Andrew Miller on the Inspiration for Pure
Posted on: 04/09/2015 with tags: andrew miller, fiction, historical fiction, literature, pure
A very special treat for you this Friday, as Andrew Miller’s new novel THE CROSSING has just been published, we thought it was high-time to revisit his historical novel (and winner of the Costa Book of the Year) Pure!
Here is a short piece Andrew wrote on his inspiration for the novel:
I first read about the destruction of the cemetery of Les Innocents some ten years or more ago. There were a couple of pages on it in Phillipe Aries’ book The Hour of Our Death, a history of Western funerary customs andars moriendi. I was struck immediately by the dramatic possibilities: a cemetery in the heart of pre-revolutionary Paris, a place boiling over with bones, a terrible and fascinating place – a gift to all Gothic imaginations! But what made me sure I would one day write something about it (I originally thought of a stage play) was the timing of the cemetery’s destruction. The disinterments began in the mid-1780s and finished just two years before the storming of the Bastille. There was, surely, some connection between these events. The excavation of millions of bones at Les Innocents was a long overdue and urgently needed civic measure, but it was also about getting rid of history, of the oppressive, perhaps poisonous presence, of an unenlightened past.
Long before Robespierre and the revolution fetishized Reason – in ceremonies that might seem to have been designed to illustrate its near opposite – the brave, sad fantasy of a world governed by logic and order and science was well entrenched in the thinking of a great variety of men and women. There were bold new plans for everything, including new cemeteries to be laid out in pleasing geometries, comfortably beyond the city bounds. The dead would be disposed of in hygienic and undramatic fashion. A sort of scrubbed hush would fall over the whole business. It was secularist, almost democratic. But first, someone must roll up his sleeves and start digging up five hundred years of Paris dead from the black earth of Les Innocents.
And that is where my story begins: a young engineer, well educated, well trained, but from a humble provincial background, is called to the palace of Versailles and offered a commission that, despite misgivings, he does not dare refuse. Destroy a cemetery, demolish a church! I wanted to break him down, a little at least. Wanted to see what, as he and his men uncovered the dead, would be uncovered in them. Would my engineer’s idealism survive his new intimacy with the shards and stink of history? What would he find in his life – in any life – he could still call pure?