Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Pure
Richard Lee, Lucinda Byatt
Andrew Miller’s Pure: the Historical Novel as ‘time outside time’
Andrew Miller won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Award for fiction and the Grinzane Cavour prize for Ingenious Pain (1997), set in 18th Century England and Russia. His third novel Oxygen was shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Whitbread, and Pure, his fifth novel has already won the Costa Best Novel, and Costa Book of the Year Award.
This kind of historical novel is firmly ideas-based, event-based. Something happens (fictional or real) that is unusual in its own time, and this acts as the focus of the book. The novel essentially charts how people cope with the unusualness of changed circumstances, and how that reflects on their time and on ours. It is a style that works equally well for literary novels and for genre novels. Thomas Flanaghan’s The Year of the French, about an ill-starred Irish rebellion in 1798 and J.G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur, the siege of a fictional town during the Indian Mutiny, are eminent literary examples, both Booker winners. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s muse on a portrait by Vermeer, is a widely-known recent novel in this vein. ‘Non-literary’ versions of this kind of book are really any book with an unusual task – hence the gamut of war novels, or adventure novels – and any novel where the protagonist is stranded in an alien culture. Two examples are Wilbur Smith’s Triumph of the Sun, about the siege of Khartoum, and James Clavell’s Shogun, about an Elizabethan sailor in Japan.
In literary hands this style of novel is an ideal form for poking fun at past bigotries, for emphasising the ironies of history. The protagonists are almost inevitably on a cusp of change but they are unaware of this, or unable to predict an outcome accurately. With hindsight we watch them fumble, and are encouraged to view our own lives, our own time, in the light of this confusion.
Again we have asked two staff writers, Lucinda Byatt and Richard Lee, to look at Pure as ‘literary historical fiction’.
This is the third in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction?, and the second here: Walter Scott Prize shortlist: On Canaan’s Side.
Lucinda Byatt discovers that Pure is not so much about history as the erasing of history
In Pure, Andrew Miller’s sixth novel, the author returns to a century, if not a place, that he has written about twice before: Ingenious Pain, his debut and multi prize-winning novel, is set in late 18th-century England, as is Casanova in Love. Here, instead, Miller crosses the Channel and takes as his setting the dying days – and the dead – of the Ancien Regime. The French king, Louis XVI, has decreed that the Church of les Innocents in Paris and its vast cemetery must be demolished, allowing this central area of the city (now les Halles) to be rebuilt as a market, once its grounds have been made new. Pure. Millions of corpses lie in mass graves, and the bones of thousands of others are stacked in the charnels that line the cemetery walls. The church has raked in vast sums in burial fees, but by the 1780s the situation is untenable and the authorities finally force the cemetery to close. The whole neighbourhood is suffocating: the food tastes nauseous, wine turns to vinegar, the stench filling the air causes people to swoon, a cellar wall collapses after a rainstorm due to the pressure of mud and bones. The task of overseeing the horrendous work of clearing the cemetery, and removing the bones to an old quarry (outside the aptly named Porte d’Enfer), falls to a young and newly qualified engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte from Bellême in Normandy. But neither the authorities nor the engineer foresees the unsettling effects of this act of clearing away the past, the erasing of history. Revolution is already in the air and may soon be a reality according to the Party of the Future, whose daubed satirical messages and threats appear at night. Miller builds this tension throughout the book, although the events end well before that fateful moment. There is no shortage of hints of the mayhem to come: the fashionable tailor, Charvet, whom Baratte visits, handles his client with the professional freedom those of his trade share with “surgeons and executioners”. On his first nightly escapade with the Party of the Future the engineer is given the alias Bêche – the spade now used to dig up the dead at les Innocents, but which will also be used to bury the Revolution’s victims during the bloodbath to come. In one of the most evocative scenes in the book, at the climax of the clearance, the miners who have been brought to work in the cemetery reassure the engineer of their skill in dealing with fire. The Bastille will no doubt be burnt down by men such as them.
when asked what kind of soup is being served for Jean-Baptiste’s first meal at the Monnards, the reply comes, “Bones.”
