Known chiefly as the basis for Puccini’s great opera “La Bohème,” and resurrected more recently as the musical “Rent,” “The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter” is one of the most culturally influential French novels of the 19th century, but one that has been overshadowed by its more popular musical adaptations.
Based largely upon Henri Murger’s own experiences and those of his fellow artists, “The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter” was originally produced as a play in 1849 and first appeared in book form in 1851. It was an immediate sensation. The novel consists of a series of interrelated episodes in the lives of a group of poor friends—a musician, a poet, a philosopher, a sculptor, and a painter—who attempt to maintain their artistic ideals while struggling for food, shelter and sex.
Set in the ancient Latin Quarter, a vibrant and cosmopolitan area near the University of Paris, the novel is a masterful portrait of 19th-century Parisian artistic life. “Bohemian” soon became synonymous with “artist,” and it is from Murger’s novel that the word and concept entered the English language. Drawn from real-life characters and events, the themes of love, sacrifice and “selling out” are immediately recognizable to the modern reader.
Capturing the heart, spirit and bittersweet humor of the world of struggling artists, “The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter” is the universal story of the attempt to leave one’s mark on the world.
Henri Murger (1822-1861) wrote for magazines and newspapers and authored several books of fiction but is remembered today only for this novel of artistic life in 19th-century Paris.
Originally published on April 15, 2004