Friday, April 28, 2017

The Fall by Albert Camus

I read the Justin O’Brien translation of this book.

This post contains spoilers.


The Fall by Albert Camus is the French writer-philosopher’s third novel. Told in the form of a monologue, this is the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence. The narrative consists of Clamence telling his life story to a companion who is mostly invisible to the reader. The storytelling occurs in Amsterdam, in and around a bar known as Mexico City.

Clamence was a successful Parisian lawyer. His recollections range from his younger days during World War II though his career as a Parisian attorney, through years of “existentialist” crises, his fall from success and finally his coming to terms with life and the universe. The book consists of pages and pages of both personal and philosophical musings. Like Camus’s other novels, a basic understanding of the author’s philosophy will illuminate much of the meaning here. Without such an understanding, I think that I would have been left scratching my head through a good part of this work.

The story of Clarence’s life ties in strongly with the book’s themes. During his early career, Clarence devotes much time and energy to helping others. Professionally, he provides legal defense to the indigent. Personally, he is obsessed with being helpful to people. He also takes pride in the fact that he is unperturbed by wrongs directed against himself.

When he fails to intervene and try to save a young woman who commits suicide, Clarence’s undergoes a “crisis.” He begins to look back at his life and at his personality and realizes that he has done terrible things and harbors disturbing thoughts.  His behavior toward women is abominable. Inwardly, he despises many of the people he has helped. Often, his altruistic acts are a front in order to advance his own interests. Clarence’s wrongs extend back to his days in a World War II prison camp, where he took water from a dying man. In typical Camus fashion, there are also realizations about the meaninglessness and absurdities related to both life and belief systems that people hold dear.

Clarence eventually becomes obsessed with guilt and judgment. Both Clarence’s own guilt, the guilt of others and the judgment of this guilt are examined.

There are a lot of elements to the narrative. There are multiple references to Dante’s Divine Comedy. A Google search reveals that the structure of this work in some ways parallels Dante’s epic poem. There are philosophical musings about Christianity and how it relates to the concepts of guilt and judgment. There is a lot more, Camus goes off into all kinds of philosophical directions.

At one point, Clarence comments on people’s tendency to judge others in order to deny their own guilt,

“People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. What do you expect? The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence. From this point of view, we are all like that little Frenchman at Buchenwald who insisted on registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless, old man. You don’t lodge a complaint here.” “But you see, sir,” said the little Frenchman, “My case is exceptional. I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to  accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you."

In short, this book is an exploration of the wrongs that all people commit. It is a grim indictment on all humanity. No one is innocent. To be human is to be deeply flawed.

I find the philosophical conclusion a little enigmatic.  Ultimately, Clamence comes to terms with his own guilt. He advocates harshly judging others, but only once one realizes that himself or herself is just as bad as those one is judging,

“The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden.”

In the end, Clamence declares himself happy and satisfied. Camus provides no easy or pat answers, however.

Camus was a great thinker who had profound ideas. I agree with many, but not all, of his beliefs. Humans do tend to overlook their own cruelties and past failings. We tend to be so biased when we look at our own lives and actions. Our judgment of others is so often hypocritical. With that, I think that some of Camus’s ideas may have been underdeveloped here. Thus, he stops short of truth. There is almost nothing about shades of wrong behavior. Surely the actions of a murderer, a rapist, someone who tortures others, etc.  cannot be seen as morally equivalent to more mundane frailties. Some people are so much more moral and ethical than others. Furthermore, noble actions, while not making up for harm done to others, count for so much of a person’s character. Failure to recognize these distinctions seems to me to be a morally myopic. Had Camus delved into these issues in the narrative, even if his conclusions did not match my own, this would be a philosophically and aesthetically balanced work.

Despite my above reservations, this book is a feast of ideas for the philosophical reader. It is often brilliant.  One does not have to agree with all of Camus’s beliefs to find the story and philosophy behind it interesting and worthwhile.  I would recommend that the reader be familiar with the basic outlines of Camus’s philosophy before reading this. Otherwise, this is highly recommended for folks who are inclined to like fiction that is filled with ideas.   


38 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

Hi Brian, Good to be back. Thank you for your kind words.

Another author that Mr T encourages me to read. Perhaps one day ... as it is whilst I think I'll get a lot out of it I also think I might find it depressing.

Jillian said...

I do love a philosophical read. I have my eye in Camus's The Plague. I've never read his work, but he's one of the French authors I'd like to try.

Jillian said...

* on, I mean. :D

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - It is good to see you back.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought. Oddly enough I find that these dark existentialist novels make feel better about life. However, I understand how they would depress folks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Julian - I really like Camus. As much as I liked this book I liked The Plague better. The Stranger was also excellent.

Fred said...

