Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 54
Book Review: The Fall Print E-mail

book_the_fall.jpgAuthor: Albert Camus

Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

It is a happy fact that people give me books: sometimes for birthdays or Christmas; sometimes in substitute for bottles of Scotch; and, sometimes for no reason at all.

My receipt of the 1956 novel of Albert Camus, The Fall (La Chute in French) falls into the third category. N, who was a colleague of mine on a University Council and who now oscillates between criminal defence and policy work, popped in one day and slapped it on my desk. It was a very fine present.

The Fall is the novel by Camus published in his lifetime. The Introduction to the Modern Classics edition (by Robin Buss) points out that, since the early part of the fifties, a serious rift had been developing between Camus and John-Paul Sartre and his other Existentialist friends and colleagues. The Fall, then, is a product of a more unhappy part of Camus’s life.

The novel is narrated by and about a Parisian lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Clamence is like an Ancient Mariner, having left his profession and his home town for the seedy bars of Amsterdam, where he looks to have long monologues about his former life; his fall from grace; and the lessons to be taken from it all.

Clamence paints a picture of his former self as a lawyer who sought popularity and success often by doing good works. How can this be satire? I thought at that stage of my reading. Clamence’s descriptions of his multiple womanising provide a more convincing representation of a life heading for the skids.

Late at night on the waterfront, Clamence hears unexplained laughter. This is the start of the end. Then, a woman falls from a bridge into the river. And Clamence walks on and does nothing to assist. The life in Amsterdam bars telling one’s life story to strangers beckons from that point.

The novel has been perceived as a satire aimed at Sartre. The womanising, apparently, fits. Sartre, however, praised The Fall as “the finest and least well understood of Camus’s works”. The novel has also been noted as a self-criticism of the author as well as the narrator.

Clamence’s bitter recriminations and critical asides leave much room for interpretation. One is never sure whether to treat a particular observation at face value or as irony and satire. Christians and professional humanists both cop mighty serves while the Christ figure that emerges from the Gospels is re-interpreted, praised, and yet dumped with the responsibility for the Holy Innocents, who died on Herod’s orders while the Christ baby escaped.

The Fall is not an easy book. It is, however, beautifully written. As well as the beautiful prose, however, Camus leaves the reader with much to ponder and raises questions and identifies mysteries that are as interesting some fifty-six years after the book’s publication as they were in the fifties when the Cold War raged and the Brave New post-War World was being lost.

I am grateful to N for placing The Fall back on my reading agenda.

Stephen Keim

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