“Poisonous Influence”: Andrew Miller, Pure

pure-coverWine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see — that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past!

Andrew Miller’s Pure follows the work of engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, tasked in 1785 by one of the French king’s ministers, with cleaning out the overflowing and corrupted site of the Parisian cemetery les Innocents. It is a true story but also, of course, as Miller’s author’s note says, “a work of the imagination–in other words, it is historical fiction, its plot steeped in research then rendered as human drama.

Like Now We Shall Be Entirely FreePure has rich in details that make its scenes–many of them grimly horrible, as you might expect from a novel about digging up an old cemetery–exceptionally clear and immersive. A sample, from the digging of the first of many pits from which the remains are removed and then carted away to what we now know as the Catacombs:

They dig for three hours before Jean-Baptiste asks Lecoeur to call the first break. There has not, in these first hours, been much to see. The dead appear to have been reduced to shards, fragments, as if the pit had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Are they digging in the right place? Was the sexton mistaken? He and Jeanne have gone back to the house, but after the break, the pit starts to give up its treasures and every second thrust of the spade levers out some recognisable structure. A jaw with a row of teeth that look as if they might still have a bite to them. All the delicate apparatus of a foot, ribs like the staves of an old barrel. The bone mound becomes a low bone wall. There is no wood, not a splinter, nothing to suggest the men and women who went into the pit had anything more than the shelter of their own winding sheets.

Andrew_Miller_-_PureOver time the finds vary: the miners Jean-Baptiste has imported to do the excavation find well-preserved coffins (“inside is a skeleton, the residue of a man, his bones connected by patches of leathery sinew”); a school’s worth of children, laid head to toe; two young women, astonishingly preserved by “a form of mummification” (“skin, hair, lips, fingernails, eyelashes“). These last are of particular interest to the doctors consulting on the dig, using its finds for their own experiments. One is Dr Guillotin, not yet famous for his advocacy of the swift and relatively painless means of execution that came to bear his name. His presence is one of many reminders that this literal purification process is taking place on the cusp of a different kind of transformation, a purging of the past to make way for an as-yet unimagined future.

I liked a lot about Pure: Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to come to terms with the work he has been given and, in a more existential way, with his own identity; the tactility and pacing of Miller’s prose; the constant lurking sense of imminent danger. I felt a bit at sea, though, in terms of how the various pieces of the novel were meant to add up. When violence breaks out, which it does a few times, quite horribly, it felt random to me: unmotivated, unpatterned, like plot twists rather than clear manifestations of (for instance) the social and political impurities for which the stench of the cemetery seems to stand as a metaphor. The revolution is coming, but the signs of it are scattered, or perhaps a better term (consistent with all the digging!) would be subterranean, present but never quite seen or really accounted for. Quite a lot of things happen, but somehow the novel didn’t seem to have much plot, just events.

pure-3Maybe that’s what Miller wanted: to evoke a scene (which he does pretty brilliantly) and a moment, without attaching it to a larger narrative, whether personal or political. But it frustrated me that so many of the novel’s elements felt seeded with meaning that then didn’t bear fruit. I wanted something from the novel that it didn’t give me, some momentum or culmination. That is about my expectations as much as Miller’s accomplishment, I suppose. Still, when  the church they are demolishing breaks open to let the light in and Jean-Baptiste observes, “How filthy everything below now appears! How much the place had depended on its darkness!” it seemed to me that the moment was crying out to be read symbolically in a way that the novel more generally didn’t support. Miller writes wonderfully, though, and if you want a really vivid sense of what it would look, feel, and especially smell like to dig up thousands of old corpses, though, you won’t be disappointed!

“The Truth-Telling Time”: Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

miller-coverThis was not how he had imagined it, the truth-telling time. It was as if his secrets had altered in the keeping, had grown like living things, so that he did not quite know them any more. Or that they were not entirely his, not the private stash or black treasure he had imagined. And once more it came to him, the thought that had touched him several times since coming back from Spain, that we are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. Everything is present, everything in view for those who know how to look.

