Is there the sense of an ending of first class literature in the award of the Costa to Andrew Miller for his historical novel, Pure? According to the pundits, there was considerable and bitter dissension amongst the judges. I have mixed feelings about it. I am always uneasy with historical novels because we cannot help but bring our accummulated knowledge and twenty-first century sensitivities into play when reading them and consequently are in turn delighted or appalled by events in a way that is anachronistic. Miller himself pens a note at the end of the novel claiming that 'this is a work of the imagination, a work that combines the actual with the invented...' so this is not history. Is it literature?
There is no doubt I think that Miller is good on detail. His characters are well drawn and fleshed out and in lingering on the ordinary, he makes it extraordinary. We smell the streets, the shops even the breath of the inhabitants of Paris in 1785 and spend a highly amusing evening seeing The Marriage of Figaro at the newly built Odeon. But he leaves us curiously unsatisfied by omitting the bigger picture. There is no sense of impending revolution - apart from the activities of four locals enthusiastically painting graffiti nightly on the walls. There is one passing reference to Rousseau, a nod to the Bastille with another to Diderot and the Encyclopedists. But the overall picture is one of a thriving and busy petit bourgeoisie more concerned with their wine and cheeses than any ideas of fraternity and equality.
The story concerns one, Jean Baptiste Baratte, an engineer from Normandy, who is charged by one of the King's ministers to clear the church and cemetery of Les Innocents which has become so over-filled that the sheer number of corpses have caused it to collapse into the basement of a local house. Centuries of interred bones are to be lifted and moved to newly constructed cemeteries outside Paris. Jean Baptiste is new to Paris and takes up lodgings with Monsieur and Madame Monnard and their daughter in their house overlooking the cemetery. Immediately he becomes aware of the 'stink that creeps through the open window' and which he has even smelt on the breath of the local inhabitants and feels that, as a young man of ideas and ideals, he can conceive of this work as something worthy and serious. As he begins his task we gradually meet the curious characters who will populate his life for the duration. And these characters are the best part of Miller's work. For the rest, Baratte could be quoting Miller himself when he says, in a rather awkward sentence, 'what the world is doing, what it is readying itself for, he will attend to later'. But of course he never does.
Baratte is quite an interesting man, one absorbed by an identity crisis. Every night as he settles to sleep he asks himself, who am I, where do I come from, what are you, what do you believe in. He believes in the power of reason, a child of the Enlightenment, and this in the face of the madness of his work in the cemetery dealing with the thousands of bodies and bones who have lost all identity. He is conscious of his dignity, his scholarly achievements and his position in Normandy as the son of a master glover who also owns land. His attention to and care of his workers seems to be curiously out of joint with eighteenth century mores and I would question its veracity. Sometimes he seems as worthy as the NHS and Social Services rolled into one! He finds love and companionship with a gentle whore, Heloise, an accomplished autodidact who collects books.
This is a good story but unambitious with no great literary merit. A holiday read for next summer!