Here’s another post about a book that’s not a history book, but that historians might be interested in: Andrew Miller’s novel Pure, published in 2011 to considerable acclaim and the Costa book prize. (Beware: this post contains spoilers.)
Pure is set in Paris in the 1780s, a few years before the Revolution, where the young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte comes from the provinces in search of advancement and is charged with the nauseating task of clearing out the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, burying-ground for the city since medieval times, recently closed but still stinking the place out: “Some days I believe I can smell it from here”, the minister tells him, in an office at Versailles, twelve miles away. Soon Baratte is lodging with the Monnards, a family whose dwelling overlooks the cemetery; they carry the reek of the place on their breath, and the food they eat tastes off even though it’s not.
The novel follows Baratte as he prepares the ground, literally, for his task, identifying and staking out the overgrown common pits with the assistance of the sexton and his granddaughter, hiring workers from his former job in the mines at Valenciennes (along with a fellow-engineer and friend, Lecœur, as a supervisor), laying in supplies and negotiating his tricky position in a neighbourhood which, however little it likes having platoons of corpses burst through its cellar walls after heavy rain, is suspicious of outsiders and superstitious about the stinking boneyard at its heart. Baratte also makes friends with Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist at the decaying church of les Innocents, a one-time foundling child who is an avowed member of the ‘party of the future’. Armand takes Baratte to the Palais-Royal, pleasure centre of Europe, and gets him pissed; he also gets him fitted out in a pistachio-green silk suit at Charvet the tailor’s, daringly moderne, to contrast with the respectable, provincial brown suit he had been given by his dead father in Bellême. In line with his philosophical disposition but against his better judgment, Baratte tentatively and briefly joins Armand in his anti-royal activities, under the nickname Bêche or ‘Spade’—a pseudonym all too easy to match to his job, especially when someone paints grafitti on the cemetery wall warning ‘FAT KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE! BÊCHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES!’
Anyone wanting to get a sense of what Paris felt—and smelt—like on the cusp of the Revolution could do a lot worse than read Pure: its crisp present-tense narrative carries you easily down the rue aux Fers, along endless corridors at Versailles, or down with the redeployed miners to the bottom of a common grave pit seventeen metres deep, its sides supported by wooden box-cribs—the miners happy to build them because Baratte pays them a wage, whereas in the mines they would never take the time to shore up their tunnels because they were only paid for the coal they brought up. The interweaving of historical fact and literary fiction is smooth, and fun. Two physicians of enquiring mind join the excavations: their names are Guillotin and Thouret, both real people. You don’t need me to tell you what Guillotin’s contribution to the revolution was (here he’s a genial, kindly character); his colleague may be less familiar, but the real Auguste Thouret had a brother who made a distinctive contribution to the revolution—and to the shape of modern France—before he himself went to the guillotine. The sense of France’s class, regional, and capital/provincial distinctions is sure-footed, and the personal and precarious connections Baratte must rely on in his slow climb out of provincial obscurity are delicately and unobtrusively etched out, and we can easily extrapolate from what we know of his trajectory to see what this new and rational kind of man will become. Baratte must prove that he is, as the minister puts it at the outset, ‘a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness’; by the second half of the book, even the minister’s grim-faced bagman, Lafosse (‘the pit’ or ‘the grave’, a gag that’s a little too obvious), starts to recognize that Baratte could handle a lot of unpleasantness. Mocked by a man on the street, Baratte responds with unexpected swiftness and violence. ‘In the time to come’, the narrator tells us, ‘the man will say he saw bloody murder in those grey eyes, will insist on it and be listened to.’ Before his task is done, Baratte has had to bury a couple of fresh corpses as well as exhuming thousands of old ones. He’s ditched his pistachio silk suit, too, for a sober black, ‘like a Geneva parson’.
