Rating: 4 stars
I first read Camus’s The Fall in sixth form. I took General Studies as an extra A-Level because I’d had to give up some subjects I loved and GS gave me the chance to pretend I was still studying them. We had time with teachers from a range of subjects, and our English teacher came armed with a list of authors that I’m ever grateful for meeting. Margaret Atwood, Anita Brookner, Julian Barnes, Michael Frayn. Her aim was to make us read widely and contemporarily.
The Fall was less contemporary and while I enjoyed it, I’d say that aged 17, I didn’t have the life experience I needed to understand it. I remember feeling something akin to recognition when Jean Baptiste Clamance talks of needing to be high up, and the feeling of freedom it brings. That’s my abiding memory of the book from that time. For the rest of it, I thought he was a strange man, possibly going mad, a megalomaniac and a fairly unpleasant, selfish person. We did the usual analysis of the book and probably felt very erudite at the time.
Now that I’m older, I appreciate Clamance differently. I see his world weariness, how tired he is of playing by the civilised rules of society in order to make people feel better. I sense his hollowness that he replaces with a detached judgement and disdain. I recognise his disappointment in himself for not being the good person he has built his public reputation around and his desire to tear down the façade and be someone more real.
He makes me think of Haze Motes in his self-appointed role of preacher of an alternative truth and judge of all humanity.
There are lines towards the end of the book that feel relevant to now, to how life is under whatever label you want to paste onto it. Post-modern, post-fact, post-intellectual, post-whatever. But also that feel as though a hope for a different way of thinking has been lost in this current time of ultra conservatism.
Ah, my dear fellow, for anyone who is alone, recognising neither god nor master, the weight of days is awful. So one must choose a master, God being out of fashion now. Besides, the word no longer has any meaning;
Grace is what they want – a ‘yes’, surrender, joy in living and, who knows, because they’re sentimental too, betrothal, a fresh young virgin, an upright man, music … Take me, for example – I’m not sentimental; do you know what I dreamed of? A complete live, of the whole body and heart, day and night, in one continuous embrace, sexual pleasure and emotional exultation …
Aye. There’s that. Clinging to the nonsense of romance peddled in books, films and songs, wanting to surrender, to let down your guard, to be seen and not found ugly, to be recognised and not presumed. We’re a curious evolution.
Sometimes you lose your way and doubt the evidence, even when you’ve discovered the secrets of a good life. Of course, my solution is not ideal. But when you don’t like your life and know that it has to be changed, you have no choice, do you?
I didn’t stand a chance of understanding that when I was 17. Nothing had happened to me, beyond two aunties dying, being devastatingly in love with a lad in the boys’ school who knew I existed and didn’t care, and having a vague notion that my parents’ marriage wasn’t a good example of how to live. There have been more deaths, more loves (unrequited and otherwise) and I know my parents’ marriage was a complicated thing, because marriage and any form of cohabitation is a complicated thing.
Is Clamance right? Do we have a choice in how we change our lives? My gut instinct is to treat others as I’d like to be treated, with decency and respect and enough kindness to make a difference but not suffocate. I don’t think we’re all bad, vile, disgustingly deluded creatures. I don’t like the world we live in now, but I don’t think Clamance’s approach is the right one.
I suppose, despite all the knocks I’ve had lately, I’m still an optimist. My cynicism hasn’t quite won out.
Does that make me an idiot?
You don’t have to answer that.