Henry Murger is barely remembered in literary circles today, but he wrote one of the most culturally influential works of all time. Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (Scenes of the Bohemian Life) popularized the idea of the Bohemian: the prototypically rebellious and indifferent young starving artist living on the left bank of Paris.
Murger was born in Paris in 1822, the son of a tailor. His born name was Henri Murger, though he later chose to distinguish himself by modifying the spelling of his first name, as well as placing a meaningless “umlaut” over the “u” in his last name.
He explored various potential careers as a young man. He labored as a messenger boy for a lawyer, experimented with painting and poetry and served as secretary to a mysterious Russian diplomat, Count Tolstoy, during the exciting revolutionary year of 1848. It is still not clear what political activities this Count may have engaged in, and what part young Murger may have played in them.
Mainly, though, Murger was a struggling artist and writer, and he had many friends in the same class, including such notable or soon-to-be notable figures as Champfleury, Nadar and Baudelaire. One group of literary aspirants Murger was close to went around calling themselves the “Water Drinkers”, a sarcastic reference to the fact that they could not afford more expensive drinks.
A small newspaper called the “Corsaire-Satan” allowed Murger to begin writing articles about contemporary life, and it is here that he began the series that would later form the basis of his famous novel.
A good starving artist must be filled with revulsion and doubt about his own choices, and Murger was. His early writings and correspondences show much distaste for his friends and for his own lifestyle, and this ambivalence to Bohemian culture gave his articles in the “Corsaire-Satan” a richness and depth that a more superficial participant in this lifestyle could not have captured.
Murger’s “Scenes” were noticed but not particularly successful. The big break came in 1849 when a successful play was launched based on these sketches. They were published in book form for the first time in 1851, but the play was more successful and well-known in Murger’s time than any of the prose forms of the work.
Most of the characters in Scenes de la Vie de la Boheme were based on his friends and associates. Mimi and Musette were, in real life, Lucille Louvet (who died in 1848) and Marie-Christine Roux.
As often happens to the ambivalently famous, Murger allowed his newfound literary stature to wane. He got sick and died in 1861, poor and unhappy, at the young age of 38.
It is interesting to note how Murger’s career would be mirrored a hundred years later by that of Jack Kerouac. Both writers drew highly honest, searingly critical sketches of their “crazy friends” and their own debauched lives. But in both cases the intended ambivalence was ignored and the lifestyle was popularly celebrated, labelled and packaged as a one-word cliche.
However, Murger’s own persona never achieved the mythic status of Kerouac’s. Today he is mainly remembered in the popular imagination as the author of the original work upon which Puccini’s opera La Boheme is based.
His final words were “No more music! No more alarums! No more Bohemia!” Little did he know.