At one point in "The Fall" we join our narrator and his companion as they float along Amsterdam's Zuider Zee. We are assured the boat is going at top speed, though with surroundings blotted out by dimness and fog, it's hard to tell.
"We are steaming along without any landmark; we can't gauge our speed," the narrator says. "We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It's not navigation but dreaming."
It's the best summary I can offer for the experience of reading this Albert Camus novel. It's a novel in the same way Plato's Allegory of the Cave can be called a short story. Consisting of one person talking over a period of days about his life in general and sense of cosmic disconnectedness, "The Fall" is largely free of incident the same way the narrator's Zuider Zee lacks perceptible landmarks. Camus's bold approach is helped immensely by the narrative voice of wry confidence Camus affects. Yet some readers, like me, will be left feeling adrift.
There are really only two characters in the book, with me (or you) the reader apparently being one. The other, who identifies himself as Jean-Baptiste Clamence (later we learn he originally went by another name he never reveals), is a sly, effusive character who supplies the whole narrative in what amounts to a transcript of sorts recorded over a five-day period. Jean-Baptiste has some secrets he wants to reveal, in his own roundabout way, connected to a philosophy of general bleakness fueled by guilt-induced self-loathing he feels has universal application.
"A liking for truth at any cost is a passion that spares nothing and that nothing resists," Camus writes in Clamence's voice. "It's a vice, at times a comfort, or a selfishness. Therefore, if you are in that situation, don't hesitate: promise to tell the truth and then lie as best you can. You will satisfy their hidden desire and doubly prove your affection."
Aphoristic ideas like this run thick and fast throughout the book. It's a short read, and the chapters do build up as Clamence unpeels his inner onion bit by bit, yet the overall effect is less immersive than diverting. Like "The Stranger", another Camus novel of greater reputation, "The Fall" has a distinctive voice that pulls you in, yet "The Stranger" is grounded by a real story, and a protagonist you felt you knew. Not knowing very much about Clamence seems the point of "The Fall" as much as anything else.
Camus is described as an existentialist by some, and indeed a sense of eternal aloneness permeates "The Fall". But Camus seems bleaker here than any existentialist. If Jean-Paul Sartre famously claimed "hell is other people", "The Fall" more than suggests hell is just you alone, too. At the same time, there's a strong Christian subtext running through the narrative that the narrator speaks of with evident tenderness that seem to belie his claims of unbelief. He speaks of his sense of guilt as tied into the Christian concept of original sin, and in one bracing anecdote, suggests Christ Himself partook of this pain despite Scriptural claims to the contrary.
Camus is never boring here, just hard to grab onto. I think this was intentional on his part, but it doesn't make him easier to read. "The Fall" is for readers with an open mind, though without a clear plot or point, it's hard to recommend. I think Camus might have said the same of life.
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