Brehm on Glinoer (2018)

Glinoer, Anthony. La bohème: Une figure de l’imaginaire social. PU de Montréal, 2018, pp. 281, ISBN 978-2-7606-3967-6

I can remember stepping out of the Grand Palais in Paris on a rainy day in January 2013, feeling inspired by the exhibit I had just seen, Bohèmes: de Léonard de Vinci à Picasso. I felt convinced that the ideas, images, and texts on display there (from Émile Deroy’s 1844 portrait of Baudelaire to Van Gogh’s shoes to Verlaine's manuscripts) called for further scholarly inquiry in their ensemble and cultural dialogue. Anthony Glinoer’s La bohème: une figure de l’imaginaire social has helped me to recall that memory and to convince me even more of the value in studying this particular social imaginary, as Glinoer describes it in his far-reaching, scrupulously researched, and marvelously written book.  

Across an introduction and six chapters, Glinoer traces the social imaginary of la vie de bohème with a purview more focused than the Grand Palais’s broad survey. Glinoer, for his part, explores primarily nineteenth-century France, with the exception of moments in the introduction and the captivating final chapter, “Transferts,” which considers the bohemian imaginary and legacy in a more transnational and transhistorical frame. While Glinoer justifiably devotes much attention to Paris, he also expands his scope beyond the French capital with attention, in a section on the press in chapter five for instance, to something like the periodical, Le Bohème in Lyon, thus providing a wide-ranging overview of la bohème in the petite presse throughout France.

In the early chapters of the book, Glinoer provides a most compelling account of bohemian sociability. Ranging from such real places as the Brasserie des Martyrs or the bohemian salon of Nina de Villard to fictional places like the mansardes evoked in novels and poems, Glinoer offers insights into the forms of sociability that evolved across different bohemian practices and imaginaries. In chapter four, “Communautés,” for example, his discussion of the emergence of sociability in dinners out in grands restaurants and spirited rendez-vous in cafés flows into consideration of Henri Murger and the group the Buveurs d’eau. Ultimately, Glinoer advances the provocative argument that la bohème did not necessarily invent distinct forms of sociability. Rather, he suggests: “Il n’y a donc pas de sociabilités bohèmes, mais des sociabilités bohémisées” (190). 

Forms of sociability transformed by la vie de bohème find themselves juxtaposed with other social forms of community such as the cénacle (with ample references to Balzac’s Illusions Perdues) and the conventional bourgeois salon. In order to gauge the borders of literary and artistic bohemia, Glinoer compares bohemian types with other social types and in light of the scorn heaped on bohemians by the likes of the Goncourt or Camille Mauclair. Canonical icons of la vie de bohème, such as Murger with his Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851) and the extravagant Jean Richepin in turn meet with more obscure figures such as Privat d’Anglemont, “l’archi-bohème” who was born in Guadeloupe and was a close friend of Baudelaire, and Théophile Dondey, “le Jeune-France mutique.” These biographical sketches, in the service of broader arguments about the mythification of la bohème’s pantheon, are particular highlights of the book. Likewise, the sections devoted to women (Sand and her novel La dernière Aldini [1837-1838], for example) are especially illuminating about the challenges women faced in bohemian artistic circles while navigating the charges of bas-bleuisme and the misogyny of the era.

In his concluding chapter, Glinoer addresses such figures as the hipster together with the “Bohemian Index” (an economist’s measure of creative types across geographic zones), gentrification, “intellos précaires,” bobo-bashing, boboïtude, and “capitalisme artiste,” among other questions. In this way he offers a synthetic account of the ways in which the nineteenth-century vie de bohème both remains with us and has been decisively altered and appropriated. Ultimately, Glinoer is interested here in assessing the longevity of this social imaginary, a question to which he proposes, on the one hand, its hazy semantic and social borders as a tool of its survival and pervasive hold on the collective imagination. On the other hand, he examines how the loss of distinctive forms of bohemian artistic sociability that developed in the nineteenth century has involved a parallel spread and assimilation of those forms into areas outside the domain of the arts, namely into certain ideas and forms of creativity in the “complexe economico-esthétique” that relate to the historical attraction and repulsion between bohemian and bourgeois. 

Equally important in the synthetic closing chapter is its opening section about bohemian communities outside Paris and outside France in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Here, Glinoer ranges from the “scapigliatura” of Milan, to Pfaff’s bohemian den in New York City, to artists and writers in Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Montréal. About this bohème internationale, Glinoer argues that unlike Murger’s more Paris-centered conception of the bohème as a stage of an artist’s life before the academy or the morgue, the bohème outside France was more a transitory artistic stage in an individual’s life before a return to conventional social standing. Glinoer then offers an intriguing argument about the temporal frames at play within this social imaginary. 

Abundant and especially well presented references will aid the scholar looking into the particulars of these novels, journalistic accounts, and poetry collections. Glinoer admirably synthesizes a vast array of sources from Balzac’s Illusions Perdues to Richepin’s La chanson des gueux to periodicals such as La Silhouette, with its memorable definition of the borders of la bohème (25). Ultimately the book helps us rethink some of the central questions about the antibourgeoisism and communities of the bohemian imaginary, of la bohème defining itself by that which it opposes, still elusive and still present to our imagination as something like the “être-au-monde commun” (17) of social practices that demand our constant attention for ideas of being and living between a sense of home and vagabondia.