Real people, real lives?

Article by Mosco Carner

The charge has been levelled at Puccini that with his opera, he had erected a tombstone for Mürger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Quite the contrary appears to be there case. If Mürger‘s novel is still read nowadays, this is largely, I believe on account of its being ‘the book of the opera’. Henry Mürger (1822-61) was a minor figure on the Paris literary scene of his time and regarded Scènes, which was to bring him fame and fortune, as a mere pot-boiler, which indeed it was in origin. He himself believed that this true bent was for Poetry, but he produced only mediocre verses in which he shows himself prone to morbid gloom – in contrast to the mood which inspires his novel. Scènes first appeared in serial form in the literary magazine Le Corsaire between 1845 and 1848. Encouraged by the success of these sketches, Mürger adapted them for the stage, in collaboration with Théodore Barrière, as a five-act play, La Vie de Bohème. This was first produced on 22 November 1849 at the Théâtre des Variétés before a packed audience which included Louis Napoleon and members of artistic and literary Paris who had come chiefly out of curiosity, for it was known that Mürger had drawn his characters after well known figures in Parisian Bohemia. The play was a succès fou for the twenty-seven year-old author, who wrote afterwards: “I dreamed I was the Emperor of Morocco and had married the Bank”.

He received a congratulatory letter from his idol, Victor Hugo, was presented with the coveted red ribbon of the Légion d’Honneur, and was offered a contract by a great publishing firm (Michel Levi) for the issue of the Scènes in book form (1851). For this he revised and rearranged the original sketches and added a preface in which he stated his views on Bohemian life and the moral lesson to be drawn from it. The book was widely read and translated into several languages. It brought Whistler from Washington to Paris and found several imitators among them George du Maurier with Trilby, which Puccini considered as a possible subject in 1912 but rejected on account to its resemblance to La Bohème. The libretto of the opera is based on both the book and the play. After more than a century Mürger’s novel is still responsible for the picture which popular imagination has formed of Bohemian life. Not that Mürger was the first to write of the joys and sorrows of struggling young artists and their amours, living a hand to mouth existence; but he was the first to see this life with an imaginative eye and recapture the atmosphere of Montmartre and the Latin Quarter of the 1840s in a series of vivid and colourful tableaux. Scènes is not a literary masterpiece but essentially high class journalism.

Mürger himself had lived the sort of life he describes and his early death at the age of thirty-nine is said to have been hastened by the dissipations and privations suffered in his youth. If several characters in his novel die of consumption it was because this disease, brought on by fast living and poverty, had taken a heavy toll among his friends. In Scènes we thus perceive the first stirrings of realism in French literature, a fact which indeed aroused controversy between the upholders of the romantic tradition and the younger generation of writers. The brothers Goncourt called the book ‘a triumph of Socialism’ though nothing was farther from Mürger’s mind than to write a political tract. All he aimed at was to portray la jeunesse qui n’a qu’un temps and portray it without a hint of prudery or censoriousness. If Scènes contains a message at all it is that Bohemia is perhaps a necessary stage in an artist’s development and that the sooner he grows out of it the better for his art. In his last chapter, Mürger shows us Rodolphe and Marcel settled down to steady, solid work and bourgeois existence. In one of his many epigrams he describes Bohemia as ‘the preface to the hospital, the morgue or the Academy’, and his famous last words before he died were ‘pas de musique, pas de bruit – pas de Bohème’. What makes his novel still worth reading is its perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, of humour and pathos. With the lightest of touch, Mürger pictures ‘this gay terrible life’ and shows himself a writer of charm, observation and a ready wit, directing well-aimed shafts at certain fashions in the social, artistic and political life of Paris under Louis Philippe. Puccini’s libretto retains some of these allusions as well as the hyperbole and meiosis in which Mürger delighted.

When we sit and watch La Bohème, few of us realize – nor is this necessary for our enjoyment – that the dramatis personae are images, at two removes, of authentic persons. Puccini’s librettists rightly eliminated most of Mürger’s direct clues and concentrated on the emotional essence of the story, which in conjunction with the evergreen music, invests the Bohemians with a universal appeal and makes the spectator feel that this is youth as he might find it in any great city at any period. Nevertheless, it is of interest to trace Puccini’s characters, through Mürger’s novel, back to their historical models.

Mürger moved in a circle of artists and writers several of whom later achieved eminence, such as Courbet, Baudelaire, Banville, Gautier, Champfleury and Gérard de Nerval: these contributed to the portrayal of his Bohemians in a general way. Yet there were others, intimates of Mürger who served him as more individual ‘sitters’. In Rodolphe, we know, the author depicted himself, and the present day interpreter of Puccini’s romantic Lover would no doubt be horrified if were expected to appear exactly as Mürger describes his hero:

“… young man whose face could hardly be seen for a huge, bushy, many coloured beard. To set off this prognathic hirsutism, a premature baldness had stripped his temples as bare as a knee. A cluster of hairs so few as to be almost countable, vainly endeavoured to conceal this nakedness. He wore a black jacket with tonsured elbows which allowed a glimpse, when he raised the arm unduly, of air-holes at the places where it debouched into the sleeves. His trousers were perhaps black: but his boots, which had never been new, seemed to have already made several world tours on the feet of the Wandering Jew.”

