his Bohemians enough worldly success to get them invested in the system. Of course, part of what they lose in the process is their ability to fall hopelessly (and distinctly physically) in love, which is what most endears us to them. "L'amour est l'échange de deux fantaisies," says Musette, quoting somebody named Champfort for whom I need a footnote I don't have. "Love consists of trading fantasies." One might prefer that to the dénoûment.
[We lived our spell of youth, arrogance, and irony. That's all well and good, you can make a good novel out of it, but this game of romantic stupidity, this wasting time like people who will never run out of it – all this has to have its comeuppance.] (Chapter XXII)
Murger, Henry. Scènes de la vie de bohème. 1851. iBooks Electronic Edition.