Sceptre, £16.99, 342pp £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Pure by Andrew Miller
Between filth and freedom in Paris
Friday 03 June 2011
Andrew Miller's richly textured sixth novel opens in 1785 in a dingy ministerial anteroom in the Palace of Versaille. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, of solid Normandy stock and a recent engineering graduate of the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées, is to be interviewed for a job in Paris. While waiting he endeavours to scrape flecks of mud or shit from his stocking. A small dog fouls the floor, causing Baratte to muse on "the way even a dog's piss is subject to unalterable physical laws". This is classic Miller territory: we're back in the filth-choked, scientifically-charged 18th century (a period he spent comfortably exploring in his first two superb novels), where the inescapable earthiness of life assails on all sides and in all quarters.
Baratte is a professional who will grapple with the technical difficulties of his role but also the softer, more elusive problems: what is his place in society; and how should he pursue his own happiness? Towards the end of this novel, at a crucial moment of decision (and in previous novels Miller has put much weight on characters choosing to act), Baratte is again watching a dog heedlessly lapping water from a puddle. This simple, natural action, an instinctive quenching of thirst amid the filth of Paris streets, spurs him to take control of his life and quench his own yearning – to act, finally, according to his instinct, and in defiance of public opinion.
Murder, rape, seduction and madness impel this elegant novel. Baratte undertakes his commission of removing the entire cemetery of Les Innocents, close to the markets at les Halles. Closed after human remains broke through a wall into the cellar of a neighbouring tenement, the cemetery and its ancient church is to be cleansed. Baratte is to oversee the excavation of the graves and charnel pits (some of which, at almost 20 metres deep, draw on the engineer's mining expertise) and the transport of bones to a defunct quarry outside the city.
Purifying centuries of decaying mortality and removing the miasma that permeates the dwellings, skin and even food of the area is neither simple nor necessarily popular. Miller threads into this fabric subtle ideas about modernity, glancing at Voltaire, public health and the seditious graffiti that anticipate the revolutionary fervour of 1789 - just four years away.
Within this physical and political decay, Miller couches the heart of the matter: how to live one's life with personal integrity, with a purity not so much morally unblemished as unalloyed with the fads and opinions of society. This concern has driven most of Miller's protagonists. In One Morning Like a Bird, a novel beautifully nuanced with atmospheric detail, feeble young intellectual Yuji Takano has to negotiate a mode of living in wartime Tokyo in the face of hostility to his pacifism. The old roué in Miller's superb Casanova seeks bliss philandering in London but achieves only a hollow satiety. At the novel's close, a man yells "I am happy!" from a window. Is he insane? Casanova wonders, then mutters: "Would that it were contagious".
Such contagion Miller gently encourages through his procession of energetic, acutely observed characters, such as Père Colbert, the cemetery's mad priest; Heloïse, a demurely self-possessed whore; or Armand, the church's flamboyant organist. Miller populates Baratte's quest for equanimity with these lush and tart characters, seductively fleshed out, who collectively help to deliver the bittersweet resolution of Baratte's professional and personal travails.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath
- 2 Cara Delevigne addresses awkward interview on Good Day Sacramento
- 3 Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May officially heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
- 4 How to cancel Amazon Prime: after Top Gear hiring, how to leave premium service
- 5 MH370 debris: Investigators 'confident' that Boeing 777 wing found - live updates
Top Gear hires female executive producer Lisa Clark amid reports Jodie Kidd will join Chris Evans fronted show
Frank Ocean, where's that new album at?
Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May officially heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk
Jon Snow not dead? Kit Harington spotted in Belfast where Game of Thrones season 6 is filming
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Calais crisis: For desperate migrants it is 'England or death' as they brave dogs, riot police and speeding trains