Book Note:
Pure
30 May 2018

¶ The great danger of visiting Crawford Doyle, the fine little bookshop on Madison Avenue that closed several years ago, was yielding to the temptation to buy one of the many sophisticated-seeming and smart-looking paperback books that were ranged throughout the room, not in piles but one next to the other, which of course made the books seem rare — buy them while you can! I don’t know how many times I fell, and I really can’t complain, but it is true that I acquired a number of titles that I later gave away unread. 

Among these, very nearly, was Andrew Miller’s Pure. Like all Europa editions, the book was dressed with clear and spare cover art. The eighteenth-century setting was announced by a gentleman’s lower third, in breeches, hose, and buckled shoes. A small mouse suggested impurity. I don’t remember buying Pure; I generally resist historical fiction. Not to mention that the story takes place in Paris but was written by an Englishman. I still haven’t recovered from the attempt, ten years ago, to reread A Tale of Two Cities

Pure is based on “true facts”: on the eve of the Revolution, the earthly remains of generations of Parisians were removed from the cemetery of Les Innocents, not far from today’s Centre Pompidou, to the catacombs of Paris, or some precursor thereof. The excavation was filled with fresh soil, and a market was established on the site. The market is gone now, too. It’s nothing but a corner of Paris.

The hero of the book is a young Norman engineer, from Bellême in La Perche. I found this small town on the map only after consulting the gazetteer. Nowhere near the English Channel or the Seine, it’s in the southern bulge of Eure-et-Loir — Maine, practically. The engineer has spent some time overseeing the coal mines at Valenciennes. The name of that town always sounds as though it ought to be in the South of France, instead of lurking near the Belgian border, and its associations with fine lace are hard to square with filthy collieries. 

The engineer falls in with an interesting bunch of bohemians, as they would later be called, but in 1785 proto-revolutionaries, I suppose. He is induced to buy an extremely stylish suit, in some sort of pistachio fabric, from the cutting-edge tailor, Charvet. A night on the town with his new pals, spent defacing walls near the Bastille with anti-royal graffiti, had me worrying for the rest of the novel that the nice young man would be carted off in chains. But no. Instead, he is battered with some sort of iron rod by the young daughter of the house in which he is boarding. Whether she is opposed to the emptying of the cemetery or confused about how to express her attraction to the young man, she is carted off to relatives in the country, which makes it possible for the engineer to install, upon his recovery, the girl of his dreams, a brilliant and beautiful sex worker who agrees to live with him if he will provide her with plenty of good, well-bound books. Meanwhile, a colleague from Valenciennes, whom the engineer has recruited to staff and assist in the cemetery project, rapes the lovely sexton’s daughter and then shoots himself. Later, there is a big explosion. 

In short, a Gothic novel in Louis XVI drag. Or a deceptively simple tale stuffed with code to be interpreted by Theorists and Occupiers. When the engineer goes Versailles to submit his final report, he discovers, after a long wait in the antechamber, that the grand minister who paid for the mass exhumation out of his own pocket is not in his office, and may not have been for some time. I think that’s supposed to mean something.   

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