The problems with the book, notwithstanding the praise showered on it by the critics, aren’t historical: they’re literary. Even when it isn’t explicit, the foreshadowing of the coming upheaval is heavy-handed. The main plot has a rationalist clearing out the stink of old corruption (to borrow a term from a different ancien régime), and finding that superstition and irrationality may be more powerful forces than reason—may do his job for him faster and more thoroughly, but are impossible to control. As workers knock holes in the roof of the cavernous old church, shafts of daylight penetrate into the grand interior, to reveal that it is dirty and moth-eaten. ‘How filthy eveything below now appears! How much the place depended on its darkness!’. This is hardly subtle. ‘Beams are rotten to the heart!’, the mason Sagnac yells down, ‘Another twenty years it would have come down on its own!’ There’s an even stagier, more unlikely episode in the coda, when Baratte returns to Versailles with his carefully edited report on the completed task, a year older, considerably wiser, and altogether scarier in his own right. Getting lost on the way out precisely as he did on his first visit, he comes upon a garden where servants are attempting to shift ‘something grey and vast and lonely’, the corpse of an alcoholic elephant.
Beyond this clumsy symbolism, you can’t help but notice that several of the characters aren’t really characters. The depiction of an unbridgeable distinction between a labouring collective of workmen and their lonely, educated superior is surely accurate, but it’s undermined by Miller’s halfhearted attempts to give a couple of the miners individual voices: Jan Block, survivor of an early injury, and above all the supposedly mysterious—but actually just vacant—‘miner with the violet eyes’ who steps forward from the plot equivalent of nowhere to be their decisive leader at the crisis point. Nor did literature need another male novelist to write about a beautiful prostitute whose human dignity is intact despite her trade, and who proves herself more humane than the ‘respectable’ folk who surround (and fuck) her: here the character of Héloïse, who becomes Baratte’s partner, and who isn’t saved from cliché by the fact that she reads books and has a bit of explanatory family background.
The parts of the plot that rest on what these characters do, therefore, don’t work. We can believe that the miners working to demolish the church might decide to torch the place after one of them is killed in an accident, but not that a mysterious miner with violet eyes and a missing half-finger would make them do it. Ziguette, the voluptuous daughter of Baratte’s landlord, gets a couple of pages of the narrator’s attention near the start of the novel, but not nearly enough to explain why, midway through, she should go mad upon learning that the true purpose of Baratte’s work at les Innocents is to expunge it—let alone attempt to stave his head in with his own brass engineer’s ruler as he sleeps, nearly killing him. (She’s naked when she does this, so Miller can describe ‘the tight blond curls over her sex’.) I don’t mind characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense to me, but I do prefer it when I can see why they’re behaving in a way that makes sense to them. Women aren’t very well served generally: Armand’s common-law wife Lisa Saget does some cooking, but the main reason we know she’s a competent and likable person is because that’s what Baratte thinks of her, not because the narrator provides us with any free-standing evidence from her point of view.
Then there’s the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne: when she first appears, and has the role of showing the young engineer—and us—round the graveyard, she’s a proper character, with thoughts and a perspective of her own. But she thins out drastically in the rest of the book, when her other main plot function is to be raped, battered, and impregnated by the disappointed utopian, Lecœur. Then again, the only reason the miner Jan Block gets a name, and a life-threatening injury early on in the show, is so he can recuperate in the sexton’s house, allowing him to fall in love with Jeanne and take care of her after the attack—so all’s well that ends well, or at least it is for the now bovine Jeanne. (‘She has visibly thickened about the waist; her breasts are swelling. She looks younger. Young, shy, dreamy. Not unhappy.’) Less so for the plot of the novel, which falls apart towards the end. Miller seems to get bored of the patient reconstruction of a painstaking and stomach-turning task, and whips things on to a hasty and unconvincing climax.
Un gros livre est un grand malheur, the saying goes in French: a thick book is a great misfortune. That usually holds true for history books, but with novels you can argue it both ways. This one is too short. In the first half of the book, the pace is slow—the miners don’t arrive to start digging until a hundred and twenty pages in—but the narrative is lightfooted. When it abandons this steady work and starts hurrying things along, the novel becomes less convincing and less original. If it had held its nerve, it would have been two or three times longer, and much better.
Update: I deliberately didn’t check FFFH (or any other sites) for reviews of Pure before I wrote this, but it turns out FFFH does indeed have a rather good article on the novel, by Clare Crowston of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She takes a contrasting view, finding the novel good as fiction and more problematic as history. Read her piece here.