Take yourself to the catacombs beneath the French capital with Andrew Miller’s Pure
If your idea of Paris is of beauty and fashion, delightful meals and romantic walks along the Seine, then I’m afraid you are in for something different with Andrew Miller’s novel Pure.
It is the 18th century, and the oldest cemetery in Paris is overflowing.
The Holy Innocents’ cemetery may have started out as your average church burial ground, but now it is a nightmare, with hundreds of thousands of bodies having been piled on top of each other for generations. And despite the bones being removed to be put in ‘charniers’, there is still insufficient room for the endless supply of new corpses. The nearby residents have had enough and are complaining that their water is being poisoned by the rotting flesh and the stench has become unbearable, so the authorities decide something has to be done. The bodies must be removed. And this is where our novel begins.
Charniers at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris – Image via Wikimedia Commons
A young engineer named Jean-Baptiste is hired by the authorities to remove the corpses, an immensely difficult feat requiring all his skills. But there’s an added challenge beyond the engineering concerns; our young hero has been told he must do the job in secret.
What follows as poor old Jean-Baptiste tries to deal with this grizzly nightmare is fabulous. I relished this book – and if you are someone who enjoyed the novel Perfume, or The Shadow of the Wind, then I think you’ll love this one as well. There are some terrific characters, especially from within the nearby family that Jean-Baptiste lodges with, as well as amongst those who befriend him and try to help him with the project. And fortunately there’s also a little romance for our earnest young engineer.
Of course you have to be up for being a bit grossed out from time to time – there’s no protecting of your sensibilities here. This is a cemetery after all….
From cemetery to city square
But what if you were visiting Paris today and you wanted to see the cemetery for yourself? Well, I have to tell you, there’s not much sign of it these days. It seems Jean-Baptiste did his job very well.
The cemetery is now a small square surrounded by restaurants and fast food outlets, BUT in the middle of the square you can see this fountain.
It is called the Fountain of the Innocents, and it is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris, built around 1550. It was once placed against our cemetery wall – which you can see in this engraving.
Engraving of the Fountain of the Innocents – Image courtesy of Siefkin DR via Wikimedia Commons
When the cemetery closed down, the site was turned into a market square and the fountain was earmarked for destruction. Fortunately, after some community pressure, it was decided to move the fountain into the square, raise it up on a stone pedestal and have a fourth facade constructed so it could be free-standing.
Painting of Fountain of the Innocents 1822. Image courtesy of Musée Carnavalet via Wikimedia Commons
In 1858 it was moved once again to its present location in the middle of the square, where you can visit it today. You will find it, right in the heart of Paris, near to the shopping precinct of Les Hall and the Pompidou cultural complex.
But what happened to all of those bones?
After sitting by the fountain for a while, perhaps with a coffee, reading your copy of Pure you can take a 45 minute walk or a 20 minute ride on public transport to the place where all those bones got moved to; the spectacular, and slightly scary, Paris Catacombs.
Paris Catacombs. Image courtesy of albany_tim via Wikimedia Commons
A labyrinth of tunnels underneath the heart of Paris, the catacombs house the bones of six million Parisians. And the first bones to go in there were the very bones Jean-Baptiste spent hundreds of pages trying to dig up in this novel.
Engraving of the Paris Catacombs from 1855 – Image courtesy of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons
The Catacombes are not for the faint-hearted – and nor is this novel really – but they are truly one of the most memorable tourist attractions you will visit in Paris.
And to really appreciate them, I’d certainly give Pure a read before you go!
John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is the kind of book that just makes you want to jump on a plane immediately so you can join him in wandering the streets of Paris. This is a book written by a man who truly loves to understand what he is seeing around him and ponder on how it all fits into the city’s history…and with this book, you will feel the same way.
Baxter is an Australian who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. One day, in an effort to help out a friend, he found himself conducting a couple of guided ‘literary walks’ for writers visiting the city. It made him realise how limited traditional tours and guide books were, with their inability to allow room for the unexpected. Receiving a great reaction from his first “customers” and some encouragement from a highly entrepreneurial friend, Baxter decided to expand his tour operations…this book tells you that story, and of course, offers some great advice for those wanting to set off on their own literary meander around Paris.
