Danse Macabre

Pure by Andrew Miller.
Sceptre 2012 (2011)

Paris, 1967
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.

L'Ecoute
L’Écoute by Henri de Miller

I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.

Paris, 1785
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.

Innocents-1785

Andrew Miller takes this true incident from pre-Revolutionary France and builds a marvellous fiction around it, a deserving winner of the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. He imagines a year in the life of an engineer from Bellême in Normandy — from October 1785 to October 1786 — when the young Jean-Baptiste is tasked with the responsibility of organising the exhumations and the demolitions. We have a cast of memorable characters — organist and priest, a sexton and his daughter, a Parisian household with a mad daughter and a resourceful maid, a certain Doctor Guillotin, miners from Normandy, masons from the capital, a literate prostitute — with whom the young engineer interacts. There are months of unremitting hard work and tedium, shockingly violent incidents, tender moments and details that may or may not have significance in the grand scheme of things. All through the novel there is a sense of vividness, of immediacy, of verisimilitude, so that even when we know that much has been invented by Miller we believe that this is how it could have been.

Cemetery-of-the-Innocents-007

The title is itself pure and simple. The purification of a putrefying Parisian district is what the novel is ostensibly about. But the story is anything but pure and simple. Death marches through the tale, from the threat of aggression to actual cessation of life, from mummified bodies to the bones in the charnel houses that line the cemetery, from the atmosphere of violent overthrow that permeates everything (much as the smell of Les Innocents permeates the whole of Paris itself), whether performances of The Marriage of Figaro, the graffiti on the walls of buildings and under the bridges of Paris or the corrupt places in the palace of Versailles. Everything is in transition, not least Jean-Baptiste’s dreams and well-being, but while there is the promise of life after violence (a birth, a renewal) first comes the blood-letting.

CimetiredesSaints-Innocents
It’s hard not to wonder about all the details Miller puts into his narrative. How is the engineer’s given name related to the original John the Baptist, whose head suffered a severance from his body, and thus to the attack on Jean-Baptiste himself? Are we to imagine that the Holy Innocents massacred by Herod’s soldiers are not only symbolic of the thousands of bodies in the cemetery’s pits but also of the victims in the story? Is not everybody a victim of events beyond their control? And what’s the significance of the elephant which is both teased and feared by the crowd? One of the strengths of a really good novel, surely, is that the ideas it engenders continue to live long after the book is put down.

And any future visits to Paris will be, for me, forever coloured by the knowledge of what really happened here, once upon a time.

View of Les Innocents charnel houses filled to overflowing with exhumed bones, a Danse Macabre painted on the walls
View of Les Innocents charnel houses filled to overflowing with exhumed bones, a Danse Macabre painted on the walls, before their demolition in the 1780s

Repost of review first published 21st September 2013

The Elephant of the Bastille, a monument conceived by Napoleon but later demolished

25 thoughts on “Danse Macabre

    1. Yes, I was captivated too, as you can guess! There was apparently a bit of controversy over its choice as Book of the Year, but as I haven’t read the other contenders I’m perfectly happy to have read and enjoyed it.

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    1. Col, I’m making up for lost time! My belief is that there is something of worth in most fiction, and though I’ve come across a few stinkers that I can barely summon up the energy to mention (let alone review) I’m willing to give most things a try. Though I do draw the line at bonkbusters. Or Mills & Boon. Or anything with angels, zombies or vampires in them. Or…

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  1. Wonderful review. I have only seen the catacombs on TV and never heard the story of how they came to be. I always assumed this was how the dead was disposed of. I had no idea the bodies were moved. I just put the book on my wishlist.

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    1. Thank you! I knew the catacombs were filled with bones moved from elsewhere but I had no idea where, when or why, let alone how. While much of the novel is fiction, Miller had done his homework on the essential facts.

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  2. I would love to visit the catacombs on my next visit. The first time I went to Paris was two years ago and my first impression was that the city held much history.

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    1. I’ve never visited the Paris catacombs but I’ve seen loads of photos and descriptions — do visit, if you’re not squeamish!

      Paris is indeed choc-a-bloc with so much history of all periods. Like most capital cities there is so much to see away from the usual tourist hotspots, though I suspect the catacombs, like Paris’ more recent cemeteries, gets it fair share of visitors.