Brian,

It's been a long time since I last read Camus, The Plague and The Stranger, but I haven't read this one. Since I haven't read anything by him recently, I think I'll add this one to my search list.

I think also that he is a bit one-sided in his views--perhaps a result of his WWII experiences.


Good review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Fred. His ideas were so unusual.

Though I liked this a lot, I liked both The Plague and The Stranger better.

The Reader's Tales said...

Outstanding review. I love Camus.
I am always amazed by your ever so accurate analysis, which covers all aspects of the book. I like the way that you deepen your approach to a book and give us the message that the author wants to convey.
Have a tip top tastic weekend, Brian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much The Reader's Tales. I think that some authors are easier then others. Camus clearly had a distinct message. I think that not all authors do.

Have a great weekend!

Mudpuddle said...

this was a formative reading experience in my salad days... i followed it with Twain"s "The Mysterious Stranger" which acted as a counterfoil, in a way... in that the unknown results in the future of actions in the present is discussed... bad actions may be disastrous in the present but cause good things to occur in the future... life really does work this way.... understanding this idea leads to a broader awareness of reality, i feel...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I have not read The Mysterious Stranger. That is an interesting philosophy. There are all sorts of implications to it.

Gently Mad said...

You make some insightful points in your last couple of paragraphs. I admit I skimmed the story because I haven't read the book and hope to.

One, I think we can be hypocritical. Speaking for myself I tend to be judgmental of others and hold grudges against the wrongs I think people have committed against me.

On the other hand, I feel people should cut me some slack and not hold me accountable for every stupid thing I said or did. This is something I am really convicted about.

I would like to read more about Camus and when he wrote this book because while he seems to refuse to discriminate between right and wrong (according to your comment) I read somewhere that he later changed his views and was consequently ridiculed by his friend Sartre (who reputedly changed his views on his deathbed).

Have a good, relaxing weekend, Brian. Read something for fun!

CyberKitten said...

I read this back in 2010 and struggled with it mightily, ending up not liking it very much at all. Such a disappointing after finding both 'The Rebel' and The Myth of Sisyphus' very interesting indeed.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I read The Stranger many years ago, in a Humanities class. The Fall sounds quite thought-provoking. Camus' books are full of philosophical/psychological ideas, I think. Excellent, interesting post!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon - I think that Camus sees the difference between right and wrong, but i this book he seems not to differentiate between degrees.

I agree, we all need a little slack for our imperfections.

I should read something lighter :) Though I find some of these serious books relaxing. Usually I am only brought down by books showing people getting hurt or suffering.

Have a great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - This can be challenging book. As I mentioned if I did know the basics of Camus's philosophy going in I would have been hopelessly confused.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

The Stranger is one of my favorite books. I liked this novel but I liked The Stranger better.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I have never read Camus but your really fine review of the Fall has me very interested. Sounds like in the creation of Clamence, Camus was trying to work out for himself how best to live with guilt, make ammends if we can, but not have it consume our lives. And I'm wondering if his numerous references to Dante is Camus making a point about religion and guilt and the fear that is always close by.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Though an atheist, In all his novels Camus talked a lot about Catholic beliefs. He really intertwined them into this book.

Guilt consuming lives is also important in this book. It consumes Clamence for awhile.

Caroline said...

Great review, Brian. I've read thus years ago together with his other novels. La Peste is still my favourite but I remember finding this thought provoking. It's unjustly neglected, I find. I'm really pleased to see a review of it.

James said...

Great review of a difficult text. Your comment regarding how this book is "a feast of ideas for the philosophical reader" is one of the reasons I like this book and Camus' work in general. However much I disagree with him his writing challenges me to think about issues important to humanity and my life.
Thanks for engaging with this exceptional work.

JacquiWine said...

Sounds like classic Camus. I've only read The Stranger/The Outsider, and that was a while ago, but this appears to bear all the hallmarks of his best work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Though this book was well worth reading, I liked The Stranger better.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - I find that that writers who throw out a lot of controversial ideas are bound to drive some disagreement in most people. As you say because they present challenging ideas in such a way, writers like Camus are well worth reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. I really liked this book but I liked La Peste better. With that, he is writer that I like a lot and he is one of my favorites.

The Reader's Tales said...

You are very humble, my friend ! Have a great Sunday :)

thecuecard said...

Yeah I found Camus difficult to read and I definitely needed a guide on his philosophy along the way. His philosophy seems quite dark and not thoroughly fleshed out. He seems to leave it enigmatic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I thought that the philosophy in The Stranger and the Plague was fairly clear cut. In this book I wanted more.

HKatz said...

"There is almost nothing about shades of wrong behavior. Surely the actions of a murderer, a rapist, someone who tortures others, etc. cannot be seen as morally equivalent to more mundane frailties."