While I occasionally found the plot slow, there is no question that Miller’s writing is intensely evocative. From the moment Jean-Baptiste arrives in Paris, we are immersed in this particular neighbourhood of the city and its architecture, its narrow streets crowded with a vast canvas of humanity. Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist of the closed church of les Innocents, with his flaming orange hair, has all the passion and total lack of respect for authority of the true artist. There is humour, too: when asked what kind of soup is being served for Jean-Baptiste’s first meal at the Monnards, the reply comes, “Bones.” Miller’s imagery is at times exquisite: clouds tangle in the Paris chimneys, a smoke cloud of bats whirls out of the church, the burning tips of the grass in the cemetery bloom like flowers while flaming birds rise like the souls of the blessed.
the line between philosophy, reason and madness becomes increasingly blurred
It is the paradox at the heart of the book that as the cemetery is cleared, and the church is finally demolished – all in the name of reason and light – Jean-Baptiste and others round him become increasingly irrational. Indeed, the line between philosophy, reason and madness becomes increasingly blurred. The engineer is an avid reader of Voltaire – and also Buffon, a radical natural scientist – yet he is still discovering himself, his loss of faith, the growing distance between himself and his family at the farm in Normandy. Miller’s plot is driven entirely by the engineer’s compelling need to fulfil his task, and yet there is also a strong sense of the fortuitous and its effect on our lives: Jean-Baptiste’s wanders confused and lost through the streets of Paris, where he meets Heloise by chance. Perhaps this is all merely confirmation of the fact that, as Miller himself says, “most of the time what is fuelling our behaviour is obscure”. An inability to communicate – a lack of clarity and reason – is another barrier between Jean-Baptiste and the miners, and even in the tragic breakdown of his relationship with his old friend Lecoeur. Throughout Miller highlights the role of luck, or perhaps providence might be a better word, more in keeping with the age: finding a way out of a labyrinthine palace like Versailles, surviving a potentially fatal assault, not falling off a stone parapet. Like the elephant at Versailles, Jean-Baptiste finds himself in a strange land, at the mercy of strangers, but unlike that poor animal, he finds love and the ambition to succeed. This is a captivating book: it immerses us in a world on the cusp of change where old habits die hard, and through the story of this extraordinary undertaking it offers a critique of human frailty and the Enlightenment illusion of creating a purer better world.
Richard Lee picks 3 lines that demonstrate why Pure is a ‘literary’ novel, not just ‘good writing’
One frequent response since I proposed this series has been: surely there aren’t literary novels and ‘unliterary’ novels – just good writing and bad writing. Well, yes, in one way, but no in another. I believe that ‘literary’ is a genre of its own. In other words it is quite possible for a ‘literary’ novel to be bad writing, and equally possible for ‘unliterary’ novels to be very great writing.
Line 1: ‘On the floor, the dog’s urine, having exhausted its momentum, is slowly seeping into the wood.’ (p13 in the Sceptre paperback).
Urine is ubiquitous in historical fiction. Usually it is a scene-setter, a quick pungent way of making you notice that we are living in times past: a chamber pot in the corner of the room, the humiliation of a captive, relief on horseback while still riding. It is there to shock, to make us reach for the air-freshener. Since Shogun, it has also been a required ‘domination’ scene for some male authors: remember Richard Chamberlain, in the televisation, all unexpecting as the local Japanese potentate demonstrates his power?