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  3. I haven‘t read Miller‘s book, but what you describe conjures up memories of Süskind’s „Perfume“, which opens with a similarly visceral description of Les Innocents (and I have to confess that passage was quite enough for me — I read the book ages ago, but its opening stuck in my mind all the time). As well as Parot‘s first Le Floch mystery, „L‘énigme des Blancs-Manteaux“ (translated as „The Châtelet Apprentice“), which is set in 1785, and where he does something similar with the Montfaucon gibbet and équarisseurs. For a buddy read of that latter book, I engaged in a bit of research, too … and came up with similar images as you did (and mental associations). * Shudders * 18th century Paris — and other large cities — must have been quite the olfactory experience; no wonder that perfumes of all kinds were practically de rigueur, at least for those who could afford them!

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    1. I wonder if future generations will find it hard to imagine our own everyday smells — they don’t often feature in novels, do they?

      I think back to the all-pervasive smells I had in childhood: coal fires, smoke from steam trains, hot and pungent exhaust gasses (laced with lead) from cars, gas and paraffin stoves, cigarette smoke, pollutant-laden fog. Now there are mostly more natural scents I recall: flowers, blossom, cut grass, approaching rain, rich loam…

      But I can still smell Paris in the 60s: onion soup in an early morning café, the slight niff under the Paris bridge we students (briefly!) attempted to sleep under, the mix of fleshy smells as the market traders got ready in the dark for the day’s business, the damp rain-washed scent of the streets of Montmartre.

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      1. Maybe we’re just less aware of the way in which everyday smells feature in “our” contemporary fiction — because they’re used more en passant in setting the scene, as they don’t require much explanation? (E.g., a mention of the smell of gasoline fumes, in a big city setting, need only take a few words right now, but think of readers a century further on, or even in a few decades, for whom the smell associated with a car’s exhaust pipe is likely not going to be an everyday association anymore and may require more explanation.) It strikes me that “Pure”, “Perfume”, and Parot’s book (and series) are all historical fiction, so they’re by nature written for a different primary audience than a book published in the 1780s would have been — or that historical fiction written a few decades or a century from now but set in the late 20th / early 21st century would be. Maybe a book of historical fiction written about our time in the future would also take more space to set the scene when it comes to using smells that have become unfamiliar?

        And, even primary target audience aside, I do think contemporary novelists on occasion do place emphasis on smells as well as on imagery and audio references in creating a book’s atmosphere, too — it just depends on how important the smells are, and of course for what purpose authors want to use them in a given case. Though not a contemporary example, but a famous one in a book also primarily written with the author’s own contemporaries in mind, just think of Proust’s use of the smell of madeleines … or speaking of Les Halles, Zola’s “Ventre de Paris”.

        Though, I do envy you your memories of Paris — that must have been quite an experience! I saw the tail end of 1960s / early 1970s Paris when I first visited in my childhood, but even that was after the original version of Les Halles had already been demolished (and even if they hadn’t been, my mom — who hated them — wouldn’t have let wild horses drag me there; I remember us visiting the area, where a site had just been designated for what would become Centre Pompidou, and my mom’s elation at the fact that Les Halles were gone.)

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        1. Those memories I have of Les Halles in 1967 are like rocks or small islands in an otherwise vast ocean, so apart from the smells I just remember the hustle and bustle of the early morning. We were half a dozen first year male students from a variety of disciplines (a social scientist, a chemist, an engineer or two, and me and another musician) and while the social scientist had been to Paris before, I was the only one with any real competence in basic French so spent most of the time trying to interpret for them; and of course there was some safety in numbers. Your mother was probably right to caution against you going there!

          I take your points about whether a writer would bother to comment much on smells in a contemporary novel as opposed to in historical fiction, unless it were to bring out some significance (like Proust and his madeleines).

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  4. I did read Pure a few years ago and I’m back now thinking about the smells and your comment about what do we smell now – it’s true, smells have changed so much, keyboards and screens are somewhat lacking. Something to think about and to ask my children about in their lives, interesting!

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    1. You’re welcome, Annabel. I must look out for more Andrew Miller — I see he’s a fellow Bristolian, though a dozen years separates us — and as an award-winning author clearly well regarded. As for the modern Les Halles, on our visit we gave it a quick glance and moved on swiftly!

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