22 Oct 2010

The End of the Bohemian Century

By Jeff Counts

If you were in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1930s and lifted your eyes to just above street level, so the cars and electricity faded from sight, you could have imagined that the city’s storied left bank had not changed at all since Henri Murger spent his starving artist days there in the 1840s. To be sure, Murger himself would have had little trouble locating his old attic lodgings and might have been delighted to find that, even after 90 years, his key still worked. That’s Paris. She simply endures, with all of her customary comfort and indifference.

Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème was published in 1851 and is a singularly delightful still life depicting friendship, art and hunger among kindred souls during the 1840s. In the introduction to the 1930 Elizabeth Ward Hugus English translation, D. B. Wyndham Lewis referred to Murger’s Paris as “a pleasant, intimate [place] to be young and poor in.” It was a time for many left bank creative folk when ideas flowed but money did not. The real-life Bohemians who inspired the literary characters in Scènes likely spent much of their time sitting at cafes, discussing, theorizing and laughing. They also would have watched, with grudging interest, the ebb and flow of the Parisian bourgeois elite. These comically materialistic dandies and their lives of unsubtle privilege served as both foil and carrot for the struggling poets and painters.

Murger called it a “charming, yet terrible life.” His more famous contemporary, the poet Baudelaire, straddled the bourgeois/Bohemian divide with great reluctance but praised the life of the famished but fertile artist as “the cult of multiplied sensation.” When Wyndham Lewis wrote his introduction from Paris almost a century later, he was aware of some skepticism there about the accuracy of Murger’s account, a feeling Wyndham Lewis himself did not share. He referred to the doubters, in a manner befitting an accomplished English newspaper columnist and biographer, as “arid imbeciles” but sagely reminded Murger’s readers that Bohemia was also “a state of mind” rather than simply “an area situated between the Fifth and Sixth Arrondissements.”

Paris in her interwar years, though as steady and timeless as ever, was a city in social transition. The decade of the 1930s was to be partially defined by not one exodus but two. In 1930, most of the numerous American ex-patriots were departing with great haste, eager to return home and confront the devastations of the stock market crash. By 1939, with conflict and occupation on the horizon, Paris was emptying of almost all inhabitants. The years in between give us Parisian Bohemia in its winter age. If Murger’s antique time was defined by youth – by its joyful suffering, discovery and secret envy of the nobler classes – the years leading up to World War II showed the phenomenon in its full maturity. If the 1840s were the dreaming time, then the 1930s were the awakened time.

The Paris experiences of another Henry, an American author who chose 1930 to arrive rather than depart, provide the best portrait of what the Latin Quarter had become. Henry Miller came to France in March of that year to write the novel that would define his career but, in a way, he had already missed the true apogee of left bank creativity. His was a slightly quieter, less pretentious Bohemia than the one enjoyed by his Jazz Age countrymen in the 1920s – a time when the shoulders of Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway could be brushed at the cafes and salons. Many of the luminaries remained in 1930 but the ranks of wealthy, faux-Bohemian onlookers had thinned considerably. Still, Miller found Paris to be the ideal environment for his controversial tastes and writing and spent much time, often by necessity, exploring the city’s darker, more explicit side. His was not an innocent, coquettish Bohemia, but rather an urgent, modern and mysterious one – perfect for his purposes. He might have thought he was an artist before but now, but according to his own excited words, “I no longer think about it, I am.”

Some interesting parallels exist between Murger’s stories and Miller’s actual life. Murger’s painter character, Marcel, toils in his Latin Quarter apartment to complete his masterpiece. So does Henry Miller at first. Marcel’s work is regularly rejected. Miller’s will be too, for a time, in his home country. Both men knew the oddly satisfying juxtaposition of poverty and happiness. Both felt the sting of stormy love, Marcel with his Musette and Miller his Anaïs Nin, though the roles were reversed in the latter case somewhat. And both eventually, and maybe sadly, have to grow out of all of it. Miller, in fact, was angry with Paris when he left, stating that he would never return to “that city of sewers.” In the last year of the decade, the excitement he felt for the city that was muse to his greatest work waned quickly. No wonder really, with the Eastern skies darkening as they were.

The entire world changed in 1939, not just Paris, and to be sure the City of Light suffered less than many. But the effects of the coming war were obvious to those few artists who stuck it out as long as they could – among them were Miller, James Joyce, Josephine Baker and Vladimir Nabokov. Businesses closed, hoarding and price gouging took hold. The blackout, once seen as a suggestion and called a “blueout” by locals based on how many ignored it, now became compulsory. Most of the men of fighting age were gone. Hard liquor was no longer sold in restaurants. Candles became a rare commodity and were available only one at a time.

If Henri Murger did somehow appear in 1939 and managed to find his old garret, it’s comforting to imagine that he might have found it familiarly lit by the day’s only candle. Paris, just like he left it, even at the end.