What kind of a reaction have you had?
The book has been an astonishing success. It has already gone into five printings in less than a month, and reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic. Many people have also emailed me their appreciation. It’s been a welcome surprise.
How do you feel when you see tourists wandering around with cameras and guide book, practically ticking the sights of Paris off a checklist?
It’s better than not “doing” Paris at all, but I’m sorry to see them missing out on so much. At times, I want to grab them and say, “No, stop reading and look! “ An hour sitting in a café can tell you more than the most detailed guide book.
You really make the sixth arrondissement sound like the stuff of dreams, especially for those in love with all things literary, is it really as romantic as it appears?
Even more so! There is hardly a street or square that doesn’t have some literary association. There is a magic to the very stones. They breathe poetry.
If someone was coming to Paris and they only had one day to experience the city, what would you suggest they do?
Breakfast at the Cafe Flore or Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, a Metro ride to Montmartre to view the city from the terrace of Sacre Coeur, a sandwich eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens, a visit to the church of St Severin in the Latin Quarter and to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop nearby, a nap back at your hotel, then dinner in a great restaurant, and a walk across Pont Neuf, pausing in the middle to watch the Seine by moonlight. (Of all these experiences, the Seine by moonlight will probably be the one you remember best.)
Image courtesy of Savani1987 via Wikimedia Commons
I normally ask our contributors to recommend somewhere off the beaten track, a hidden gem they can go and visit, but your book is full of them. Can you give us a favourite?
At least once a month, you’ll find me at the flea market at Porte de Vanves that takes place year-round each Saturday and Sunday morning. It’s a cornucopia of treasures that also reveals an enormous amount about the history and culture of France. (Don’t be surprised if you run into Catherine Deneuve. She’s a keen flea-marketeer and a frequent visitor.)
And if a visitor just went to one place to eat, where would you suggest?
The Au Bon St Pourcain on rue Servandoni, next to Saint Sulpice church. A classic one-room restaurant that hasn’t changed in a century.
Your timing for the book is perfect. There seems to be a real Paris fascination at the moment, perhaps helped by Woody Allen’s new movie, ‘Midnight in Paris’…
There are times when Most Beautiful Walk reads like the Book of the Film. But it was pure coincidence. Oddly, Woody is an unwilling visitor to Paris. He doesn’t trust the water, doesn’t like the food, and speaks no French. But he’s as susceptible to its magic as the rest of us.
What do you hope The Most Beautiful Walk in the World leaves people with?
I hope it makes those who have never visited Paris decide to do so, and those who already know the city to return. The city is inexhaustible. There is always more to discover.
This book is not just about Paris though is it? It’s about walking, observing and taking it all in, wherever you are…
It’s about jumping in at the deep end; experiencing life without preconceptions. Life is more enjoyable if one can stop and look. Paris makes that easier, since there’s so much more to see.
Do you still offer guided walks yourself? How can people find you if they are keen to hear your stories in person?
I still do a few tours, but pressure of work has forced me to limit them. Anyone who is interested could email Terrance Gelenter at Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.
Do you have a favourite novel set in Paris?
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, who’s another long-time expatriate (and neighbour). Despite the title, it’s in English; the witty and observant story of a collision between an American and a French family over marriage, infidelity, sex and a 17th century painting both claim to own. The movie version of a few years back didn’t do it justice.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World reminds us just how much has happened on the streets of the cities we visit. How often do you fly through a place in a few days, just making sure you see the main sights before moving on? Of course it’s rare to have the luxury of truly exploring the streets as John does, but it is good to be reminded that even if we can’t always see them, the pavements we walk on and the buildings we pass are rich with stories of the past. Next time you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city, just stop from time to time, take a deep breath and look around, and wonder what ghosts are walking along beside you.
And of course, if you are off to Paris anytime soon….then I highly recommend The Most Beautiful Walk in the World as a companion. If you are looking for a traditional guide book, then this is not for you. But if you are keen to explore the poetry of the streets alongside someone who can whisper stories in your ear – then John Baxter’s book is a fine way to do it.
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” by the publishers.