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.