If I describe Andrew Miller’s Pure as a novel about excavating a cemetery in 18th century Paris, you’re not going to want to read it. And maybe if you’re really, really squeamish the subject matter is going to be problematic.
On the other hand, if I present Pure as a coming-of-age novel set just before the French Revolution, in which an engaging young engineer faces a great challenge, that may sound more attractive, and it’s equally true. The novel opens with Jean-Baptiste Baratte kicking his heels in an anteroom at Versailles, waiting to see a minister who has a job for him. Baratte is a farmer’s son from Normandy who has been educated at the elite Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées and thus that useful fictional figure, the socially mobile protagonist. We see him, in Pure, as a supplicant, a boss, a lover, a son, a rube, and above all a man growing into his natural authority.
The task assigned to Jean-Baptiste at Versailles is the demolition of an overcrowded cemetery in the center of Paris. Les Innocents had been in use since the Middle Ages and by the 1780s presented serious health hazards to the neighborhood. Miller is pretty eloquent about the aesthetic issues as well — olfactory for the most part. The cemetery did indeed get demolished, the bones removed to a new location in what is now Montparnasse. The neighboring church was also destroyed, and Miller lingers over the irruption of light into the filthy dark medieval interior:
Once inside the church, they go in single file. The sun has risen above the roof line and where the roof is gone, the light breaks in a shallow angle on the facing wall, picks out, with a kind of unnecessary perfection, the fluting of a pillar, the bevelled edge of an arch, a stone face staring goggle-eyed at some wonder in the middle air…. Something falls, flickers through light into shadow and hits the piled pews with a noise of thunder.”
Light, purification, education, social mobility — you see where Miller is going. A secondary character in Pure is an affable forward-looking doctor named Guillotin whose future invention would remove so many heads. The opening scene at Versailles is matched by a closing scene that foreshadows the coming irrelevance of the Ancien Régime. We even see a cameo of the firebrand Camille Desmoulins delivering a rabble-rousing speech at the Palais-Royal (homage to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety?). But these themes are woven artfully into the trajectories of the characters. This is not one of those historical novels that feels studded with facts, like an overloaded fruitcake. Instead it feels like a seamless, illuminating experience. And here’s the clincher: I finished it two days ago and it lingers in my mind — enormously satisfying.