This is my review of The Fall (Penguin Modern Classics) by Albert Camus.
Although I read this in French, thus making it harder for me to understand Camus’s message yet also getting the benefit of the original language, I hope these comments may be of interest to those reading the book in the English translation.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence, his name a wordplay on “John the Baptist crying in the wilderness” buttonholes strangers in a seedy Amsterdam bar to tell them of his fall from grace as a successful Parisian lawyer to a man obsessed with his two-faced duplicity and his moral guilt worse in some ways than that of a common criminal. His psychological crisis has been triggered by another fall, that of a young woman into the Seine, whom he did nothing to save when he heard her cries. The question is, would he do any better if this incident were to be repeated?
The tale is full of digressions and twisted logic, witty, at times contradictory quotations. It is not surprising that there are differing, often opposed or confusing, interpretations of this philosophical fable, based on the ideas of absurdism, defined as the conflict between the human desire to find value and meaning in life and the inability to find it. A fascinating issue raised by Camus is how to lead a moral life if one is unable to believe in a god, but all attempts to make rules about right and wrong are arbitrary.
Having read some passages two or three times, I am still working to understand this book. For me it is a satire in which Clamence goes off the rails at the end as a kind of crazy, manic devil in a magnificently written final section. My take is that Clamence is on the wrong track with his desire to judge and control. The ability to accept one’s own inevitable shortcomings is clearly key, but what if one is given to the level of excess of the highly self-indulgent and unlikeable Clamence?
One’s understanding of this book is clearly increased by some knowledge of Christianity and the alternatives of communism, humanism and existentialism all of which Camus seems to lambast at some point, along with bourgeois complacency. This begs the question as to how much a truly great book should have some self-evident meaning without the aid of this knowledge. It seems to me that Camus was still working ideas out for himself in this book, and that at the end some were still incomplete.