Rodolphe is editor-in-chief of two fashion magazines, L’Écharpe d’Iris and Le Castor; for the latter he is attempting to write the article with which we see him occupied in the opera just before Mimi’s entry. The manuscript which provides the fuel for the stove in the gay opening scene of the opera is that of a drama entitled Le Vengeur of which Rodolphe has made so many versions that he can afford to burn them all except the latest, for which he eventually succeeds in securing a performance. He inhabits a room at the top of the highest house in Paris, a ‘sort of turret’, delightful in summer but in winter ‘Kamchatka-Col St. Bernard-Spitzbergen-Siberia’. The room is adorned by a stove, with an aperture ‘like a gate of honour specially reserved for Boreas and his following’. Mürger’s Rodolphe, like Puccini’s Rodolfo, is the idealist who along among his fellow Bohemians believes in true love, which he thinks to have found at last in Mimi.

Mürger’s Marcel is a composite figure drawn after Champfleury and two well-known painters of the period, Marcel Lazare and Tabar. Tabar worked for some time on a great historical painting The Crossing of the Red Sea which he was unable to complete because of the expense of procuding the necessary models and costumes; he therefore altered it into the less expensive Niobe and her Children slain by the arrows of Apollo and Diana which he exhibited in the Salon in 1842. This gave Mürger the idea for those amusing vicissitudes which Marcel’s picture, The Crossing of the Red Sea, suffers. The painter had been working for five or six years and for many years the jury had been rejecting it, so that after so many journeys from the artist’s studio to the Museum and back ‘the picture knew the way so well that, if it had been put on wheels, it could have gone to the Louvre by itself’. Every time, before submitting it to jury, Marcel changed some details as well as the title: The Crossing of the Rubicon, The Crossing of Beresina, The Crossing of the Panoramas (a street in Paris). It finally ended as a grocer’s shop sign with a steamboat added and the title altered to In Marseilles Harbour. This is the famous picture on which we find Marcello working in act I of the opera and which turns up as the inn sign in act II.

The model for Schaunard was one Alexandre Schanne who dabbled in the arts but later settled down to a more prosaic but more lucrative occupation manufacturing children’s toys. In 1887 he published his memoirs Souvenirs de Schaunard in which he provided the clues for some of Mürger’s Bohemians. In the novel he was originally called Schannard but by a printer’s error this became Schaunard and Mürger never troubled to correct it. Schaunard’s nose has the singular distinction of being ‘aqualine in profile and snub in full face’ and he speaks with ‘voice like a hunting horn’. In the novel he is a painter and musician, in the opera only the latter. He has written several symphonies, among them a ‘mimetic’ symphony, On the influence of Blue in the Arts. He composes on a piano on which the note D is badly out of tune, a detail which Puccini reproduces in the Latin Quarter act where Schaunard is made to buy, in a junk shop, a hunting-horn whose note D is of uncertain intonation. This is realistically indicated in the orchestra by the clash, on the Horn and trumpets of Db against Eb.

Colline, the fourth male member of the Bohemian circle, is a composite character in whom Mürger immortalized two other friends. One was Jean Wallon, a student of theology, who wrote religious tracts and kept his pockets crammed with books. The other was the mysterious Trapadoux, called ‘The Green Giant’ because of his enormous height and his greatcoat, which was so ancient that its original clack had faded to green. In the novel Colline is a ‘hyper-physical’ philosopher who makes his living by giving lessons in ‘mathematics, scholastics, botanics and various other sciences ending in ics’. He is always seen wearing a nut-coloured greatcoat whose ‘durability made one think that it was built by the Romans’, and in its pockets he carried about a whole library. In the opera Colline buys his famous garment in act II only to sell it again in act IV to buy cordials for the dying Mimi.

