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Vie de Boheme – how the Bohemian Club was formed

18 of 24

The story so far … homeless artist and musician Alexandre Schaunard has been traipsing the streets of Paris, searching for anyone from whom he can borrow a few francs.  He meets a philosopher, Gustave Colline, they share a meal and, as firm friends, they move on to another café in search of alcohol and coffee. There they meet two gentlemen, M. Mouton and M. Rodolphe, in the middle of a heated exchange about the quality of newspapers. Read on …

Monsieur Mouton continued “A newspaper that would quite simply report the state of the king’s health and the world’s riches. After all, what’s the use of all your magazines that nobody can understand? Just to illustrate my meaning: I work at the Town Hall, you see; I keep my register; so far so good. Well, it’s as if someone came to me and said: ‘Mounsieur Mouton, you write down the names of the deceased. Well, do this, do that!’ Well, what do they mean with their ‘thises’ and their ‘thats’? Well, with the newspapers it’s just the same,” he concluded.
   “Exactly,” said a bystander who understood what he meant. M. Mouton, after receiving the congratulations of the customers who shared his views, went back to his game of dominoes.
   “I put him in his place,” he said, indicating Rodolphe, who had gone to sit at table with Schaunard and Colline.
   “What a dolt!” said Rodolphe, nodding in the direction of the functionary.
   “A remarkable specimen, with his eyelids like the hood of a cab and his eyes like lotto discs,” said Schaunard, bringing out a wonderfully seasoned cutty pipe.
   “By Jove, sir,” said Rodolphe, “that’s a very fine pipe.”
   “Oh, I have a better one, for when I go into society,” said Schaunard casually. “Pass me the tobacco, Colline.”
   “I say, mine’s finished!” the philosopher exclaimed.
   “Permit me to offer you some,” said Rodolphe, taking a packet of tobacco from his pocket and putting it on the table.
   In response to this kindly gesture, Colline felt called upon to offer a round of drinks. Rodolphe accepted. The conversation turned to literature. Questioned about his profession, which was in any case revealed by his clothes, Rodolphe confessed his relations with the Muses, and ordered another round.  As the waiter was removing the bottle, Schaunard asked him to leave it behind. He had heard the silvery duet of two five-franc pieces in one of Colline’s pockets. Soon Rodolphe had reached the same stage of expansiveness as the two friends, and was returning their confidences.
   They would doubtless have passed the night in the café, had they not been requested to leave. When they had gone only a few steps down the street – which took them a quarter of an hour – they were caught in a torrential downpour. Colline and Rodolphe lived at two opposite ends of Paris; one on the Île Saint-Louis and the other in Montmartre.
   Schaunard, who had completely forgotten that he was homeless, offered them hospitality. “Come to my place,” he said. “I lodge near here. We’ll spend the night chatting about literature and the fine arts.”
   “You can play the piano, and Rodolphe can recite his poems,” said Colline.
   “By Jiminy, yes,” said Schaunard. “One must have some fun, we only live once.”
   Arriving in front of his house, which he had some difficulty in recognising, Schaunard sat down for a moment on a post and waited for Rodolphe and Colline, who had entered a wine-shop to obtain the first essentials of a supper. When they rejoined him, Schaunard banged on the door several times, for he vaguely remembered that the janitor was in the habit of keeping him waiting. At length the door opened, and old Durand, in the sweet depths of the first sleep and forgetting that Schaunard was no longer his tenant, was unperturbed when the latter shouted his name through the hatch.

Vie de Bohème by Henry Mürger, a vivid portrait of the ‘Bohemian’ life of the artistic quarter of Paris in the nineteenth century was originally published (by Michel Lévy) in 1851. The extract above is taken from a translation by Norman Cameron, published by Hamish Hamilton. The illustration is by Dodi Masterman.

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