Urine has to work harder in a literary novel. Miller’s dog arrives, has his claws ‘skitter’ on the parquet, sniffs at gilded amphora and mirrors before cocking its leg. Once out, the urine must ‘snake’ towards a sleeping man, must negotiate the uneven floor, and must suggest to its onlooker ‘the unalterable physical laws’. The point here is not to shock – rather the opposite. We see the dog and it makes Versailles real to us, so that you can hear the rattle of the parquet in your head. When afterwards Miller reveals that aristocrats (not just dogs) use the resplendent corridors of Versailles as a toilet (‘One calls after him, ‘Follow your nose’, but his nose tells him only that the dung of the mighty is much like the dung of the poor’), he does so without any specific incident. Less is more. By the time that Miller’s hard-working urine is seeping into the parquet we can guess that many other things will ‘seep’ in this novel, that corporality and scatology are not being employed just for effect, they are integral to the imagining of this book.
Line 2: ‘He is interested, slightly disconcerted, to discover that he has an erection.‘ (p 51)
I am struggling to imagine Sharpe, or even Fitzwilliam Darcy, ‘disconcerted’ by an erection. Historical fiction is no stranger to lusts of the flesh. It is not always graphically described, but it is there, and when it is referred to it is generally with an object in mind. This is a plot turning point. Either the protagonist is being betrayed by lust or defined by it. His response reveals his character, and it will re-arrange the emotional order of the book from then on. In ‘unliterary fiction’ the one thing he won’t think is: ‘Oh, that’s interesting’.
In a literary historical novel you will have sex scenes – it is practically obligatory
Andrew Miller has much more fun. Just prior to the erection, his character has divested himself of his character-defining ‘pistachio breeches’. Immediately afterwards he holds ‘it’ like a pen, then stays crouched down to conceal ‘it’ from his nubile neighbour, then watches ‘it’ like an ‘absurd puppet… making its slow bow between his thighs.’ And of course, does nothing with ‘it’. (‘Is the life of the body the true life?’) In a literary historical novel you will have sex scenes – it is practically obligatory – but unless the book is described as ‘erotic’ you will frequently be teased and misled as to their importance and success.
Line 3: ‘The English couple share a boiled egg.’ (p 91)
Food is another weapon in the armoury of the historical novelist. Need some period colour? Simple, serve up some strange food. Need to add potency and a sense-signature to a scene? Food does that. So when King John is lusting after somebody else’s wife in one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels, the excellent scene is made memorable by the saffron egg that he offers her. The slipperiness of the egg, the sharpness of the saffron, the lasciviousness of the king – all meld memorably. And lesser authors will give you the whole repast: treat you to a paragraph of description that is swallowed pretty much whole from a contemporary source, just so that you know which parts of the book are ‘true’ and which bits are ‘fiction’.
Miller’s line is actually quite bad. How, after all, do you share an egg? Do you peel it, and tear it apart with your fingers? Or take a bite each? What becomes of the shell? Is this sufficiently polite in 18th century public-space? How clean are their hands, or is some pen-knife used? Or are there perhaps two eggs that are shared, one each? And isn’t it wrong to identify the English with boiled eggs so early? I’m not certain we went to work on an egg until the 1950s. In fact less is more here, again. Miller is quite happy to unleash his oxtails and his pigs trotters elsewhere in the book. Here he leaves the image bald, and it is my imagination that has asked the questions. This is a response to the reality of the world he has created. My mind has been trained by the other detail, the other imagining, to imagine here.
The joy of this book is that it is exquisitely crafted, emotionally intelligent and genuinely enlightening
Andrew Miller’s Pure is ‘literary’ in the sense that you really can write a great deal about a single sentence (as I have). It is literature as defined by English Literature students. It is also, in my opinion, very good of its kind. Miller doesn’t underestimate his readers, but he doesn’t talk down to us either. There are sly jokes in this novel, about the nature of artifice, about history, about modernity, but they are not too sly; they are not written, one feels, just to please the post-modernist critic, but grow directly from the characters and the text.
Above all Andrew Miller crafts the most wonderful sentences. You can pick up the book and open it at random and find something to delight you. It is not a pacy book. It is not really well described by the quotation on the back ‘A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love…’. Though all these things do occur, they are not deeply moving in their portrayal. The joy of this book is that it is exquisitely crafted, emotionally intelligent and genuinely enlightening. I found that more than enough for me.