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Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Andrew Miller

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626None15,476 (3.7)111
Authors:Andrew Miller
Info:Sceptre (2012), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:historical fiction

Work details

Pure by Andrew Miller (2011)

  1. 10
    The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris (clfisha)
    clfisha: Anyone interested in the creation of Paris Catacombs and in charnel houses/ossuaries in general this is a great non-fiction coffee table book.

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» See also 111 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
End 18th century. A young engineer has to clean up an age-old church-yard in the middle of the capital. ( )
  joucy | Mar 11, 2014 |
An excellent, quick read about the destruction of the les Innocents cemetery in Paris, just before the French Revolution. It is the story of the engineer who overseas the task, but follows him on a personal as well as professional level. He is a likeable character, with just the right balance of integrity and idiocy to make a good protagonist (in my view). The descriptions are beautiful, building a a picture of life in the les Halles area of Paris, and the book is full of colourful and eccentric characters. Most enjoyable to read, but also a bit gruesome. Somehow the unpleasant parts of the story, like the task itself ostensibly, seem tolerable. ( )
1 vote kmstock | Jan 2, 2014 |
Paris, 1967
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.

I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.

Paris, 1785
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.

Andrew Miller takes this true incident from pre-Revolutionary France and builds a marvellous fiction around it, a deserving winner of the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. He imagines a year in the life of an engineer from Bellême in Normandy — from October 1785 to October 1786 — when the young Jean-Baptiste is tasked with the responsibility of organising the exhumations and the demolitions. We have a cast of memorable characters — organist and priest, a sexton and his daughter, a Parisian household with a mad daughter and a resourceful maid, a certain Doctor Guillotin, miners from Normandy, masons from the capital, a literate prostitute — with whom the young engineer interacts. There are months of unremitting hard work and tedium, shockingly violent incidents, tender moments and details that may or may not have significance in the grand scheme of things. All through the novel there is a sense of vividness, of immediacy, of verisimilitude, so that even when we know that much has been invented by Miller we believe that this is how it could have been.

The title is itself pure and simple. The purification of a putrefying Parisian district is what the novel is ostensibly about. But the story is anything but pure and simple. Death marches through the tale, from the threat of aggression to actual cessation of life, from mummified bodies to the bones in the charnel houses that line the cemetery, from the atmosphere of violent overthrow that permeates everything (much as the smell of Les Innocents permeates the whole of Paris itself), whether performances of The Marriage of Figaro, the graffiti on the walls of buildings and under the bridges of Paris or the corrupt places in the palace of Versailles. Everything is in transition, not least Jean-Baptiste’s dreams and well-being, but while there is the promise of life after violence (a birth, a renewal) first comes the blood-letting.

It’s hard not to wonder about all the details Miller puts into his narrative. How is the engineer’s given name related to the original John the Baptist, whose head suffered a severance from his body, and thus to the attack on Jean-Baptiste himself? Are we to imagine that the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod’s soldiers are not only symbolic of the thousands of bodies in the cemetery’s pits but also of the victims in the story? Is not everybody a victim of events beyond their control? One of the strengths of a really good novel, surely, is that the ideas it engenders continue to live long after the book is put down.

And any future visits to Paris will be, for me, forever coloured by the knowledge of what really happened here, once upon a time.

http://wp.me/s2oNj1-pure ( )
  ed.pendragon | Sep 21, 2013 |
A book surrounded by the smell of decay and the tomb - Paris, at the end of a period of decadence. Our naive hero, new in town, wearer of preposterous clothes, grows to manhood in this unlikely place, meeting violence, lust and secrets in a mad, hard world of obsessions...
  otterley | Jun 26, 2013 |
Nice, enjoyable. Read it. ( )
  undstra | Jun 14, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
Flowers bloom again in the disinterred cemetery. Sunlight illuminates the darkness through the broken roof of the church. Though progress brings suffering and death, the balance, as Baratte knows, "will still be in your favour". As Miller proves with this dazzling novel, it is not certainty we need but courage, now as much as ever, before we too are reduced to bones.
added by riverwillow | editThe Guardian, Clare Clark (Jun 24, 2011)
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.
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In memory of my father, Dr Keith Miller, and of my friends, Patrick Warren and George Lachlan Brown.
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A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is tasked with emptying an overflowing cemetery in Paris in 1785, work he considers noble until he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery parallels his own fate and the demise of social order.

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