I've been meaning to read Andrew Miller for some time, and finally got round to "Pure", his Costa winning novel from 2011. Set a handful of years before the French Revolution is takes a vignette of Parisian history - the clearing of the cemetary of Les Innocents, where the dead had been piled up for centuries until it had become a charnel house poisoning the very air of Paris. Metaphor is not hard to find in "Pure", though in many ways, having set it so poignantly in place and time, Miller concentrates on what he surely knows best, which is telling a story. And its a ripe tale. The young engineer, Jean-Baptiste has been summoned from Normandy for an unknown task, which turns out to be the clearance of the cemetary, and he sets about it with a mixture of enlightenment gusto, and pragmatic common sense, calling on a troupe of Flemish miners to do the (literally) dirty work. A classic young naive away from home, the petit-bourgeois family he stays with are friendly but distant - and their beautiful daughter gets increasingly fraught as they discover what his job actually is. Miller doesn't waste any time on unruly stratagems - for Jean-Baptiste arrives at the church and immediately enlists a sidekick and friend, the ebullient organist Armand, to navigate him through the poor, decadent district in which Les Innocents is based. Jean-Baptiste - son of a protestant - isn't so keen on raffishness, but does get drunk and buys a dandyish suit, before eventually taking up with a beautiful Austrian prostitute whom he makes a (relatively) honest woman of.
Yet the book doesn't shirk away from the dirt and the detail of the macabre task in hand. It takes a light comic touch to walk us through the destruction of a cemetary and the horror of what is found there by the band of miners is skilfully told. They appear to be an almost ghostly presence in the novel: a band of ne'er do wells whom the engineer has to keep in check, but who nonetheless take to their task in hand. Like "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" a young man, trying to make his fortune, is doing so in a world that is anything but idealistic. You never quite get the sense that Jean-Baptiste - a man hired by a shadowy minister - is at any sort of real risk, and he's simply too likeable, so that even though his character hardens, and he faces near-death at one point, the novel seems to set him aside from the other characters. Like in Rose Tremain's "Restoration" (surely a book that has informed this whole strand of comic historical fiction?) we root for him even as he goes about his somewhat Herculean task.
Though some 300 pages or more, its quite a slight novel, and I zipped through it in an afternoon, not without alot of pleasure, despite its ghoulish moments. At its heart, its a comic romp, that may as well be set in a fantasy world as in this well-imagined pre-revolutionary France. The macabre nature of its subject reminds one of Suskind's "Perfume". I'm reminded, more than once, of Thomas Hardy, particularly a novel like "The Woodlanders", with the 14-year old girl Jeanne, who grew up in the cemetary, taking on the role of Marty South. This idea of innocence and experience is explored throughout. Yet when Hardy was writing about the passage of history in that novel, he was documenting inevitable change; here, we have an English novelist going back in time to a well-trod period of history, which has inevitable walk-on parts for everyone from Marie Antoinette to Dr. Guillotin. Carry On Don't Lose Your Head is not too far away. In one of the book's better recurring themes, Jean-Baptiste's "nickname", imposed on him after a drunken night with Armand and his shadowy pre-revolutionary anarchists, keeps appearing in graffitti. Yet, perhaps not wanting to stray too much into a deeper history, this running joke doesn't lead anywhere (yet its hinted at, one point, that it will be important.)
The tale itself is relatively slight, but told with great gusto, and some lovely details, and Miller writes with a sure touch that makes me want to go and read his other books; yet its not particularly a serious book. Like so much of English fiction it doesn't quite feel grown-up enough for my tastes, despite its reasonably ample servings of sex and gore. The historical novel is a dominant feature of the contemporary literary landscape, but however well-researched, however enjoyable it is, I came away from it glad to have had an enjoyable read, but wishing it was both more serious in its intent, and committed in its philosophy.
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