Death is everywhere in Andrew Miller's new novel, Pure.
It has filled les Innocents, the Parisian cemetery whose grim odour suffuses every inch of the surrounding neighbourhood: from the taste of the food to the breath of its inhabitants.
The year is 1785, and after centuries of cadaverous over-crowding the authorities have decreed that the remains be removed to the newly created Catacombs in the south of the city. The decision purifies the arrondissement (today, the chic shopping district of Les Halles), but it also ends in suicide, more than one attempted murder, a host of life-threatening diseases, the simmering threat of revolutionary violence, and a doctor who goes by the name of Guillotin.
Miller is well acquainted with the darkest dimensions of human behaviour: his debut, Ingenious Pain, opened with an autopsy that was grizzly and gristly in equal parts; 2001's Oxygen described a massacre, mainly of women and children, in Rwanda. In Pure, the gothic dimension of his imagination runs riot, albeit in a plot that is moreishly enjoyable and contains a cast of vividly realised characters.
When we meet, in the centre of London, Miller confesses that his interest in such grave matters is partly personal. "I'm 51 now," he says with a giggle that sounds amused, if slightly nervous. "After the age of fortysomething, death is a taste in your mouth, and never goes away again."
If Miller is troubled by macabre thoughts, he does a good job hiding it: fit, wiry and handsome, he looks younger than his half-century. In conversation, he is eloquent, if reserved, speaking into the middle distance and only occasionally meeting your eye. His accent is curiously indefinable, and reflects a lifetime of globe-trotting: having lived in France, Japan, Spain and Ireland, he has settled in the Somerset village of Witham Friary with his partner and six-year-old daughter.
Miller first heard about les Innocents (or Cimetière des Saints-Innocents) in Philippe Ariès' cultural history of funereal rites, The Hour of Our Death. What attracted his attention was not the drama of corpses being excavated, but the timing of the move.
"This happened just before the Revolution ... here's les Innocents, stinking away with 500 years of bones in it. I can't believe it smelled a lot worse in 1780 than it had in 1680, but people couldn't put up with it any more. Something had changed people's ability to tolerate such a thing."
Miller says this "something" was partly the advent of polite society and a consequent reluctance to confront death, pain and messiness. "It was a society that ... didn't want to be distracted by the notion that it was all going to pass and decay." If this suggests one definition of purity, others are suggested by political undercurrents. Namely, the ideals that helped shape the French Revolution: Voltaire's call to reason, Rousseau's call to equality, and Robespierre's call to arms.
"Within a few years, there was this mad fantasy of starting everything again – Year One, Year Two. If I had written about the cemetery alone, it would have been merely ghoulish. In combination with the time, the removal of this stinking old place becomes part of this brand new thinking about modernity."
The corruption of these ideals, not least through the guillotine, chimed with Miller's own fascination with what he calls the limits of ideas. "Ideas like pure good or pure evil do not stand the test of experience. Life would be much simpler if they did. But perhaps that simplicity is what we want."
Miller is not above a little idealism himself, talking ardently about literature as the means of understanding the world. It is most obvious when he discusses his literary hero, DH Lawrence: "He made writing seem important and revolutionary." But his attitude has changed over time. Today he calls Lawrence an "uneven" writer, who at his best is as good as anyone in the 20th century. What Miller strives to preserve is that initial reverence for fiction. "If there's not some sense that writing ... might change people for the better, then why do I make the great effort involved in producing books?"
It is a question that Miller's own father asked repeatedly, and not in a positive fashion. A doctor by profession, he possessed an unshakeable faith that science was the means by which the universe could be explained. Where the son worshipped Lawrence, the father admired Richard Dawkins.
"His thinking only became more extreme as he got older. He was a really hardline materialist by the end. I just can't make that journey. There's an arrogance to a certain kind of scientific thinking – a fantasy that at some point we will have worked everything out ... and there will be no more secrets."
This fundamental difference in their respective imaginations made the relationship a difficult one: "What intrigued me meant nothing to him. He looked at my ideas with suspicion. He wanted to know why I didn't settle down and sort out a proper career."
Miller's father died just as work on Pure began: the novel is dedicated to his memory. Father and son made their peace before the end, a process facilitated when Miller himself became a father (to Frieda) at 44. "She has affected absolutely everything," he says, "in good ways and occasionally in trying ones. Nothing has measured me more ruthlessly than being a father."
Miller has tentative plans to turn the "varied and intense experience of parenthood" into a novel, closely based on the realities of his own life. Interestingly, he leaves the last word on the subject to his father. "One of the things my dad said to me late in his life was that when you have children, firstly they worship you, later they judge you, and if you are lucky, finally they forgive you."
The witticism quotes Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps Miller the novel-writing son had more influence than he thought.
From Pure By Andrew Miller, Hodder and Stoughton £17.99
'There is nothing now between him and the night sky, nothing between him and the church of les Innocents, for surely that black hulk, just discernible against the eastern sky, is les Innocents. And below it, the span of blackness between the church and the street, that, evidently – for what else can it be? – is the burying ground. If he were to climb over the bed and leap from the window, he would be in it, this place that is poisoning Paris!...The stink that creeps through the open window he has already smelt something of in the breath of the Monnards, in the taste of their food....'Reuse content