Pure

Pure

by Andrew Miller

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Overview

The clearing of a cemetery stokes the fires of revolution in eighteenth-century France in this Costa Prize–winning “novel of ideas disguised as a ghost story” (The New York Times).

Paris, 1785. An ambitious young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte arrives in Paris charged with emptying the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents, an ancient site whose stench is poisoning the neighborhood’s air and water. A self-styled modern man of reason, Baratte sees his work as a chance to clear away the burden of history. But he soon suspects that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own fate—and the demise of the social order. As unrest against the court of Louis XVI mounts, the engineer realizes that the future he had planned may no longer be the one he wants. His assignment sets him on a path of discovery and desire, as well as relentless labor, assault, and sudden death.

“Pure is a compelling, timely novel—with its throb of revolution, of ordinary people arising in anger—a narrative that takes death as its subject yet races with life.”—The Guardian

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609450670
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/29/2012
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 599,491
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Andrew Miller ’s first novel, Ingenious Pain , won the James Tate Memorial Prize for Fiction. He has since written five novels including Casanova and Oxygen , which was a finalist for the Whitbread Award and the Booker Prize in 2001. He lives in Somerset England.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time.

There is no fire in the room, though it is the third week in October and cold as Candlemas. His legs and back are stiffening from it–the cold and three days of travelling through it, first with Cousin André from Bellême to Nogent, then the coach, overfull with raw-faced people in winter coats, baskets on their laps, parcels under their feet, some travelling with dogs, one old man with a cockerel under his coat. Thirty hours to Paris and the rue aux Ours, where they climbed down onto cobbles and horseshit, and shifted about outside the haulier's office as if unsure of their legs. Then this morning, coming from the lodgings he had taken on the rue–the rue what?–an early start on a hired nag to reach Versailles and this, a day that may be the most important of his life, or may be nothing.

He is not alone in the room. A man of about forty is sitting opposite him in a narrow armchair, his surtout buttoned to his chin, his eyes shut, his hands crossed in his lap, a large and rather antique-looking ring on one finger. Now and then he sighs, but is otherwise perfectly silent.

Behind this sleeper, and to either side of him, there are mirrors rising from the parquet to the cobwebbed mouldings of the ceiling. The palace is full of mirrors. Living here, it must be impossible not to meet yourself a hundred times a day, every corridor a source of vanity and doubt. The mirrors ahead of him, their surfaces hazed with dust (some idle finger has sketched a man's bulbous cock and next to it a flower that may be a rose), give out a greenish light as if the whole building were sunk, drowned. And there, part of the wreck, his own brown-garbed form, his face in the mottled glass insufficiently carried to be descriptive or particular. A pale oval on a folded body, a body in a brown suit, the suit a gift from his father, its cloth cut by Gontaut, who people like to say is the best tailor in Bellême but who, in truth, is the only tailor, Bellême being the sort of place where a good suit is passed down among a man's valuables along with the brass bed-warmer, the plough and harrow, the riding tack. It's a little tight across his shoulders, a little full in the skirts, a little heavy at the cuffs, but all of it honestly done and after its fashion perfectly correct.

He presses his thighs, presses the bones of his knees, then reaches down to rub something off the ankle of his left stocking. He has been careful to keep them as clean as possible, but leaving in the dark, moving through streets he did not know, no lamps burning at such an hour, who can say what he might have stepped in? He scrapes at it with the edge of his thumb. Mud? Hopefully. He does not sniff his thumb to enquire.

A small dog makes its entrance. Its claws skitter on the floor. It looks at him, briefly, through large occluded eyes, then goes to the vase, the tall, gilded amphora displayed or abandoned in one of the room's mirrored angles. It sniffs, cocks its leg. A voice — elderly, female — coos to it from the corridor. A shadow passes the open door; the sound of silk hems brushing over the floor is like the onset of rain. The dog bustles after her, its water snaking from the vase towards the crossed heels of the sleeping man. The younger man watches it, the way it navigates across the uneven surface of the parquet, the way even a dog's piss is subject to unalterable physical laws ...

He is still watching it (on this day that may be the most important of his life, or nothing at all) when the door of the minister's office opens with a snap like the breaking of those seals they put on the doors of infected houses. A figure, a servant or secretary, angular, yellow-eyed, signals to him with a slight raising of his chin. He gets to his feet. The older man has opened his eyes. They have not spoken, do not know each other's names, have merely shared three cold hours of an October morning. The older man smiles. It is the most resigned, most elegant expression in the world; a smile that appears like the flower of vast, profitless learning. The younger man nods to him, then slips, quickly, through the half-open door of the office for fear it might shut on him again, suddenly and for ever.

CHAPTER 2

St. Augustine,' says the minister, holding between two fingers a part-devoured macaroon, 'informs us that the honours due to the dead were intended, principally, to console the living. Only prayer was effective. Where the corpse was buried was irrelevant.' He returns to the macaroon, dips it in a glass of white wine, sucks at it. Some crumbs fall onto the papers piled on his immense desk. The servant, standing behind his master's chair, looks at the crumbs with a kind of professional sorrow but makes no attempt to remove them.