Recently on Twitter, when the topic of the latest Booker Prize shortlist came up, I commented that I’ve starting paying more attention to other prize lists when scouting for books to read. I still eye the Booker list, of course, but I am increasingly interested in the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, for one, which plays more predictably to my own preference for both good scene setting (yay, exposition!) and strong storytelling. Historical fiction comes with risks, of course, as George Eliot acknowledged (risks she conspicuously failed to avoid in Romola), and there are plenty of flatly mediocre examples of the genre to be had (as there are of every genre) but for me, really good historical fiction is about as good as fiction gets (ahem).

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the fourth book from this year’s longlist that I’ve read: I reviewed Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind for the TLS a year or so ago; I read both Cressida Connolly’s After the Party and Michael Ondaadje’s Warlight this summer. Warlight is the only one I didn’t appreciate (I found it beautifully written at the level of its sentences but somehow also extremely boring); the other two I’d read before were very good, and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is excellent.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a soldier trying to escape his guilt-ridden memories of atrocities carried out by British soldiers in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, as he makes his way to the Hebrides; it also follows, in parallel, the two men–one English, one Spanish–dispatched to find him and hold him accountable for what happened. As his pursuers close in on him, finding their way by ruthlessly forcing the people on Lacroix’s path to tell them where he has gone, Lacroix himself, unaware of the impending danger, begins to open himself up to the world again, gradually letting glimpses of beauty and love into the bleakness he carries with him and feeling the faint reawakening of hope:

And did he really care about the names of the islands? This was the tall one, this the sleek, this the bare, this like something made more entirely from light and water. They were beautiful–more so than he had prepared himself for, and it comforted him a little that he had had the sense to find them, the world’s scattered edge, that there was in him, perhaps, some trace of a wisdom that could guide his actions.

Though we don’t know until nearly the end exactly what he blames himself for, it is impossible to take this journey with him and believe he deserves the fate the men on his trail have been ordered to inflict.

miller-cover-2 I won’t give more specifics about the plot; I’ll just note that it sets up a structure that is at once simple and increasingly suspenseful. Miller makes good use of the common trope of a geographical voyage also being a voyage of personal discovery, so that the cat and mouse game over time becomes something at once subtler and more complex. Though the plotting is very precise, even the moment when hunter and quarry coincidentally and unwittingly cross paths didn’t feel contrived: it just added to the evidence (shared eventually by at least one of Lacroix’s pursuers) that they are not really seeking a legible or reasonable form of justice but are carrying out a more arbitrary exercise of power, playing their parts in a game none of them can ever really win because those who made the rules don’t care who they really are–or who they could be, if they were free to choose.

The linear design of the novel gives it a lot of forward momentum, but not so much that you want to rush through Miller’s wonderful prose, which is resonant without ever being florid or overly ornamental. There are some fanciful touches–I liked the description of the two pursuing soldiers walking in the woods with “the war spooling from their backs like silk,” for example. It’s the descriptions of the setting that really shine, though, as is both right and necessary given the restorative role the Hebrides play in Lacroix’s odyssey. Here’s a sample, in this case from the perspective of the Spaniard on his trail, who has had a revelation of his own about what kind of journey is really worth making:

The sun was rising swiftly and he saw that he was standing at the edge of a meadow, the grasses growing from sand, and in the grass myriad small flowers he had not been aware of when he came the first time, that must have been closed against the weather, the chill of evening. Now, discovered by the sun, they ignited, one by one. The yellow and the white, the gold and the red, so that he seemed to be looking across a field of small lights afloat on the shallow water of morning shadow. Under his bare feet the ground was fibrous with a structure of endless soft branchings. It was odd to take in the world through his feet, the soles as sensitive, as inquisitive as a tongue. … Someone, he thought, someone should have taught me how to meet joy better.

There is a lot of suffering in the novel: that harsh experience, grief, and failure should make us welcome, not turn away from, joy is one of the lessons Lacroix struggles to learn and that Miller, indirectly, offers us in our turn. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is full of the kind of historical detail that gives its world solidity, but it is not burdened by it; Miller uses his very specific and deftly dramatized story about a particular time and place to explore the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and to ask what we hope to find if we ever get there.