There's more to life than getting up and working

May 02, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

BOHEMIA.

Herbert Gold.

Simon & Schuster.

228 pages. $21.

This book is a consolation prize for those who curse their fate of not having been there when Gertrude Stein proclaimed a Parisian cafe's worth of expatriates, would-be artists and

assorted goof-offs "a lost generation."

Herbert Gold, the well-known American novelist, was born too late for that scene. But he got to Paris shortly after World War II, when Sartre and de Beauvoir were holding forth at sidewalk cafes. Since then, he seems to have sampled every bohemian scene, settling in San Francisco, where la vie bohemienne has virtually driven the middle-class version underground.

"Bohemia" is his hilarious tribute to those oddball souls who opt out of the workaday world, to their families' consternation.

"Parents are in the business of wondering if someday the dropouts, layabouts, beatniks, hippies will settle down to a decent normal life," Mr. Gold observes. "Bohemians have their own reasons for thinking they have already found their decent normal life."

The bohemian impulse is often associated with literary and artistic impulses, genuine or posed. As a high school student in Cleveland, Mr. Gold sent some verse off to a little magazine in New York, which printed it. He himself quickly followed, and the editor invited him to a party in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side. Someone asked what poetic forms he worked in.

"Lyrics mostly," the adolescent Herbert Gold replied. "Don't see my way, all the homework I have to do, branching into an epic."

Despite that answer, or maybe charmed by it, he was pursued by Anais Nin, the high priestess of polymorphously perverse sexual freedom. He fled her invitation. What Middle American teen-ager would think he could hold his own with Nin, whose long string of literary-sexual victories began with Henry Miller? But the brief encounter convinced Mr. Gold that there was more to life than getting up each morning and boarding a commuter train.

That metaphysical insight, he argues, is the central proposition of the bohemian philosophy. In fact, art and literature can survive, even flourish, in the most bourgeois environments. Poet Wallace Stevens was a Hartford insurance executive. Can you imagine T. S. Eliot working the kinks out of his verse at a Greenwich Village poetry slam?

The essence of bohemianism is sloth, with or without artistic or political pretension. "Bohemianism," Mr. Gold notes, "offers eternal childhood and potentiality, a waiting around for the perfect lover."

For this armchair tour, readers will thank Mr. Gold, even as he bows deeply to the unknown soldiers of bohemia: "Thank you, whichever unknown geniuses deep in human history invented the soulful metaphor and goofing around."

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