'He was an African,' says the minister. 'St. Augustine. He must have seen lions, elephants. Have you seen an elephant?'

'No, my lord.'

'There is one here. Somewhere. A great, melancholy beast that lives on Burgundy wine. A gift from the king of Siam. When it arrived in the time of His Majesty's grandfather, every dog in the palace hid for a month. Then they grew used to it, began to bark at it, to bait it. Had it not been hidden away, perhaps they would have killed it. Fifty of them might have managed.' He glances across the desk at the young man, pauses a moment as though the elephant and the dogs might also be figures in a parable. 'Where was I?' he asks.

'St. Augustine?' says the young man.

The minister nods. 'It was the medieval Church that began the practice of burying inside churches, in order, of course, to be near the relics of the saints. When a church was full, they buried them in the ground about. Honorius of Autun calls the cemetery a holy dormitory, the bosom of the Church, the ecclesiae gremium. At what point do you think they started to outnumber us?'

'Who, my lord?'

'The dead.'

'I don't know, my lord.'

'Early, I think. Early.' The minister finishes his macaroon. The servant passes him a cloth. The minister wipes his fingers, puts on a pair of round-rimmed spectacles and reads the sheet of manuscript on the top of the pile in front of him. The room is warmer than the anteroom, but only by a very little. A small fire crackles and occasionally leans a feather of smoke into the room. Other than the desk there is not much in the way of furniture. A small portrait of the king. Another painting that seems to depict the last moments of a boar hunt. A table with a decanter and glasses on it. A heavy porcelain chamber pot by the fireplace. An umbrella of oiled silk propped under the window. Through the window itself, nothing but the ruffled grey belly of the sky.

'Lestingois,' says the minister, reading from the paper. 'You are Jean-Marie Lestingois.'

'No, my lord.'

'No?' The minister looks back at the pile, draws out a second sheet of paper. 'Baratte, then. Jean-Baptiste Baratte?'

'Yes, my lord.'

'An old family?'

'My father's family have been in the town, in Bellême, for several generations.'

'And your father is a glover.'

'A master glover, my lord. And we have some land. A little over four hectares.'

'Four?' The minister allows himself a smile. Some powder from his wig has whitened the silk on his shoulders. His face, thinks Jean-Baptiste, if it were continued outwards a little, would come to an edge, like the blade of an axe. 'The Comte de S — says you are hard-working, diligent, of clean habits. Also that your mother is a Protestant.'

'Just my mother, my lord. My father ...'

The minister waves him to silence. 'How your parents say their prayers is of no interest. You are not being considered for the post of royal chaplain.' He looks down at the paper again. 'Schooled by the brothers of the Oratorian Order in Nogent, after which, thanks to the generosity of the comte, you were able to enter the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées.'

'In time, my lord, yes. I had the honour of being instructed there by Maître Perronet.'

'Who?'

'The great Perronet, my lord.'

'You know geometry, algebra. Hydraulics. It says here that you have built a bridge.'

'A small bridge, my lord, on the comte's estate.'

'A decoration?'

'There was ... It had some aspect of that, my lord.'

'And you possess some experience of mining?'

'I was for almost two years at the mines by Valenciennes. The comte has an interest in the mines.'

'He has many interests, Baratte. One does not dress one's wife in diamonds without having interests.' The minister has perhaps made a joke and something witty though respectful should be said in return, but Jean-Baptiste is not thinking of the comte's wife and her jewels, nor of his mistress and her jewels, but of the miners at Valenciennes. A special kind of poverty, unrelieved, under those palls of smoke, by any grace of nature.

'You yourself are one of his interests, are you not?'

'Yes, my lord.'

'Your father made gloves for the comte?'

'Yes, my lord.'

'I might have him make some for me.'

'My father is dead, my lord.'

'Oh?'

'Some years past.'

'Dead of what?'

'An affliction, my lord. A slow affliction.'

'Then no doubt you wish to honour his memory.'

'I do, my lord.'

'You are ready to serve?'

'I am.'

'I have something for you, Baratte. An enterprise that handled with the necessary flair, the necessary discretion, will ensure this progress of yours does not falter. It will give you a name.'

'I am grateful for your lordship's trust.'

'Let us not speak of trust just yet. You are familiar with the cemetery of les Innocents?'

'A cemetery?'

'By the market of les Halles.'

'I have heard of it, my lord.'

'It has been swallowing the corpses of Paris for longer than anyone can remember. Since the days of antiquity even, when the city barely extended beyond the islands. It must have been quite tolerable then. A patch of ground with little or nothing around it. But the city grew. The city embraced it. A church was built. Walls built around the burying ground. And around the walls, houses, shops, taverns. All of life. The cemetery became famous, celebrated, a place of pilgrimage. Mother Church made a fortune from burial fees. So much to go inside the church. A little less to go in the galleries outside. The pits of course were free. One cannot ask a man to pay to have his remains piled on top of others like a slice of bacon.

