Each month Amsterdam-based writer Jacob John Shale reports on aspects of the arts which originate in, or are connected to, The Netherlands. This month, an essay on Albert Camus’ 1956 last work of fiction, The Fall, which is set in Amsterdam.
It was E.M Cioran who wrote: ‘The one sincere confession we make is the one we make indirectly – when we talk about other people.’ But what of the confession alive to its own insincerity? Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ last published novel The Fall, is a retired Parisian lawyer who spends his nights haunting a sailor’s bar in the centre of Amsterdam. Once a reader, Clamence has since discarded literature. ‘I only like confessions nowadays,’ he claims, ‘and the authors of confessions write chiefly in order not to confess, saying nothing of what they know. When they pretend to be owning up, that’s the moment to beware: they’re putting make-up on the corpse.’ This is an appropriate metaphor. Years ago, Clamence witnessed a woman commit suicide by drowning herself in the Seine. He could have tried to rescue the woman but did not; and so will never recover from the sound of her screams. Before this incident, Clamence savoured a reputation as an advocate for the vulnerable and the persecuted Parisian classes, reminiscing of his legal career: ‘all I needed was the odour of victimisation on a defendant to leap into action.’ The encounter with the drowning woman makes it an impossibility for Clamence to continue donning the mask of the noble humanitarian. ‘No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,’ he declares, quoting Samuel Johnson. Clamence’s pleasures are alcohol and unserious sex. He emigrates to the right city.
The Fall is written as a monologue addressed to a middle-class French tourist, and at no instance in the novel do we get description of this man’s appearance or even learn his name. It soon becomes clear that what Clamence wants is not an interlocutor but an audience. Clamence has given the monologue innumerable times before; he is a descendant of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who fixes the Wedding-Guest with his ‘glittering eye’. But unlike the Ancient Mariner, who in telling his story seeks to edify the Wedding Guest, leaving him a ‘sadder and wiser man’ than at the beginning of the poem, the purpose of Clamence’s monologue is to infect the listener with his personal failings. Only by condemning the whole of mankind can Clamence stifle the screams of the drowning woman.
Having reread The Fall for The Irish Times in 2019, Rob Doyle observed: ‘As a novelist, Camus was an ideas man, and the main idea driving The Fall – that altruism is covert self-gratification, while charm, social success, and sexual conquest belie a will to absolute dominion – stops feeling like news around age 20.’ True enough, but ours is a depressingly immature era. We can all think of someone who would benefit from having these uncomplicated insights hammered home. Doyle has himself criticised the moralising quality to modern literary fiction, and I would submit that The Fall can be viewed as a portrait of the personality-type that helped to popularise precisely this brand of philistinism. It is not hard to picture Clamence’s former incarnation exalting a book whose covers he has not opened but whose blurb hails it as courageous, urgent, heartbreaking, a searing inditement of, etc, etc.
‘Holland is a revery, sir,’ says Clamence, ‘a dream of gold and smoke, more smoky by day and golden at night.’ The Fall might be a novel of ideas, but it is still a novel, and passages such as this keep the reader entranced even if they are not persuaded by its philosophy. The Amsterdam sky is ‘full of millions of doves, so high up that they are invisible, which flap their wings, rising and falling as one, filling the celestial dome with thick clouds of greyish feathers that the wind carries away or brings back.’ Clamence is drawn to the doves because they embody his own desire for superiority. He too wants to inhabit the empyrean, and speaks of the glory that is to be had in ascending ‘to the highest summit, where virtue is no longer sustained by anything but itself.’ I don’t know what it says that the birds by which I was most captivated upon arriving in Amsterdam were the herons. They do not behave like their patrician English counterparts. Surly and bedraggled-looking, you can see them gathered in groups, perched upon statues, stalking amongst rubbish bins at the back of an Albert Heijn. April 2023