I lived in Paris for a year after I graduated and while I did quite sufficiently well visiting historic sites both touristy and more obscure to prompt the occasional comment that I knew the place better than many permanent Parisiens however I didn’t manage to ho everywhere, as I settled in and made friends I spent less time exploring with only my brieze block sized Guide Bleu for company. My stock excuse for omissions is that it makes a future visit a necessity rather than a luxury but the real reason I never went to the Catacombes was that I couldn’t find the entrance though reading reports of long queues it seems hard to believe that I could have. However since my attempted visit was on one of my last days I cannot believe I went when it was closed either. So until a return visit can be made, i must rely on my friend Oliver’s pithy comment thet you could make a lot of soup with the bones of so many Parisiens.
Nevertheles this visite manqué was one reason I picked up Andrew Miller’s “Pure”. I am afraid I hadn’t heard of it or him before I saw the paperback in the library despite them winning the Costa book award in 2011. Mind you 2011 was an introverted year for me: whelmed in pain both emotional and physical I probably was not at my most receptive.
Pure is set in Paris shortly before the Revolution and there is a suggestion that that will be a necessary purification process as much as the clearing of the literally overflowing cemetary of Les Innocentes that is the focus of the novel. The book begins and end at Versailles with the final image that of the bloated corpse of the elephant kept at court as a curiosity being dragged away a metaphor seemingly for the monarchy itself. In between we, through the eyes of the engineer, Jean Baptiste Baratte, charged with cleansing the cemetery we meet a vivid cast of characters, Armand the organist at the doomed church who embraces the future as a force of good almost as a religion, the sextons’s grand daughter Jeanne, the Monnard family with whom Baratte lodgeas, Heloise the cultured whore, Lecoeur, a former colleague of Baratte and a broken man, and his group of miners drafted in to extract the corpses but the most memorable character is perhaps the cemetery itself. It’s stench pervades all to the extent that Baratte’s family fear him ill when he returns on holiday to rural Normandy.
It is a clever novel – perhaps a little too much so. It is immensley enjoyable but maybe the mechamics are perhaps too evident, the contrasts between purity and violation, integrity and practicality, idealism and necessity. Perhaps the greatest impression is of life going on despite the traumas described and anticipated, rape, suicide and attempted murder Perhaps this quotation regarding the processions to the Porte d’Enfer (Gate of Hell – apt but coincidental name of the site of the catacombs) sums it up:
“Moralists, grimly amused, look on with folded arms, Foreign visitors write leters home, strain for metaphor, to see all France in this winding caravan of bones. Then the city offers a collective shrug. It looks around for other ways to amuse itself. The cafes. Politics. Another riot perhaps.” Nothing has a lasting impact and I am not sure this book will have a lasting impact on me much as I enjoyed it while reading it.
Two months after being rent asunder by the St Valentine’s day storms, the family beach hut has been rebuilt and is ready for Summer. Hooray!
I am leapfrogging Middlesex because I will probably write about that and Annabel together. I chose to read The Information Officer because I had enjoyed The Whaleboat House which I bought at the Forest Arts Centre Readers’ Day. Mark Mills was the author I only heard at the general discussions but heard enough to be again sorry that we had to choose… anyway I really enjoyed The Whaleboat House and also enjoyed this one though maybe not quite so much. I did not find the characters or landscape (wartime Malta v post war Long Island) quite as vivid and engaging. Nevertheless it was an intelligent and highly readable thriller which explored the fine balance of relationships between the expat Brits and native Maltese as they held out against the Nazis and has one of the most calculating villains I have encountered in a long time.
Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who has accompanied me throughout my adult life. A friend lent me “Human Croquet” when it was new in paperback and apart from having to catch up on “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, I have read and enjoyed them all. Now while I loved the Jackson Brodie sequence and am more than a little in love with Mr Brodie himself (even I am only human), and felt that given the mysterious heart that tends to exist in Atkinson’s works that the detective genre was a natural progression, this is, for me her finest work to date.
Life after Life is about the tiny occurrences and seemingly trivial decisions that could change the course of a life and maybe even history. Far more complex than a Sliding Doors dual time line, events cycle from Ursula Todd’s birth in a snowstorm, the doctor doesn’t arrive, he arrives, scissors to cut the cord strangling the infant are not found, then found and with each restart Ursula’s life progresses -at least for a while. Ursula’s experiences are not options, her lives are culmalative giving her a sixth sense as she tries to avoid her own death. These take a darkly comic turn as her increasingly desperate attempts to avoid catching the Spanish ‘flu get homicidal.
Underlying the technical skill with which Atkinson handles the restarts is a beautifully drawn and nuanced family portrait which by itself would have sustained many lesser novels. That alone would have been a good read; this is a masterpiece.
I don’t read much non fiction.. I nearly wrote “enough” there but I am not sure I want to be that self-judgemental. I do read newspapers a lot and on the whole I think they do count as non-fiction. However this was a often fascinating tale of an eighteenth century heiress Mary Eleanor Bowes who despite academic brilliance made very unwise choices in her romantic life, marrying first the Earl of Strathmore before being widowed young and tricked into marriage with an Irish adventurer, Andrew Robinson Stoney.
Moore has obviously researched the story meticulously, possibly almost too much so for the general reader when the multidute of detail can slow down the story however it does bring home just how vulnerable women were until quite recently, even intelligent, rich powerful women were pretty much the property of their male “trustees”, in Mary Eleanor’s story it is chastening to see how much more effort is put into protecting the heiress’ assets rather than her person.. also a reminder that the Victorians reinvented morality!
Well I have been better at reading than blogging. Since I last posted I have finished: Wedlock by Wendy Moore, The Information Officer by Mark Mills, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Annabel by Kathleen Winter. We also did “The Novel in the Viola (The House at Tyneford)” at book club but I read that last year before the Reader’s day. Still behind of course but there is time.. and Middlesex should count as two… it was VERY long…