Café Momus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Puccini opera La Bohème, where the Café Momus is the setting for Act II, in the Latin Quarter of Paris was based on a real Parisian café, frequented by the likes of Henri Murger. The Café Momus, the real establishment, has been fictionalized in fiction by Champfleury as well as by Murger. Schanne writes of it as follows: "The Café Momus was located at No. 15 of the silent and gloomy Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois.

"The almost daily frequenters of the Cafe Momus were, besides Henri Murger and his group of intimates, Champfleury, already known to the reading public, André Thomas, the romance writer, Monselet, fresh looking and plump as an abbé of the last century, Jean Journet, the chemist of Carcassonne, who had constituted himself the apostle of the ' phalanstere,' Gustave Mathieu, the poet, Pierre Dupont, the bucolic songster, the strange but captivating Baudelaire, author of the Fleurs du Mal, Fauchery, who already handled the graver, whilst hoping to handle the pen, Gérard de Nerval, who related to us his travels in the East prior to writing them, the bibliophilist Asselineau, with his eternal white cravat, etc. We had also, though more rarely, a visit from M. Arsene Houssaye. The editor of the Artiste did not sit down, he only came to ask how the copy he had ordered from his young protégés, Champfleury, Murger, and Monselet, was getting on. Nor must I forget on the list of those who have passed through the smoky temple of Momus, the painter Bonvin, [Bonvin, whose death is recorded while these sheets are passing through the press, was the son of a rural constable. After commencing life as inspector of the market at Poissy, he studied painting. His works have often fetched high prices, but he never profited by them, as they were sold by him to picture dealers for very moderate sums. He was, indeed, always a poor artist, though two of his more celebrated paintings, "Saying Grace” and "The "Woman at the Well,” are hung in the Luxembourg Museum. Last year (1886) Bonvin was in such poverty that in order to help him several artists organized a charity sale of artistic works, which was so productive that it placed him in comparatively easy circumstances. He was 71 years old when he died., ed.] the actor Rouvière, who at that time was a pupil of Delacroix and went in for painting, and finally Privat d'Anglemont, the arch-Bohemian.

"After a warm day spent over the old books on the quays Jean Wallon had hung up his drab cloth bookcase, that is to say, his greatcoat, on a peg in the cafe, and was sound asleep on a seat, stretched out in such a way that one of his legs did not touch the ground. I set to work to pull off his heavy and ill-fitting boot, and did so without awakening him. One of us took it, carried it away to the inner room and began to empty a water-bottle into it. At that moment Wallon began to grunt as though his nap was coming to an end. The joker losing his head a little put the boot hastily down on the window-sill, so that it overbalanced and fell crashing through a sky-light on to a billiard table on the ground floor. Imagine the effect of this hydraulic boot and the shower of broken glass in the middle of the game. The staircase soon echoed with the hurried steps of the victims calling for vengeance. Momus, accompanied by all his waiters, brought up the rear. Wallon suddenly awakened and with one bootless foot, was bewildered in presence of this irritated throng. The landlord held the boot and shook it with a threatening air as Samson must have brandished the jawbone of the ass. We were fairly numerous, and hastened to form a rampart about our friend, asking to have the matter explained and offering, if necessary to pay the damage.

"'But,' exclaimed the landlord, 'tell us at least why--' “Without giving him time to finish his sentence, Tabar had the coolness to invent the story that Wallon was a somnambulist, that he had fancied he was putting his boot where he was in the habit of placing it every evening, and that it was very lucky that he had not gone further or he would have thrown himself out of the window thinking he was jumping into bed.

"'Did I do that?' asked Wallon, still unbooted and heavy with sleep.

"' Yes,' we replied in chorus. Tabar then added that somnambulism never failed to punish hyperphysical philosophers for their hyperphysical philosophy. Then addressing Wallon he even persuaded him that he had been talking to his boot, calling it 'old fellow,' and making it partake of refreshments after excusing himself for having made it so heated on the asphalt of the quays. Plalf satisfied with our explanation, or seeing that they could only get paradoxical excuses from us, the invaders resignedly retraced their steps downstairs."

At that time not only in the Latin Quarter but throughout Paris, people hardly went to a cafe except to drink coffee. Beer was only known as a strange and accidental beverage. As to liquors of a supposedly appetizing character, they were but rarely seen, and were looked upon as potions only good for constitutions debilitated by a sojourn in Africa. Punch and mulled wine were drunk in the latter part of the evening. The pipe now replaced by the cigarette was in high esteem; the students even made it an accessory to their costume, and when it was not in their mouths, they wore it in their buttonhole.

The Cafe Momus was not the only haunt favored by the Bohemians. Schanne says: “We went preferentially to the Rotonde, at the western corner of the Rue Hautefeuille and the Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine. When I say 'we,' I mean Murger and all those who willingly grouped themselves about him, posing unconsciously for the characters of the book he was to write. It is even as well that it should be known that we never formed, like the Water-drinkers, a club with rules and a constitution. We saw one another frequently, and that was all. Every evening the same scene took place at this Cafe de la Rotonde, a real scene of Bohemian life. The first comer, at the waiter's enquiry 'What will you take, sir?' never failed to reply, 'Nothing just at present, I am waiting for a friend.' The friend arrived, to be assailed by the brutal question, 'Have you any money?' He would make a despairing gesture in the negative, and then added, loud enough to be heard by the dame du comp-toir, 'By Jove, no, only fancy, I left my purse on my console-table, with gilt feet, in the purest Louise XV style. Ah! What a thing it is to be forgetful.' He would sit down, and the waiter would wipe the table to appear as if he had something to do. A third would come who was sometimes able to reply 'Yes, I have ten sous.' 'Good,' we would reply, 'order a cup of coffee, a glass and a water-bottle; pay and give two sous to the waiter to secure his silence.' This would be done. Others would come and take their place beside us, repeating to the waiter the same chorus, 'We are with this gentleman.' Frequently we would be eight or nine at the same table and only one a customer. Whilst smoking and reading the papers we would, however, pass the glass and bottle. When the water began to run short, as on a ship in distress, one of us would have the impudence to call out 'Waiter, some water.' The master of the establishment, who understood our situation, had no doubt given orders for us to be left alone, and made his fortune without our help. He was a good fellow and an intelligent one, having subscribed to all the scientific periodicals of Europe, which brought him the custom of foreign students. Murger, Léon Nöel, Karol, Pifremann, Ganidol, Berger, Bazin and Privat d'Anglemont were usually present at these meagre festivities."




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