C’était mon livre, le fils de ma souffrance, qui avait donné signe de vie devant le cercueil du bohème enseveli en grande pompe et glorifié au cimetière, après une vie sans bonheur et une agonie sans sérénité.
À l’œuvre donc ! et vous allez voir ce que j’ai dans le ventre, quand la famine n’y rôde pas, comme une main d’avorteuse qui, de ses ongles noirs, cherche à crever les ovaires !
Moi qui suis sauvé, je vais faire l’histoire de ceux qui ne le sont pas, des gueux qui n’ont pas trouvé leur écuelle.
C’est bien le diable si, avec ce bouquin-là, je ne sème pas la révolte sans qu’il y paraisse, sans que l’on se doute que sous les guenilles que je pendrai, comme à la Morgue, il y a une arme à empoigner, pour ceux qui ont gardé de la rage ou que n’a pas dégradés la misère.
Ils ont imaginé une bohème de lâches, – je vais leur en montrer une de désespérés et de menaçants !
- Jules Vallès, L'Insurgé
L'Insurgé is a workmanlike novel about 1870-1--though it does not perhaps inspire one to run into the street singing "La Commune n'est pas morte!", as a semi-autobiographical novel it does present a welcome first-hand view of the events. The sequel to two other books I haven't read, its only real character is the radical firebrand Jacques Vingtras, who spends the first third of the novel gleefully épate-ing the bourgeois and the rest playing minor roles in the events of the Commune. There's no love interest, no family drama, no archrival: the journalistic diary-style narrative makes it clear that this is a Political Novel pur et dur.
One of the most striking things about L'Insurgé is the absence of any sort of bird's-eye view perspective on this last French revolution. One would expect a dramatic reenactment of the fall of the Vendome column, or at least some sort of tableau of the anarchist, free-love society the Commune had supposedly embodied. But no: one hardly notices when we have passed from bourgeois petty intrigue, to revolutionary petty intrigue, to reactionary petty intrigue. For Vingtras (and perhaps for Vallès as well) the Commune seems to have involved nothing but constant recriminations and the occassional narcissistic grandstand. He talks incessantly of the wishes of the peuple, but they hardly appear except as vague abstractions.
I think the explanation for this tendency lies in the fact that L'Insurgé is something of a link between the nineteenth-century realist novel in the Zola vein and the early twentieth-century bohemian novel--one of the earliest examples of which would be Knut Hamsun's 1890 Hunger (and then followed, varying the template somewhat, by Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and the novels of Céline). The latter genre is almost defined by its unyielding focus on the details of its protagonist's poverty, which is presented as the necessary and fundamental prelude and accompaniment to artistic creation. To the extent that the creative act itself appears in these books, it is only an image, hardly ever a convincing one; politics as such disappear almost entirely. Hence we read the old situationist pamphlet "On the Poverty of Student Life" with a shock of recognition:
[The student's] acute economic poverty condemns him to a paltry form of survival. But, being a complacent creature, he parades his very ordinary indigence as if it were an original lifestyle: self-indulgently, he affects to be a Bohemian. The Bohemian solution is hardly viable at the best of times, and the notion that it could be achieved without a complete and final break with the university milieu is quite ludicrous. But the student Bohemian (and every student likes to pretend that he is a Bohemian at heart) clings to his false and degraded version of individual revolt.
Today, the exhaustion of this particular kind of writing is readily apparent (its popularity may be attributed to the same parochialism that churns out endless professor-protagonists in highbrow English and American fiction). But in 1886, when L'Insurgé appeared, it must have seemed new and fresh. Fifteen years after the failure of the Commune, was it even possible to write an overarching Hugo-esque novel about it? The pettiness of the individual life, its small triumphs dwarfed by the magnitude of the eventual failure, must have seemed to be the only satisfying way to approach the subject.
After many re-readings of "On the Poverty of Student Life," I could no longer take bohemian poverty seriously. After having read Vallès, the whole genre seems like an extended digression upon the first chapters of L'Insurgé. It offers a wholly untempting prospect: having begun in predictable pettiness, the poor bohemian is doomed to experience even the arrival of the long-awaited Great Event as a part of the same dogged rut.