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Tracing the evolution of the bohemian life style in Paris

Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, by Jerrold Seigel. New York: Elisabeth Sifton/Viking. 453 pp. $25. For most people, ``bohemianism'' conjures up images of tawdry garrets, ill-fated lovers, struggling artists, cheap wine, and one glass too many of absinthe. Those who live la vie de Boh`eme seem as far removed from the straight-laced, workaday bourgeois world as anyone could be.

In his new book, however, Jerrold Seigel, a professor of European history at Princeton, amply demonstrates the complex relationship between bohemia and the bourgeoisie. Although his locus is Paris, his thesis may just as well be applied to Greenwich Village; Dresden; Taos, N.M.; or even Berkeley, Calif.

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Henry Murger was not the first to apply the epithet ``bohemian'' to the world of young, poor, unrecognized artists who peopled the seedy environs of Paris. But his ``Scenes of Bohemian Life'' -- sketches at first, then a play, and finally the Puccini opera -- endowed la vie de Boh`eme with a legendary aura that still remains.

Murger's bohemians were idealized versions of men and women he knew or observed. In fact, the reality of bohemia, as Seigel shows, was crueler and more complex than Murger would have us believe.

According to Seigel, 19th-century bohemians often were not relegated to poverty and rootlessness because of society's unwillingness to acknowledge their artistic talents.

Rather, many bohemians came from the bourgeoisie, to which they eventually returned, and they used their time in bohemia to explore ways of reconciling their need for individuality with the social and cultural demands of their middle-class origins. Often, at the same time that they flaunted their rejection of middle-class values, they aspired to respectability, stability, and security.

Seigel traces bohemia from 1830 to 1930, showing that through a century of social change, bohemia continued to serve as a refuge for middle-class artists and would-be artists. Verlaine and Rimbaud, Baudelaire and especially Courbet sought in bohemia a place where intellectual freedom would not be quashed. Courbet, Seigel tells us, ``like others of his generation, was in search of what he called `an independent sense of my own individuality.' ''

Bohemia allowed -- indeed nurtured -- eccentricities that bordered on the antisocial. The outrageous behavior of Alfred Jarry or Erik Satie, the dramatic public gestures of Jean Cocteau or Tristan Tzara shocked and often alienated their potential audience.

Aiming at first to mock bourgeois standards of behavior, these bohemian artists often found that their own identities became subsumed in the surface of ``tics'' that they contrived. Apollinaire was not alone in feeling himself lost in bohemia.

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One of the most interesting sections of Seigel's book deals with the early 20th-century avant-garde artists and writers whose neighborhood was Montmartre. Though this terrain has been covered many times (and here lacks the spicy anecdotes of Roger Shattuck's ``The Banquet Years''), Seigel, especially in his discussion of the premier performance of Stravinsky's ``Parade,'' gives fresh insight into the aims and problems that would characterize modern art for several decades to come.

``Bohemian Paris'' is an exploration of the social context of art; the question of authenticity; the relationship of artists to the marketplace, to their audience, and to one another; and an exploration, too, of the myths we live by. ``The obituary of Bohemia has often been written,'' Seigel observes, ``but so far at least always too soon.''

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