Writers Reading

What I’m Reading: July 2012

Never underestimate the power of the simple linear plot. Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre, 2011) is shaped by this structure, which is common to fairy tales, myths and primal narratives: one central character, whose story it is; numerous obstacles; antagonists and supporters, who might swap roles at any time, a compelling setting; and a resounding resolution, which leaves the reader in no doubt at all concerning the fates of all the characters. And basta, there’s your novel! Miller’s new novel, which won the Costa Book of the Year 2011 award, opts for this powerful simple structure, and carries off his readers in triumph. How is it done?

The writer assumes that the reader knows enough history to register the significance of the year in which his tale is set - Paris, 1785. We are in the last days of the ancien régime; revolution is smouldering in cellars and cupboards. Sections of the populace are becoming dangerously literate and reading subversive texts by candlelight. Enter Jean-Baptiste Baratte, engineer, seeking his first ministerial commission from the government, and behold here he is sitting in a chilly anteroom in Versailles. Our hero is given a task. Clear away the cemetery and the church of les Innocents at the centre of Paris, which is polluting the neighbourhood with its noisome, festering stench. This tainted place, with its evil pervasive odour of plague pits and unquiet death, is dense with understated symbolism. Here is the old order of France, not just dying, but already partially buried - and poisonous. Away with it all!

Miller applies his symbolic meanings lightly to the text; they are there for those who have ears to hear. If you, as a reader, have bought into the rip-roaring yarn of sex and death in charnel houses, a narrative that is certainly on offer in Pure, and advertised on the back of the book, then so be it. The novel delivers its promises and the contract with the reader remains unbroken. But if you want a more complex set of suggested meanings, these are there too. Dr Guillotin, inventor of the marvellous killing machine, makes a cameo appearance. What Miller does spectacularly well is deliver his knowledge of the period in deft and clever ways. Baratte has a new pistachio suit made for him - we learn all about men’s clothes and tailors. He visits the Palais Royal – we see into the licentious depths of sexual Parisian pleasures. He eats with the Monnards – eighteenth-century food and petty bourgeois domestic interiors appear before our eyes. The central characters visit the theatre for an ingenious set piece, wonderfully described and animated, that reinforces the argument of the book: the inevitable dramatic movement of revolutionary change. This is a literary novel with an historical setting rather than an historical novel that addresses the debates and disputes of eighteenth-century France. Politics and the social process give way to the personal. Baratte is a tiny cog in the ministerial machine. He is of no consequence, and the drama of the cemetery and the destruction of the church take place far beneath the concerns of power and government. But that is also Miller’s point, and his interpretation of what constitutes history in fiction is one with which I’d agree. Historical change happens in small events and unseen places, the reading of a book, a slogan painted on a wall, a child going hungry.

At the centre of Pure, (and the title suggests its opposite; Corruption,) lie the bone yard, charnel houses and death pits of les Innocents; the tainted, putrefying smell of ancient mass death haunts the novel. Baratte visits his family in Normandy and the stench accompanies him. He disgusts his country family in a quiet unspoken way. I loved this un-described foul smell and strange taste of death at the back of the throat. One of the miners from the North, hired by Baratte to excavate the pits and clear the bones, is overcome by the poisonous vapours at the bottom of one of the plague pits, and collapses. Miller doesn’t give the reader any olfactory details of this stench, just its deadly effects, and the repugnance of each character when they encounter the tainted stench for the first time.

Men who write, beware the women you imagine. This is usually where you will come unstuck. Either your unexamined misogyny will be revealed, or your deluded, sentimental attachment to cliché will glitter on display for all who read. Or both. Here are Miller’s women: Marie the maid, a sex spy, peering through peepholes, Ziguette, the sexually deranged daughter of the house, who assaults the engineer with his very own bronze T-square, probably because he won’t make love to her (she wants it, they all do); Lisa Saget, the organist’s mistress, a shadow figure, mother and woman as rock of ages, wheeled out as necessary; Jeanne, the sexton’s daughter, just past puberty and in love with the engineer; (she also wants it, they all do). But why they should be in love with Baratte, the detached, ambitious, self-absorbed would-be arriviste is something of a mystery. Baratte remains a character in the process of formation; this is a novel of initiation. And then there is Héloïse, la nouvelle Héloïse, a glamorous prostitute, given to advanced, Enlightenment reading, with whom our engineer falls in love; a rapid coup de foudre. Miller allows us to hear her thinking about her pathetic elderly clients. Like most prostitutes, she supplies love and cuddles to elderly hopeless cases in exchange for money. She both pities and despises her clients, but this is something of a window-dressing job, so that we can read her as the tart with the heart of gold, the woman who is kind to lost causes in exchange for knowledge and books, not as a cunning, unscrupulous, diseased whore, which is the only way she would ever have survived.

These women do form a catwalk line of stereotypes, and the several destinies of the main figures add up to a row of convenient clichés; through their fates the writer deprives them of agency and choice: banged up in the country (mad Ziguette), raped and paired off with a devoted minor character (Jeanne), united to our hero in an equal loving partnership (Héloïse), where, presumably, she no longer earns her own money as a prostitute and therefore loses her independence. So much for the women. But hats off to the fictional men, all of whom are interesting and have suggestive, complex inner lives: our hero Baratte, a man in search of his identity, Lecoeur, the disillusioned radical, and the most intriguing character among them, Armand, the church organist, leader of an anonymous graffiti group. He gives Baratte the nom de guerre of Bêche (spade) and implicates him in the campaign against the state. Eighteenth-century graffiti were as common in London as in Paris, and in times of strict political censorship acted as an outlet for suppressed ideas and frustrated rage. Just as they do now.

Pure isn’t a perfect book. The unthinking clichés surrounding the women raised my feminist hackles, and their presence indicate a dearth of emotional and imaginative intelligence on the part of the writer. But this book is still, for the most part, a successful and powerful novel. Why? The arc of the action is simple and dramatic. There are no irrelevant subplots or chunks of undigested research. Miller never forgets the importance of The Event. In contemporary fiction something must happen, or threaten to happen. The miners arrive, begin to clear the cemetery and to destroy the church. Their Director of Works, Baratte’s old friend, Lecoeur, now largely discarded, is driven mad, presumably by the stench. We are offered assault, rape and sudden death, as well as the final purifying fire when the old church burns. Will the engineer succeed in his task or will his ambitions be foiled by the forces ranged against him? Will the almost invisible lurking priest, hidden in les Innocents, attempt sabotage? Will the miners, led by the violet-eyed radical, rise up against their employer? Will the ambiguous Armand change sides and help the mad priest save the Church? Baratte himself comes to a new realisation. He must live his life differently.

A desire to start again, more honestly. To test each idea in the light of experience. To stand as firmly as he can in the world’s fabulous dirt; live among uncertainty, mess, beauty. Live bravely if possible. Bravery will be necessary, he has no doubt of that. The courage to act. The courage to refuse (p. 307).

Which of us could demand more of ourselves? Note that Baratte decides to live without the aid of religions and ideologies. Here endeth the novel of initiation, but the taste and atmosphere of this enthralling tale of revelation, mystery and suspense has remained with me, as has the powerful, pervasive stench. As I say, never underestimate the power of the simple linear plot. 

All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2024