Pages: Bohemian Paris

Our first title, Bohemian Paris by Jerrold Seigel, is an elegantly written, dazzlingly insightful cultural history which pursues a clear path while absorbing multitudes of grand diversions and small details. It offers an authoritative portrait of the City of Light’s creative avant-garde which made a virtue of poverty and embraced “art, youth, the underworld, the gypsy life-style”.

Bohemian Paris is one of those books so stuffed with ideas and names and references and cross-references and things you’re just dying to look up that it almost induces a state of neurasthenic overload in the reader (well, it did in this reader). The book’s subheading (Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930) gives an idea of its sweeping scope while also introducing one of its core themes: the symbiotic relations between Bohemia and bourgeoisie. “Bohemia grew up where the borders of bourgeois existence were murky and uncertain,” asserts Seigel. “It was a space within which newly liberated energies were continually thrown up against the barriers being erected to contain them, where social margins and frontiers were probed and tested.”

The survey starts with the revolution which launched the reign of Louis-Philippe (tellingly known as the “Bourgeois King”), and ends with the apex of Surrealism a century later. This may seem like an arbitrary ending point, and indeed declarations of Bohemia’s demise are almost as old as Bohemia itself. While acknowledging later manifestations of the same impulses which drove and defined Bohemia, Seigel points out that the Surrealists’ “project of abolishing the distinction between art and life was in many ways the end point of a development that began under the sign of Bohemianism”.

Henri Murger

Seigel doesn’t just usher us around the familiar circuit of garret, café, studio, cabaret and tavern. He moves beyond familiar Bohemian locations like the Latin Quarter, Montmartre and Montparnasse to explore, for example, Bohemian involvement in historic events like the 1871 Commune. The book features a vast cast of individuals who chronicled, criticised or characterised Bohemia. Few were as crucial as writer Henri Murger, who ingested suicidal doses of caffeine to produce numerous articles in the mid-19th century which became the book Scènes de la vie de bohème. “Their everyday existence is a work of genius,” said Murger of his protagonists, who would enjoy an unlikely after-life in the opera La bohème. Naturally the dank, famished reality of that everyday existence wasn’t quite so Puccini-esque.

Bohemian Paris performs a valuable service in drawing our attention to writers like Alexandre Privat d’Anglemont, Émile Goudeau and Jean Richepin. Now largely forgotten, they were once crucial in relaying avant-garde culture to the wider world. Others, such as Francis Carco, more or less made a career out of jotting down Bohemian bar talk, but his name excites little recognition outside France. Just as foreign to us are the in-jokes, satire and ribaldry whose sources would have been obvious to their audience but whose references are lost so that we miss the often savage, self-referential humour.

The Bohemians we remember are generally those whose work transcended their lifestyles, such as artist Gustave Courbet, poet Paul Verlaine and composer Erik Satie (who appears more as a collection of eccentric tics than a real person). And naturally Alfred Jarry. “He was perhaps the first figure to make direct confrontation with his audience a generating principle of his work,” claims Seigel. “All the twentieth century movements which make action and provocation central to artistic practice were foreshadowed by him.”

Charles Baudelaire

Not all artists and writers embraced squalor so readily. Baudelaire was a Bohemian malgré soi, who “hated the tawdry unkemptness, the dirt and disorder, of Bohemian life, and especially its ready confusion of art with such a life.” His work ethic left little time for artsy slumming and anyway, his personal style was more dandified than dishevelled. Not that these were necessarily mutually exclusive modes; as Seigel notes, the “dandy’s aristocratic elegance” and the “Bohemian’s unkempt shabbiness” often co-existed (and although he isn’t mentioned in the book, I would nominate Bibi-la-Purée as a prime example).

But above all it was its supposed nemesis – the bourgeoisie – with which Bohemia is inextricably linked. “Like positive and negative magnetic poles, Bohemian and bourgeois were – and are – parts of a single field: they imply, require and attract each other.” Seigel concludes that Bohemia mapped territories outside of normal civil society and “whether we wish to inhabit those territories or not, we are often enriched by their discovery.” The study of Bohemia has, in turn, been immeasurably enriched by Seigel’s inspiring book.

Bohemian Paris | Jerrold Seigel | Viking, 1986 | Find on WorldCat


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