For most of the 20th and our own time, historical fiction has been considered an excrescent stump of serious literature, a form of genre writing like science fiction or mysteries. Harold Bloom was skeptical about it. And James Wood, in his fine small book on writing, How Fiction Works, dismisses pretty much all genre writing as being, by definition, formulaic.
In the 19th century, the writing of historical novels was a big deal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Tale of Two Cities… They were eagerly gobbled up by the rising middle class, who longed for literature that would expand their horizons.
The 19th was also the great era of historiography. Macaulay and Guizot wrote epic histories of their countries. And Prescott wrote his histories of the conquests of Mexico and Peru, two of my favorite books when I was growing up. Mommsen, in Germany, wrote about the Romans. Mommsen received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902 for his writing as a historian. These great histories were read as if they were works of literature. When a new class rises. it develops a passion for reading.
Andrew Miller’s Pure takes place in 1785 in Paris. If you are hazy about what was going on in that era, just recall Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette which takes place in Paris at roughly the same time. Pure touches base with the 2006 film a bit via bookend visits to Versailles.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a youngish man who is waiting in an anteroom of Versailles for a job interview with a minister whose name we never learn. First off we get the waiting: in a mirrored room with a middle-aged gentleman who is probably Jean’s rival for the job….whatever it is…Jean-Baptiste doesn’t know.
It’s Miller’s writerly candor that shakes the wig powder out of the reader’s eyes. Jean notices that someone has drawn a cock in the dust of the mirror opposite him. Later a small house dog idles in, scraping its claws on the wood floor. The toy dog pisses on a floor-standing vase in a corner that looks like it’s abandoned. No one bothers to clean the mess up. the piss just dribbles along the floor until it dries. The room is freezing, not much warmer than outside, perhaps even colder. And the minister’s own room is only slightly warmer due to a smallish fire. Throughout the story, characters have a hard time keeping warm. Firewood is expensive. The rooms leave a green glaze in the atmosphere due to all those floor to ceiling mirrors. One gets the impression of vast expense in the building but a limited budget now available for maintenance.
Later in the story, when a man and woman are in bed, the woman leaves the lovemaking to use the chamber pot, then wipes her leg on a nearby rag and gets back into bed with her lover. This is not an 18th century of lace handkerchiefs and minuets. It’s brutal, the way ordinary people lived and it’s in your face. Then there are all the corpses.
Jean-Baptiste’s assignment is to demolish a cemetery and church, Les Innocents, located in the heart of Paris. It seems that the burial ground has been over-used for decades. During heavy downpours the corpses break through the walls of adjoining basements and reek putrefying corruption on the residents. This novel has more corpses than a zombie film.
When I realized that I was about to read 300 pages on the exhumation of corpses, I threw the book down. But then I picked it up again and gave it one more try. Like the conscripted miners who are assigned as Jean-Baptiste’s demolition crew, I got used to it. But I still felt like taking a shower every time I put the book down. The miners are given free pipes and tobacco to hold down the stench and forestall infections.
Pure is very Howard Hawks. It’s about a young man proving he can do the job, that he has the guts and the competence and the managerial skill. That’s what drew me in. But what kept me involved in the story were the characters and their relationships with Jean-Baptiste. This is another of those novels where you love the people.
Pure has a engineering mind-set that carries over to Barrate’s relationships. He’s so conscientious, our Jean-Baptise, with his job and with his friends. He raises questions about his competence in handling his best friend from the old days, LeCoeur. They were middle managers in an oppressive mining operation in the remote north of France. It was a soul-destroying and life shortening job. Demolishing a cemetery in Paris is actually a big step up for Jean and might lead to better things.
So when Barrate needs to assemble a work crew plus supervisor, he thinks of rescuing his old friend LeCoeur, involving him in his greater sucess, literally saving his life and maybe his sanity as well. If you’ve ever had a friend from the old days that you wanted to help, then you’ll understand how Jean feels about LeCoeur.
Throughout Pure, the commitment to professional standards sounds like a great new modern idea, especially since, in the background of the story, the society that Jean and LeCoeur are part of is falling apart. That’s the old regime of arbitrary connections and arbitrary arrests. The old society which can’t seem to keep Versailles warm anymore.
Friendships and relationships with lovers are built like bridges. And just like with bridges, an incompetent design can result in disaster. It’s a surprising exploration into the lives of people who just happened to live about 200 years ago. They’re trying to be competent and trying to survive on the jagged edge of traumatic societal change. Even though some of them, like the middle class Monnards that Jean-Baptiste lodges with, are hoping against hope that nothing changes and they can go on with their lives as before. Don’t they sound like us?
So if you can live with reading about mummified corpses, that would be Charlotte in this story, (we give them names you see) I dare you to pick up Pure when it’s published by Europa as a drop-in title in early summer. You’ll be stunningly entertained and intellectually stimulated. And if I got a little flippant in this review about all the charnel house stuff, that’s how I decided to cope with all those reminders of our non-transcendent mortality.
Pure won the Costa Prize for best first novel in Britain for 2011 and it’s the reason you should take historical fiction seriously.