Puccini’s old beau Alcindoro, whom Musetta treats with such ignominy in act II, has no direct model in Mürger. The librettists manifestly derived this grotesque character from Carolus Barbemuche, a young poet and dandy in the novel, who is eager to be accepted by the Bohemians into their circle and for that purpose treats them collectively and severally to the most sumptuous repasts. The first of these Lucullan feasts takes place at the Café Momus, which was situated at 15 Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, and whose proprietor himself had literary aspiration; it was the rendezvous of the four Bohemians, where they were known as the ‘Four Musketeers’. From this episode Puccini’s librettists developed the brilliant Latin Quarter act; but in the novel, the Bohemians do not sit outside the Café Momus on a cold Christmas night as they do in the opera. The composer and his librettists must have been thinking of the covered Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan when they planned this scene. Again it was the keen dramatic eye of Illica which first noticed this offence against verisimilitude. But it was only one week before the opera was fully completed, that he became aware of it and inserted in the libretto stage directions to the effect that the interior of the Café Momus is so crowded on Christmas Eve that some guests are forced to sit outside. It is curious that neither he not Giacosa nor Puccini discovered this Iapsus earlier and, as Mario Morini remarks, for spectators who have not carefully read the libretto, Illica’s explanations remain non existent.

Puccini’s Benoit, boasting of his extra-marital escapades, is an exact replica of Rodolphe’s landlord in the novel while the doctor, whom Marcello goes to fetch in act IV, and who plays an important part in the novel, was drawn by Mürger after his friend, a certain Dr Piogey, who died young. So much for Puccini’s male characters.

As to Mimi and Musetta, both are composite characters in the novel. At least four of Mürger’s mistresses had lent traits to his portrayal of Rodolphe’s petite amie. There was, to begin with, his very first love, Marie-Virginie Vimal, blue-eyed, fair, frail, gentle and with the small white hands of which Mürger made a fetish. She is the heroine of every one of his subsequent books about Parisian Bohemia. But her soul was not as white as her hands. She ran off with one of the author’s friends, became involved in a criminal fraud, was arrested as an accomplice but later acquitted and went on the streets. Her desertion drove the young Mürger almost to suicide and this is the mood in which he pictures the hero of his novel in the chapter Epilogue des Amours de Rodolphe de Mademoiselle Mimi. Marie Vimal’s place was soon taken by Lucille Louvet, a charming midinette who through starvation contracted tuberculosis and died in her early twenties. In the novel she is pictured partly in Francine and partly in the dying Mimi of the penultimate chapter. In real life Lucille was nicknamed ‘Mimi’ hence the famous phrase with which the Mimi of the opera introduces herself to Rodolfo. Lucille’s premature death preyed on Mürger’s mind for a long time and he has told us about her at greater length in one of this later books. Another girl whose features coloured the portrait of Mimi of the novel was Juliette, a Shakespeare loving grisette whom Mürger introduces in the amusing episode entitled Roméo et Juliette. Like her predecessors, she died young. According to Schanne’s memoirs, Mimi’s portrait contained traits of Mürger’s young cousin Angèle who later married a respectable husband. Mürger himself eventually settled down with Anaïs Latrasse, a young married woman and something of a blue-stocking, with whom he lived a happy bourgeois life till his death in 1861.

Mürger’s Musette was partly drawn after one Marie Roux, the mistress of the poet Champfleury. At one time she had stood model for Ingres, she was the owner of a ‘pretty out-of-tune voice’ on account of which Mürger nicknamed her ‘Mademoiselle Bagpipe’. The other model for Musette is said to have been the wife of Pierre Dupont, the patriotic workman-poet of Lyons and an intimate friend of Baudelaire. Madame Dupont made no bones about her promiscuous love affairs and thrived on them. In 1863 she set out on a voyage to Algiers, fortified with 40,000 francs in her pocket and was drowned. In the novel, Musette is an intelligent and spirited girl ‘with some drops in her veins of the blood of Manon’, an illusion which may well have suggested to Puccini’s librettists the idea of associating Musetta in Act III with with a elderly dandy; in Mürger she specializes only in young lovers. Coquettish and attractive to all men, she loved luxury and pleasure, but she was an adventuress with a heart of gold who really loved only one man, Marcel, yet was always unwilling ‘to lock up her liberty in a marriage contract’. After a feverishly amorous career, she finally became the wife of a respectable postmaster who, ironically enough, happened to be the guardian of a former lover of hers.

In a preface to the libretto, Ilica and Giacosa indicated the principles by which they were guided in their dramatization of Mürger’s novel and which they paraphrased thus: (1) to reproduce the essential spirit of the novel (2) to remain faithful to Mürger’s characters; (3) to reproduce, meticulously, certain details of the atmosphere; (4) to retain the general outline of Mürger’s narrative and hollow his method in presenting the story in distinct tableaux; (5) to treat the comic and tragic episodes with the freedom required by the dramatization of a novel. To have achieved all these aims, as they did, was indeed a tour de force. For Mürger’s novel is crowded with incidents and characters, some of whom pop up in a variety of different contexts and under different names. Furthermore, Scènes is not a closely knit novel but an almost casually arranged series of impressions with no real plot to hold it together. The composer’s and his poets’ skill is seen in the fact that while they retained those un-dramatic features of Mürger’s, they succeeded in creating one of the most effective of all works for the musical stage.

Reproduced by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.