Pure by Andrew Miller

View previous topic View next topic Go down

Pure by Andrew Miller

Post  eddie on Fri Jan 27, 2012 3:35 am

Andrew Miller: my morbid obsession

Novelist Andrew Miller admits he is fascinated with death and decay. It's a theme that permeates his Costa prize-winning novel, Pure, set around an 18th-century Parisian cemetery

Kira Cochrane

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 25 January 2012 20.02 GMT


Andrew Miller: 'I was very dreamy and genuinely didn't get the idea of school.' Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

In the 1780s, the corpses of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris were bursting their bounds. The graveyard was centuries old, and the weight of the bones, the mass burials, the dead stacked metres deep and rising above street level, had left the ground so exhausted that a morbid rota was in train – bodies buried until decomposition, then dug up to make room for others. A skeleton army breached the cemetery wall, cascading into a neighbouring building, and the pungency led to fear of airborne disease. It was time to take action, the authorities decided. Time to raise the dead.


Pure
by Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller first read about the clearing of the cemetery (in the area known as Les Halles) – the transport of skeletons to the catacomb tunnels beneath Paris – 10 years ago, in a book by French historian Philippe Ariès, called The Hour of Our Death. The Ariès book, a study of western funerary customs, made only brief mention of the graveyard's destruction, "but I was taken by the theatricality", says Miller. "It was done mostly at night, with fires burning to purify the air, and this terrible job was going on right in the middle of this very populous quarter of Paris. And then, of course, the bones were taken across the city in these processions, with chanting priests, to a quarry on the other side of the river. So that appealed to me as being interesting, visually interesting, but it was when it all happened that made it stand out. It's the 1780s, a few years before the French revolution, and it seemed to me there was some attempt here to erase the past, erase history."

Ariès's short reference formed the basis for Miller's sixth novel, Pure, which this week won the Costa book award. The chair of judges, Geordie Greig, described it as "a morality tale that engrosses with its vivid rendition of pre-revolutionary France", as well as praising its "extraordinary scenes of corpses and cemeteries and sex". And while Miller still seems to be blinking with surprise when we meet an hour after the announcement, the award is highly deserved. 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. Central character Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young, green engineer from Normandy, summoned to Versailles, and ordered to oversee the grave clearance, which tips him into a world of antic characters; people who live and work so close to the graveyard that it taints their breath, and possibly their minds.

Part of the joy of the novel is its fleshiness, bone crunch, gristly, meaty, stinking metaphors, its rich sense of the human body as both abstraction and animal entity. So an alley full of cheese sellers is "a curious clogged vein of a street", a man pulls ruminatively "at the lobes of his ears as though he were milking a pair of tiny udders", a priest's guts rumble, a chair has "blooms of human grease", a calf's head tastes as though "pickled in its own tears", and a loaf of bread is "small, blood-warm". The tone echoes the gory autopsy that opens Miller's first novel, Ingenious Pain, also set in the 18th century, in which a body is slashed from sternum to pubis, its scalp jerked away from the skull and laid "over the corpses's face in an obscene bloody pile".

Miller's father was a doctor; does this have a bearing on his interest in the "fleshly casket", as he has called the human body? "I'm sure it does," he says. "I grew up looking at these things – my Beano and Dandy were the BMJ and the Lancet. There were piles of these, with the funny, blurry pictures of boys with terrible deformities, these poor characters who get photographed, written about, and shuffle off to die somewhere." His parents split up when he was small, and he moved with his mother, stepfather and older brother to a flat in Bath, a city he suspects influenced his interest in the 18th century. Bath was in "one of its vaguely shabby periods", he says, "and the buildings were all quite black from smoke … You'd take the wallpaper off inside the flat, and see generations of decorators had signed their names. We found hand-painted playing cards beneath the floorboards, a little set of three. And things like this are really suggestive."

A spare, serious figure in his brown corduroy suit, hair bluish in the light, voice strong and careful, it's hard to believe Miller's description of himself as a "slow developer". He is now 51, and his intelligent, inventive novels have been widely lauded; his third, Oxygen, was shortlisted for the Booker. But Miller is insistent. He was always a big reader, but he failed his 11-plus, "in a way few people ever do. I plumbed new depths … I was very dreamy, and I just genuinely didn't get the idea of school." This failure led to him, aged 11, being sent off to board in Wiltshire, where he "suffered homesickness on a grand scale. There was a lot of bullying, a huge amount, and so it was a miserable beginning." Eventually the school realised, and there was a purge of the bullies, "these great big, lumpy, bored boys. There was no real malice in them. And after that it was actually quite a nice little school."

His academic outlook didn't improve much. Miller's initial ambition was to join the military, and specifically, "a Napoleonic, grand army. I wanted a great uniform. I wanted to join an 18th-century army, or at least an early-19th-century army." Then he saw the military camps in Wiltshire, and "I recognised, of course, that I was completely unsuited to it".

