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Review: The Fall by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus book cover
The Fall (1956), La Chute in the original French, is Albert Camus’s last completed novel, and one of his most challenging. In the fog of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence meets an unnamed stranger in a small bar and, falling into a solipsistic monologue, begins to tell the story of his own personal fall. Clamence claims that he was once, like the narratee, a magistrate in Paris, where he lived a fine and self-satisfied life, believing himself a model citizen. The illusion is broken when, walking by the Seine one night, he stands by as a woman flings herself from the river bank and to certain death. Her fall triggers Clamence’s own. Awakened to the reality of both his own, and the whole of humanity’s guilt, Clamence retreats from his settled life and chooses rather to spend his days recounting his story in the hope that others will be awakened as he has been, and in so being alleviate the burden he himself carries. Clamence takes to this misanthropic life with ease, declaring himself a “judge-penitent”, both condemned and condemning. Though he claims to seek clemency for himself and others, there is little hope in his words, and, as Clamence’s story unfolds, any power his words once held dwindles as the life force slips from them as it does from their orator.

Like all men, Clamence is preoccupied with his own (im)mortality and, as with Meursault (of The Outsider), judgement is Clamence’s route to freedom. As Camus writes in The Rebel, “To live is, in itself, a value judgement. To breathe is to judge.” Clamence, in his position as judge-penitent, embodies the human necessity to judge, and need to condemn. Throughout he looks down (both metaphorically and literally) on humanity and sneers at its delusions and failings. Implicit in his own need to judge, is a condemnation of those that do, from obvious targets like judges and religious leaders to every individual who exists passively in a world of murder. Clamence, once a well-respected lawyer, represented the respectable face of morality, but his own monologue quickly exposes the sharp gap between the illusion of morality, and of morality itself, crushing the idea of integrity almost entirely. But, in exploring what is necessary to live a virtuous life, the narrative offers hope that falsehood is not innate, but learned, and that there is a mode of existence – even if it is beyond the grasp of Clamence – which can be virtuous, in its own limited sense. Clamence may delight in condemning humanity with one fell swoop but his position as the outsider looking in makes him no different to any other man, each as happy to decry the fall of humanity as the next. As he would have it: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” It is brilliant and difficult satire by Camus.

Clamence, perhaps, represents some of the problems Camus pinpointed with some Absurdists, from whom he was feeling increasingly disaffected, the complacency and contradictions of Absurdism proving freshly problematic to him. Clamence is a man disconnected from the world, fallen into despair, and scornful of existence as he knows it. His fractured, nihilistic philosophy finds no meaning in life, and no truth or innocence to protect. By making Clamence duplicitous in his thoughts and actions, Camus demonstrates the relativity of values traditionally held as objective, and creates a world in which good cannot exist without evil. For Camus here, innocence is a false concept, but its absence does not, necessarily, assert the presence of its opposite, guilt, as we know it. Nevertheless, in a world where murder and suicide exist, existence is a choice, and this leaves all men as equally guilty/innocent – through action or inaction – and there is an absurdity in the equally guilty judging one another.

While acknowledging that isolation is the only way to begin to free oneself of the expectations of others and avoid Sartre’s Bad Faith, Clamence preaches slavery – the abdication of freedom – as the only way to be happy. It is one of his many duplicities. In a world of only relative morality, authority, Clamence seems to suggest, is the only root to objective truth. But this assertion is undercut by Clamence’s own attempt to elevate himself to the position of judge, which demonstrates the flaw in humanity judging humanity and, in a world without a transcendent deity, truth therefore also becomes a false concept.

For all that his solution is flawed, Clamence pinpoints much about society which is rotten, absurd, and complacent. Like Meursault, Clamence exposes the problem of indifference and anonymity in modern life, the aching gap between the human desire to find meaning in life and the complete inability to find it. As a character, Clamence epitomises the selfishness that stands between man and authentic experience, and true morality for community not just self. Clamence’s is not Camus’s own voice, but simply a reflection of modern man. His big failing is not in his diagnosis, but in choosing not to live in the uncomfortable place between good and evil, but to fall back onto absolutes, to position the world as an evil place. Absolutes are always to be rejected; for Camus, acknowledging the flaws in morality is not a cause to disregard morality altogether, it is facing the struggle that makes one moral. Before his fall, Clamence was a useful member of society, in his way. Following his fall, Clamence is overcome by the fear of all that he now sees before him. Like Adam following his fall, the rush of knowledge paralyses, and Clamence experience Kierkegaard’s Dread. By choosing to embrace a life of judgement, he becomes a fallen prophet.

Clearly, The Fall’s plot is secondary to the ideas that it represents, Camus making the effort not to create distraction while never being anything more than opaque in the presentation of his own thinking. Indeed, as with much of Camus’s writing, it is best read alongside other of his work. Here, reading the introduction to The Rebel – the non-fiction book that preceded The Fall – offers far greater clarity on the ideas that underpin The Fall, and make it work better as philosophical fiction. Reading The Fall alone, the reader is forced to untangle Clamence’s ambiguities to reach the crux of Camus’s position.

Clamence’s recounting is full of diversions, observations (some acute, some flawed), and witticisms (often unintended), bombarding the reader with so many ideas that it can be almost overwhelming. However, although seemingly a free-flowing soliloquy, the text is far more tightly controlled by Camus than that. Testament to this fact is the perfect centrality of the key moment of the text (the woman’s suicide), the smoothly developed metaphors, and the brilliantly realised intellectualisms. For all that it is a short novel, few words are wasted in The Fall, and it is a deceptively slow read if one is to fully appreciate it.

The reader takes the places of the narratee – the audience that Clamence craves – implicated in the story and the humanity Clamence condemns. By taking the place of the narratee, the reader is complicit in the conversation, unable to engage with the text without engaging with its subject matter. Clamence’s confession is impersonal – perhaps taking on a universality – bereft of emotion, and amounting to little more than the recounting of facts. It’s a confession fit for a world indifferent to emotion.

There are many brilliant metaphors throughout the text, and Camus plays with myths, consistently subverting their meaning. Jean-Baptiste Clamence is clearly a play on John the Baptist, who told of the final judgement. As John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, Jean-Baptiste cries out to a generation who must come to terms with a world in which truth is absent, in which a Christ has not and will not come. The concentric canals of Amsterdam are linked to the circles of hell in Dante’s 'Inferno', and as fog surrounds the city – narrowing his vision to the immediate present, deferring consequences of and engagement with both – Clamence exists amidst the petty bourgeois in his own personal hell.

The Fall was originally intended to be part of Exile and the Kingdom (a selection of short stories) but grew into a short novel in its own right. Jean-Paul Sartre described The Fall as “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” of Camus’s novels. Certainly it is a tricky text, but however one reads it, the novel is undoubtedly bleak. The last completed novel before Camus’s untimely death, it feels like the work of a man still grasping to appreciate the moral position in a world scarred by war and division, but who is strengthening his grasp on the position, and readying himself to move on to not only considerations, but, perhaps, solutions too. What future conclusions – if any – Camus might have come to are impossible to predict, but The Fall brushes up against some essential truth and is undoubtedly one of Camus’s most complete, and complex novels.

A book that demands a lot of thought. Having spent a little while digesting it, I can't say I'm confident I have fully understood it. I do know, however, that it is brilliant.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Fall on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Fall on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

Great review! Which Albert Camus novel would you say is good for a first introduction to his work: this one or The Outsider?

Hi Jackie - thanks for stopping by :) I think The Outsider is probably the easiest place to start with Camus (other than, perhaps, his essays if you're that way inclined). I have a feeling the nihilism in The Outsider may appeal more to younger readers, so I would definitely give one of his later works a try after that, to get a more balanced view of his writing.