'They tell me that during a single outbreak of the plague fifty thousand corpses were buried at les Innocents in less than a month. And so it continued, corpse upon corpse, the death-carts queuing along the rue Saint-Denis. There were even burials at night, by torchlight. Corpse upon corpse. A number beyond any computation. Vast legions packed into a smudge of earth no bigger than a potato field. Yet no one seemed troubled by it. There were no protests, no expressions of disgust. It may even have seemed normal. And then, perhaps it was a generation ago, we began to receive complaints. Some of those who lived beside the cemetery had started to find the proximity an unpleasant one. Food would not keep. Candles were extinguished as if by the pinch of unseen fingers. People descending their stairs in the morning fell into a swoon. And there were moral disturbances, particularly among the young. Young men and women of hitherto blemishless existences ...

'A commission was established to investigate the matter. A great many expert gentlemen wrote a great many words on the subject. Recommendations were made, plans drawn for new, hygienic cemeteries that would once again be outside the city limits. But recommendations were ignored; plans were rolled and put away. The dead continued to arrive at the doors of les Innocents. Somehow room was found for them. And so it would have continued, Baratte. We need not doubt it. Continued until the Last Trump, had it not been for a spring of unusually heavy rainfall, five years past now. A subterranean wall separating the cemetery from the cellar of a house on one of the streets overlooking it collapsed. Into the cellar tumbled the contents of a common pit. You may, perhaps, imagine the disquiet felt by those who lived above that cellar, by their neighbours, their neighbours' neighbours, by all those who, on going to their beds at night, must lie down with the thought of the cemetery pressing like the esurient sea against the walls of their homes. It could no longer hold on to its dead. One might bury one's father there and not in a month's time know where he was. The king himself was disturbed. The order was given for les Innocents to be shut. Church and cemetery. Shut without delay, the doors locked. And so, despite the petitioning of His Grace the Bishop, it has remained ever since. Shut, empty, silent. What is your opinion?'

'Of what, my lord?'

'Could such a place simply be left?'

'It is hard to say, my lord. Perhaps not.'

'It stinks.'

'Yes, my lord.'

'Some days I believe I can smell it from here.'

'Yes, my lord.'

'It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.'

'Yes, my lord.'

'It is to be removed.'

'Removed?'

'Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.'

'And the ... the occupants, my lord?'

'What occupants?'

'The dead?'

'Disposed of. Every last knucklebone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. Someone not intimidated by the barking of priests. Not given to superstitions.'

'Superstitions, my lord?'

'You cannot imagine a place like les Innocents does not have its legends? It is even claimed there is a creature in the charnels, something sired by a wolf in those days — nights we should say — when wolves still came into the city in winter. Would you be scared of such a creature, Baratte?' 'Only if I believed in it, my lord.'

'You are a sceptic, no doubt. A disciple of Voltaire. I understand he particularly appeals to young men of your class.'

'I am ... I have heard, of course ...'

'Yes, of course. And he is read here too. More widely than you might guess. When it comes to wit, we are perfect democrats. And a man who had as much money as Voltaire cannot have been entirely bad.'

'No, my lord.'

'So you do not jump at shadows?'

'No, my lord.'

'The work will be both delicate and gross. You will have the authority of this office. You will have money. You will report to me through my agent, Monsieur Lafosse.' The minister glances over Jean-Baptiste's shoulder. Jean-Baptiste turns. On a stool behind the door a man is sitting. There is time only to notice the long, white fingers, the long limbs dressed in black. The eyes also, of course. Two black nails hammered into a skull.

'You will tell Lafosse everything. He has offices in Paris. He will visit you at your work.'

'Yes, my lord.'

'And you will keep the nature of your business to yourself for as long as is practicably possible. The people's affections are unpredictable. They may hold dear even a place like les Innocents.'

'My lord, when am I to begin this work?'

But the minister is suddenly deaf. The minister has lost interest in him. He is turning over papers and reaching for his little glass, which the servant, moving around the desk, guides into his outstretched fingers.

Lafosse rises from his stool. From the depths of his coat, he takes a sheet of folded and sealed paper, then a purse. He gives both to Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste bows to him, bows more deeply to the minister, steps backwards towards the door, turns and exits. The man who was waiting with him has gone. Was he an engineer too? That Jean-Marie Lestingois the minister mentioned? And if the yellow-eyed servant had looked at him first, would he be the one now charged with the destruction of a cemetery?

He gathers up his riding coat from where he left it draped across the chair. On the floor, the dog's urine, having exhausted its momentum, is slowly seeping into the wood.

CHAPTER 3

For a corridor or two, a wing, he is sure he is retracing his steps. He passes windows big enough to ride a horse through, even, perhaps, an elephant. He descends flights of curving steps past enormous allegorical tapestries that shiver in the autumn draughts and must have exhausted the sight of scores of women, every detail detailed, stitch-perfect, the flowers at the foot of Parnassus, French country flowers — poppies, cornflowers, larkspur, chamomile ...

The palace is a game, but he is growing tired of playing it. Some corridors are dark as evening; others are lit by branches of dripping candles. In these he finds jostling knots of servants, though when he asks for directions they ignore him or point in four different directions. 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.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Pure"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Andrew Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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