His love of reading continued through secondary school – he left with one A-level, in English – and at 18, he says, he had "a little, you know, epiphany. I don't want to dress it up too much." He realised he wanted to be a writer. "It was an afternoon in a sunlit room, and I'd just finished reading The Rainbow for a second time and I thought: of course, what else would you do? DH Lawrence appeals so much to young, would-be writers, because he makes the whole business of writing novels feel revolutionary." His mind made up, he began writing stories and poems.

There was no immediate path to university; instead, he looked after people with learning disabilities. His first job involved living on site at a respite home in Cheshire, where people would come "and stay with us, and it was absolutely wonderful". He moved on to a big hospital outside Bristol, looking after a similar range of people, "but in a totally different circumstance. It was a Victorian hospital, which had had some scandals, and we used to wear white coats, which was a very different set-up. There was a locked ward I worked on sometimes, called Sunshine Ward, because of these huge, unbreakable perspex windows." The people there "had been forgotten" he says. "There was a guy called Filthy George, who was in his late 80s, and he'd flashed in a park on a couple of occasions in his 20s, you know? And there he was. That used to happen. The hospital is closed now, and it's odd to drive past and see things growing out of the windows. But I think it's good that it's gone."

At 22, an essay on Lawrence gained him a place at Middlesex Polytechnic, as it then was. On finishing his degree, he had the delicious task of calling his father and telling him the news: "One, I got a first at university. Two, I'm getting married. And there was this lovely silence. He was completely lost for words." He laughs. His father died a couple of years ago, and was never thrilled by Miller's decision to become a writer. "His way through life had been a very structured, professional kind of progress, and the idea that somebody wouldn't do that, would just trust to the [prevailing winds] seemed to him foolish. I think he thought not a lot of it, and the truth is he was not a supporter. I don't know that he ever expected me to do anything very much. He was a lovely man, a very bright man, but a man of very little imagination. So the fact I wanted to do something that had imagination right at the centre was already a big leap for him, and this remained an unbridgeable gulf."

There were years of teaching English as a foreign language, his marriage ended, and then at 30 he secured a grant to study creative writing on Malcolm Bradbury's famous University of East Anglia creative-writing course. Afterwards he wrote Ingenious Pain, a book that confirmed his talent when it won the Impac prize, one of the world's biggest literary awards in financial terms, triumphing over a shortlist including books by Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cynthia Ozick and Haruki Murakami. He looks back on the book's writing, and its reception, as a halcyon time. "I had this curious nine months of living in a period of grace, and I knew that's what it was. I knew I could do nothing wrong – in my personal life too. I knew it would end, of course, and there was this sense of the hammer swinging towards the side of your knee, and sure enough, it did, but that doesn't take the time away. There was this little period of living, at that point, in Somerset, on the Mendips, and I imagine that with my last flickering memories, as I fade into the great hereafter, perhaps some of those days will be the last to go, because they were very lovely."

He lives in Somerset again now, with his cat Fatboy (who's bereft of his sister Slim), looking after his beloved seven-year-old daughter Frieda at the weekends, teaching writing, and not worrying about what writing of his own might come next. We return to the subject of graveyards, and I ask if he would choose burial after all his research for Pure. "Well no!" he says. "I've opted for the fire. I've always liked that idea. I want funeral games. I want chariot races, ideally. We may be pushed to do that in the village – but it might be possible to make some cows run past."

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Pure by Andrew Miller

Post  eddie on Fri Jan 27, 2012 3:55 am

Andrew Miller's Pure: the best kind of historical novel

Miller's tale of Paris before the revolution captures the past without any hint of artificiality


Pure by Andrew Miller: 'a good and interesting choice' Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Intelligent, serious and thought-provoking, but also entertaining, Andrew Miller's Pure is the best kind of historical novel.

Reading it, you feel as if you are in Paris before the revolution, a city at once decaying and on the cusp of momentous change, a place of disgusting smells and odd subcultures, at once recognisable and utterly foreign.

Miller uses the story of his hero, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the provinces commissioned to oversee the destruction of a church and its cemetery, as a way to dramatise one of the great questions of the Enlightenment: what is the status of the past? Is it something to be cherished and held on to, or should it simply be swept away?

One fault of historical fiction is that, even as it strives to inhabit an earlier age, it makes you aware this is what it's doing, by straining to ape a period style, or advertising its research. The effect, paradoxically, is to make you feel cut off from the subject.

Somehow Miller entirely avoids any such sense of artificiality. This is largely to do with his style, very plain and unadorned, and in many ways quite modern. The novel reminded me of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which is about a very different period, but has a similar sense of effortless immediacy.

A good and interesting choice, but one that may ruffle feathers, because the consensus was that Matthew Hollis's sort-of biography of Edward Thomas was the strongest on the list. The judges seem to have opted for safety over boldness: Pure is a book that it's extremely hard to dislike.

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Pure by Andrew Miller

Post  eddie on Sun Feb 26, 2012 3:30 am

I've read it. It's great. Highly recommended.

eddie
The Gap Minder

Posts : 7840
Join date : 2011-04-11
Age : 60
Location : Desert Island

Back to top Go down

Re: Pure by Andrew Miller

Post  Sponsored content Today at 7:33 pm


Sponsored content


Back to top Go down

View previous topic View next topic Back to top

- Similar topics

 
Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum