Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fall - Albert Camus


The Fall - Albert Camus' famous monologue; thoughtful, contemplative and... unsettling, I guess. Multi-layered so as to be read as though the fictional narrator by the name of Jean-Baptiste Clamence is addressing a stranger encountered in an Amsterdam bar or as Camus himself addressing the reader directly. Whatever, it's a very effective style of writing that slowly but surely pulls you in until you realise you're trapped in the folds of Camus' world and there's no easy way out.

The Fall was Camus' last book he wrote before he died in a car crash at the age of 46 and is considered to be his most misunderstood if not most difficult work. If you read through his books from The Stranger, to The Myth Of Sisyphus, to The Plague, to The Rebel, you can see a progression in his thought and a development in his skill as a writer. Ever deeper he was digging into the question of suicide and the Absurd and though The Fall isn't the complete flowering of his ideas, it's probably as close as he ever got.
I do wonder, even though The Fall is a classic, does anyone actually know what the story is about before they start reading it? I very much doubt it. A reader might have an idea of what the book is concerned with but it's only after finishing it that you realise it's like a Trojan horse and its real meaning is in its depths, which is almost being smuggled into you. Essentially, The Fall is a mirror held up to the reader and what the reader chooses to do with that reflection is entirely up to them.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence describes himself to the person he's talking to (the reader?) as a 'judge-penitent' and it's only when you finish reading the book that you come to understand what is meant by this. Clamence explains how he was once a very successful, benevolent Parisian lawyer who was near-perfect in every way a man could wish: rich, cultured, noble of mind, dignified, courteous, popular, generous, good-looking, athletic, etc, etc. A man at the height of his powers.
In these exalted heights he revelled, in plain view of all other people so they might see what a wonderful person he was. His existential crisis begins, however, when walking home one night over a bridge in Paris where he sees a young woman peering over the railings into the river below. After passing her, he hears from behind him the sound of a body striking the water and then several cries drifting away downstream before falling silent. He remains there rooted to the spot in shock but rather than turning around or running for help he slowly gathers himself and starts to walk away in the rain, never mentioning the incident to anyone.

From there on he begins to have moments of clarity, realisation and insight into his true character. When he hears laughter it for some reason unsettles him, as if the laughter was aimed at him. He catches himself doffing his hat to a blind man whom he's escorted across a road and realises it's not for the blind man's benefit that he doffs his hat - he's blind, so he wouldn't know - but to people looking on so they might see what a kindly man he is. After playing a part, he was taking a bow. He's involved in an altercation with a motorcyclist and ends up being publicly humiliated, then bitterly resents how he didn't simply give his adversary a good thrashing and then walk away with head held high. His whole life, it dawns upon him, is hypocritical so he starts to wilfully damage his own reputation and destroy his perceived good character, setting himself on a path to social suicide.

To escape himself and to be free of the judgement by others he enters realms of debauchery, taking up with prostitutes and drinking for nights on end; and for a time this succeeds in erasing the laughter though at the cost of damaging him physically. Finally, he closes his law office, leaves France and travels; ending up in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, a city below sea level where poor and rich men alike from all the corners of the world wash through like so much dirty water down a drain.
And there now Clamence waits for them in a bar. Making their acquaintance and relaying his story; changing or highlighting aspects of it according to whom he's talking to on any given evening.
Through the acceptance of his hypocrisy and the absurdity of his existence, and by falling as far as he can, he has found a freedom he wishes to tell others of. There is no turning back and no second chances for anyone, hence the no escaping from his walking away from the event on the bridge in Paris or the public humiliation suffered during the altercation with the motorcyclist. There is no escape from the absurdity. There is no grander height to scale than the very bottom. Those men who are above others in whatever way (such as the Pope - the name of which Clamence was given whilst being held in a prisoner of war camp) need the most forgiving because they are the least innocent, they are the most hypocritical, and they are the most absurd.

The brilliance of The Fall is that it is as I said like a mirror being held up to the reader. What the reader sees in that mirror and how it's interpreted is down to them. The very title 'The Fall', for example, could be read as referring to the woman on the bridge and the incident that instigated Clamence's existential crisis or to Clamence's self-inflicted fall from supposed grace as a lawyer in Paris to a dispossessed judge-penitent in Amsterdam. Or if you're American it could be taken as another name for 'Autumn'. Or it could even just be read as the name taken for one of the most interesting and uniquely individual bands in British music of the last few decades, fronted by a curmudgeonly Mancunian by the name of Mark E Smith...

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."

John Serpico

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