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Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Andrew Miller

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6774314,123 (3.7)124
Authors:Andrew Miller
Info:Europa Editions (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library

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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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This has got to be one of the most beautifully written contemporary British novels of recent years. Andrew Miller's writing is a revelation: apparently effortless, wonderfully evocative prose to savour that conjures up the Paris quarter of les Halles and the cemetery of les Innocents before the start of the French Revolution, but with a palpable civil unrest already tainting the air, along with the stink of the overflowing burial ground. From the first sentence the reader is transported through time and space, following Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the engineer from Normandy, as he tries to make his way in the capital, tasked with the almost impossible: how to empty the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, and destroy its church and sexton's house, in order to purify the Paris air? Over the subsequent twelve months, we follow Jean-Baptiste and an eclectic assortment of friends and acquaintances as they encounter bones dating back centuries, mummified corpses, accidental death and suicide, rape and insanity, but also friendship and love, leaving me quite breathless at the end. Wonderful stuff that could inspire someone to become a writer; heartily recommended. ( )
  passion4reading | Jun 6, 2014 |
Pure by Andrew Miller is set in the 19th Century and takes place amidst Les Innocents, the oldest cemetery in Paris. In 1875, the cemetery has been closed to burials for 5 years because it is overflowing with corpses and emitting a foul stench that permeates the air and taints anything growing in the ground nearby.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Engineer employed by the Minister to demolish the Les Innocents Cemetery and relocate the human remains to a secondary site outside the city of Paris. (The location is known to us now as the Catacombs of Paris).

Jean-Baptiste struggles with the morality of the project and where to find men willing to carry out the dark task of disturbing the final resting place of thousands of Parisian occupants.

Pure is rich in a sense of place and I really felt as though I were in Paris with the protagonist. The descriptions of the church, the charnel houses, the graveyards and the massive organ inside the church were so evocative I was quick to build a clear picture in my mind of this grisly yet soulful place. So much so, that when I stopped reading Pure to do some private reading about Les Innocents, the sketches were exactly what I'd pictured in my mind. The cemetery had been operating from the middle ages until 1780, and was said to contain the remains of 2 million people.

The true historical nature of the subject matter is the real hero here, and it's no surprise that Pure won the Costa Book Award in 2011 for "Best Novel" and "Book of the Year." Despite the dark content, there are several opportunities to smile throughout the novel, and here's one I'd like to share from page 51:

"He must read, work, think. He...pulls close the candle and opens his copy of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle Volume II. A piece of pale straw is his bookmark. He frowns over the page. The taxonomy of fish. Good. Excellent. He manages an entire paragraph before the words swim away from him in black, flickering shoals..."

I loved that quote, and hopefully it gives you an insight into Andrew Miller's writing style. Pure is not a book for everyone, it's gruesome and confronting and the smells alone might be enough to deter a brave reader, but it covers a fascinating event in history and one this reader definitely didn't want to shy away from. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | May 24, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (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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The time will come when the sun will shine only on free men who have no master but their reason. Marquis de Condorcet
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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Haiku summary
How do you remove
A cemetery in Paris?
Bone by bone, it seems.

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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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