Camus’ The Fall: Is There Hope in Hopeless Writing?
Nowhere is Camus’ philosophy of the absurd more evident than in his last full novel, but a tinge of hope might be hidden in its pages.
Albert Camus published his last novel, The Fall (French: La Chute), in 1956, a few years before his death. This late stage of his career had been marked by increasing controversy: while his reputation and popularity as a writer grew to the point of being awarded the literature Nobel Prize, colleagues and friends of his such as Jean-Paul Sartre condemned his passivity and pacifism as Algeria (the French colony where Camus grew up) was undergoing a bloody war of independence. His friend Romain Gary would share later that Camus went through a period of depression and suicidal thoughts as these events unraveled. This information made critics quickly come to understand The Fall as the result of Camus’ mental state; most people thought the book was not only convoluted and hard to understand, but also very bleak even for one of the leading figures of French existentialism. However, understanding The Fall simply as the musings of a depressed intellectual does a disservice to the ways in which it is a highlight of Camus’ work as a whole. The novel might certainly be some of Camus’ saddest writing, but that doesn’t mean its message is one of defeat and hopelessness. Sometimes dark novels, such as Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, actually end up concluding that in spite of the disappointing aspects of humanity, it is worth it to create art that reminds people that we must persist. I argue for an interpretation of The Fall that resists a message of hopelessness and instead argues by means of counterexample for hope.
The Fall’s plot is very straightforward. It simply tells the story of a French lawyer named Jean-Baptiste Clamence who spends his days hanging out at a seedy Amsterdam bar tells his life story to a fellow Frenchman. The Fall, as many have remarked, feels much more than a monologue meant for the stage than a novel. However, labeling it as a novel has the effect of the reader coming for an organized narrative (more or less as in any other Camus novel) and instead finds a man ranting almost uninterrupted for days. And oh, what ranting that is! He confesses that he lived happily as a lawyer in Paris doing good deeds for his fellow citizens, until he realized he actually did those deeds to be admired by others rather than to actually help others. How did he find that out? It all started one night when, while he was alone looking at the waters of the Seine, he witnessed a woman jumping off a bridge to commit suicide and he decided not to intervene. As he grew more disappointed with himself and life, he became to realize he had abused women he was in relationships with and had behaved until then as if he loved no one but himself. More terrible actions by Clamence follow this confession. For instance, while eating lobster at a fancy restaurant, he called on the employees to kick out a starving homeless man who begged him for money. And when the war broke out, he escaped to Africa where he was sent to a concentration camp in Libya where he drank the last drops of water available and watched a fellow prisoner die. Eventually, he ruins his status as a reliable lawyer and retreats to Amsterdam, where he meets people like his fellow Frenchman to whom he hopes to convert to his philosophy. According to Clamence, there is no such thing as a Christian Last Judgment because men already judge and condemn each other on Earth. As in other Camus novels, the protagonist has realized that the meaning of life is not predetermined by divine figures but instead molded by oneself. Most people, however, refuse to be held accountable for their choices and recur to all sorts of explanations to do away with this task.
It’s unsurprising that Clamence’s monologue has made readers uncomfortable. Like Céline’s Bardamu in Journey to the End of the Night, Clamence is an unlikeable and selfish man who has no qualms about exposing the horrific side of humanity. Nonetheless, also as in the case of Bardamu, one must resist the temptation to understand the protagonist-narrator’s nihilism as the life philosophy humans ought to follow. Clamence is — if one is to advocate for a didactic interpretation of the novel — more of a counterexample than an enlightened prophet. His confessions should make people interrogate to what extent their actions (good and bad) are motivated by societal expectations and to what extent that is acceptable. They should also help question the notion of self-love: to what extent is it healthy to love oneself? Clamence liked himself so much that he felt no compassion towards the people around him. His regretful attitude towards his past make him a more sympathetic figure, even if the outcome of this attitude has been his withdrawal from society. At the end, even if Clamence has a delusional level of understanding of his own prophetic capacities, his life does serve as a reminder to interrogate our lives.
Like The Stranger, The Fall is a critique of the Western European bourgeoisie and the war and inequality that accompany it. A Marxist reading of the novel that sees Clamence as an enlightened man who has decided not to collaborate anymore with such system is irresistible. On the other hand, it is known Camus became increasingly critical of communism towards the end of his life. Sartre condemned one of his popular essays for suggesting that the violence of fascism and communism were on near-equal grounds. And while a specific reading of a text does not necessitate its author’s approval, it’s hard to reconcile Clamence’s disdain for those who don’t want to hold themselves accountable and the external forces that determine human behavior in Marxism. If Clamence is seen as a person one has a dialogue with, however, it is possible to tacitly agree with some of his philosophy and diametrically oppose the remainder. Clamence’s disappointment towards humanity but his continued involvement with strangers in order to make them wake to it speaks for the writer’s continued need to get involved, even if the solution to human suffering is not any more clear to him as it is to his characters.