The Fall (La chute, 1956; translated from the French by Robin Buss) is one of those interesting and rewarding pieces of work that reminds one that it can be an excellent idea to begin one’s acquaintance with a very famous, but to you unfamiliar author, with one of their less well-known efforts. Consider Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, John Updike’s The Coup, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin in the same spirit. As it turned out, The Fall was Albert Camus’ last published work due to a fatal car crash in 1960. It had apparently been designed as a transition piece and was written as the country in which he lived, France, was becoming deeper engaged in an obscenely violent colonial war in the land of his birth, Algeria, and when the hopes of the young were being extinguished by Soviet tanks in Budapest.  e shall never know how the transition might have developed. This is a novella funny and deeply serious in turns, drenched in layer upon layer of Christian symbolism and replete with the most serious questions of sin, redemption, and mortality. Like much fine literature, it is content to pose questions and seldom ventures to provide answers. Heady stuff indeed, but sprightly prose and a short length ensures success on far less consequential levels too.

On a cold night in Amsterdam sometime after World War Two you take a seat in the dank Mexico City bar and make the acquaintance of a stranger, who regales you with the story of his descent from a career as a successful Paris lawyer to “judge-penitent” of his own sins. He covers a period of five days and takes you to five locations, beginning in the bar and ending in his apartment.  Jean-Baptiste Clemence has reached the final destination of his fall; the below-sea-level city of Amsterdam, its concentric circles viewed from overhead said to be represent Dante’s Nine Circles Of Hell.

Clemence’s career, he confesses, was marked by cases concerning the needy and vulnerable, whom he deliberately chose in order to reflect his heroic self-image. He had many friends, was charitable and seduced women easily. The illusion of the model life was broken one evening when he stood by as a woman threw herself to her death in the Seine. This triggers Clemence’s own fall (“O young girl, throw yourself again into the water so that I might have a second time the chance to save the two of us!”) and provokes wider judgments about man and in particular where redemption might be found in the absence of religious faith. Though an atheist, Camus was never contemptuous of Christianity as were many of his contemporaries, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre. At times The Fall reads rather like the resignation of an irreligious man who finds that words fail him when he is confronted with serious matters like life, death and love, rendering futile all that has happened before:

A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.

It is Clemence’s own life of cynical manipulation (“You know what charm is:  a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”) which has produced this jaundiced view.  Nevertheless, its precise cause is less clear.  The defeat of Nazism in 1945 brought the chastening realisation that years of austerity, rationing and shortages followed and that a whole generation was doomed to contend with memories of the horror they had experienced.  Colonial wars followed, including in Algeria, then peaceful rebellion was crushed in Hungary.  Algeria in particular and the official policy of widespread torture brought convulsions to the French intelligentsia, so soon after the feeble capitulation of its government to fascism.  Is France’s fall also Clemence’s?

“Have you at least heard of the spitting cell, which a nation recently thought up to prove itself the greatest on earth? A walled-up box in which the prisoner can stand without moving. The solid door that locks him in the cement shell stops at chin level. Hence only his face is visible, and every passing jailer spits copiously on it. The prisoner, wedged into his cell, cannot wipe his face, though he is allowed, it is true, to close his eyes. Well, that, mon cher, is a human invention. They didn’t need God for that little masterpiece.”

Wholly in keeping with the Christian symbolism, Clemence is evangelical in the way he spends his days recounting his story in the hope that others will be awakened too; it seems doubtful that you, the reader and stranger at the bar, is the first recipient of this monologue.  He wants to provoke your confession too.  His belief that his failings do no less than reflect a sickness in humanity produces contempt in those whose professional lives require them to judge, as no-one is so free from immorality that they should adjudicate on the behaviour of others.

As will have been inferred, an astonishing quantity of themes is packed into these hundred or so pages.  The source of many of them is the early fifteenth century Jan van Eyck painting named ‘Adoration of the Sacred Lamb,’ which can now be viewed in the attractive Belgian city of Ghent.

Judges With Integrity

A stolen panel of this most famous of paintings is known as Judges With Integrity, a fitting piece to have somehow ended up locked in Clemence’s cupboard, its characters rendered unable to judge, having once hung on the wall of his “Dutch heaven,” the Mexico City bar,  watching over our narrator. Mexico City itself, it is not incidental to note, is 8,000 feet above sea level. Camus was fascinated by the story of the theft, which continues to occupy scholars and art historians today. Much of the Christian imagery of The Fall is synonymous with the panel, specifically the appearance of doves whose offer of redemption Clemence rejects. John the Baptist, from whom Jean-Baptiste Clemence apparently takes his name, was patron saint of Ghent and appears elsewhere in Adoration of the Sacred Lamb pointing towards the divine. When Clemence does the same he points merely at restless clouds:

When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters — an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah, choked with fever and alcohol, my back up against this moldy door, my finger raised toward a threatening sky, showering imprecations on lawless men who cannot endure any judgment.

God, as Clemence effectively spends the whole novella telling us, is useful only for the guarantee of innocence, but is pointless if innocence is unobtainable and even acts of charity are borne out of egotism. And so it is a hapless figure which accompanies us out of the Mexico City and back into the lowlands of Amsterdam. But as we walk with him, he is offered a final chance at redemption by the descent of a flock of doves representing God.

They finally make up their minds to come down, the little dears . . . let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, eh?

As it begins to appear that their arrival means Clemence was wrong throughout the preceding pages, he asks, “You don’t believe it? Nor do I.” Though this stops short of the G.K. Chesterton view that when men cease to worship God they worship anything, it is redolent of those atheists one sometimes finds who wish it were true. Clemence, then, is revealed as a man of conviction, who could easily have taken Pascal’s wager and accepted God’s existence just in case. But a schemer and a cynic like him would surely know that this is sophistry. If one does not believe, hope for redemption beyond this life must be abandoned.

Overall, as deeply layered as The Fall is it is quite possible to derive pleasure from it by reading it in whichever manner one so chooses. Clemence is waspish and often funny, perhaps an anti-hero, Amsterdam is vivid and the Mexico City bar is evocative of every dive you’ve ever been irritated by a stranger in. Complete, concise and complex, these hundred or so pages also throb with depth and seriousness, making this an excellent example of what the novella can achieve.

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