Is this lack of nuance an example of all-or-nothing thinking? People's judgments about many issues seems to become myopic when they see things as either all good or all bad, for instance.

I'm unfamiliar with Camus' work. What would your recommend reading first if I wanted to start on his writings?

baili said...

Monologues are more applied when one is obsessed with self judgement particularly .
this work of Camus sounds quite inviting ,i really wish one i can find book and time to read this as human psyche is described more profoundly in such works i think and i love such writing .

i agree that mostly people judge others to reduce their guilt but i also realize that there is also at least one percent chance of being fair .
Excellent work brain!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili.

I agree that monologues often reflect self absorption. The main character in this book a very self absorbed book.

I hope that you can find this book. It is a short read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I liked The Stranger the best followed closely by The Plague. This book was very good but I thought that it was not as good as those two.

One can say that Camus thinking was all or nothing here. He throws all of humanity in as guilty of all.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING commentary as usual, Brian!!

I must admit to only a cursory knowledge of the works of the existentialists. I've never read Camus. I did attempt to read Kafka's "The Castle" years ago, only to give up halfway through the novel. It was the absurdity of the events -- which was precisely Kafka's point -- that finally just got to me. I couldn't take it anymore....

Any novel by Camus would probably do the same thing to me -- just make me give up on the book. However, the one you've reviewed here does have an excellent theme. It is indeed true that we humans tend to view ourselves as innocent, while the rest of the world is guilty of the most egregious faults. We also tend to believe in the superiority of our own spirituality and ideology.

I really like this quote from your post: "In short, this book is an exploration of the wrongs that all people commit. It is a grim indictment on all humanity. No one is innocent. To be human is to be deeply flawed." This is a very grim thought, indeed! However, this is precisely what the Judeo-Christian tradition asserts. Specifically in the case of Christianity, all humans are declare to be sinners in need of salvation. No one is exempt.

On the other hand, I also like your point about degrees of wrongdoing not being taken into account in this novel. This surely sounds fair. According to the Protestant interpretation of sin, there's no such thing as one type of sin being "less evil" than another. All sin is sin. In Catholic theology, however, there is the concept of venial and mortal sin, which, of course, you're already familiar with.

It all boils down to Biblical interpretation. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would DEFINITELY register for several courses in Hermeneutics, as I am very much interested in correct Biblical interpretation. I would also take courses in dealing with the violence rampant in the Old Testament, much of it coming from God Himself.

I would also want to see, in greater detail, how philosophy ties into the Christian view of sin. It all depends, naturally, on which philosophers and philosophical schools I studied. The Catholic Church, for instance, is very big on Aquinas and Aristotle. I'm not sure about what the evangelical position on this would be, but I have a feeling it completely disparages philosophy as being nothing more than human attempts to use reason to acquire truths already present in Christianity. So I would definitely investigate this assertion, as well.

In line with the theme of this novel, I would like to add that, sadly enough, we Christians have no right to feel smug about our supposed moral superiority. We are just as human as anyone else, and just as prone to injustice and the judging of others. Ironically, it was Jesus Himself who advised us to look at our own sins before presuming to stone others for theirs. He made this very important point in the incident of the woman caught in adultery. The people who had brought her to Him were all fired up, ready to stone her. But Jesus calmly told them, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

Methinks I need to read this book, forsooth!!

Thanks for your highly interesting insights!! Hope you're having a WONDERFUL day!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I have actually just finished a collection of Kafka’s short stories. I will be posting something on it soon. Camus did not write about absurd events. He just saw lots of aspects of everyday existence as absurd, The Kafka stories I read were full of absurd happenings.

Though Camus was an atheist he was fascinated by Christianity. Especially Catholic beliefs. He both criticized and praised Christianity. As I recall The Stranger was very critical of it. The Plague was more complimentary then critical. As you point out, this book was influenced by Catholic beliefs.

It ios interesting what you say about religion and morality. I was thinking about putting up a post on it. There is a school of thought that people posses a certain level of morality. Then they fit their belief system, be it Christian, Hindi, Muslim, Atheist etc. to fit their own morality. Though there is truth to this I thing it is a bit more complicated.

I think that you would like this book. However, I did thing that both The Stranger and The Plague were better. I think that you would really like The Plague. It has a strong moral message about helping others.

Have a great week!

Resh Susan said...

I have not read Camus previously. I have always been recommended The Plague to start with. I think this book would be a great start too. Great review

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Resh - This book was very good. I liked both The Plague and The Stranger better however.

So many books, so little time said...

Oooh Brian I am going to Amsterdam later in the year, be first time going. I have never read this author, I think I would like to read this at some point but maybe check out the other books you mentioned in the comments to others.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Though much of the book takes place in Amsterdam, there is not too much about the city.

Still it is worth reading.

Have fun on your trip!