Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reading Rainbow: The Fall by Albert Camus

As I remember it, I read The Stranger at a coffee shop in a sitting, and I rather enjoyed it. It was an effortless read with such a unique point of view that it left me wanting to read more Camus.

Well, it is nearly five years later, and I have just now gotten around to revisiting Camus, due entirely to a transatlantic summer book club that I took part in. The third and final book that we read was The Fall, and despite the fact that the book comes in at a mere 147 pages, it wasn't the fastest of reads. The reason for this is not related to the flow of Camus's prose. As in The Stranger, the words flow smoothly and effortlessly from the French Algerian's quill/pen/typewriter. Oddly, though, the entire novel is presented in the first-person present-tense in the form of a monologue directed at the reader. As the reader, we are conversing (or rather being preached at) with the judge-penitent, Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Frankly, I found this off-putting. Ultimately, I can understand the rationale behind this manner of presentation. It definitely serves a distinct purpose, but that doesn't make it any more palatable. Moreover, it recalls the reaction I had to Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, a book famously told in the second-person. That reaction? Irritation. Now, do not get me wrong, Bright Lights, Big City is not The Fall, but each plays a game with its narrative voice to serve its author's wishes, and in each case this particular reader was a bit turned off by what struck me as a gimmick.

With all of this quibbling about how Albert Camus elected to present his last complete work of fiction, it would appear that I didn't like the book. While I consider the issue to be fairly significant, as it affects the reader's reaction to everything that is said for the entirety of the book, the novel itself certainly has its merits.

Camus masterfully balances nearly everything Jean-Baptiste asserts about himself with a corresponding contradiction. The duality at the core of his being elucidates the hypocrisy that has permeated his entire existence. Despite his prior belief that he had been a good person, each of his acts of selflessness were subconsciously perpetrated so that he could gain control over those who he had thought himself initially to have been helping out of kindness. Finding that, much to his surprise, he derives joy in depriving others of treatment with common courtesy and decency, he discovers the ease with which evil takes a hold because it naturally lies within. As he engages in a self-destructive, debaucherous life in what is likened to the last circle of hell--the red light district in Amsterdam--he descends from his life in high society in Paris.

Now, ultimately, Jean-Baptiste is using the example his life serves to turn the mirror on the reader, putting the choice of narrative voice to its intended use. It is Jean-Baptiste's belief that the guilt inherent in him is inherent in us all, and his goal as judge-penitent is to show others what lies within them. This point does not escape me, and it is effective. Unfortunately, its utility didn't make it overly engaging for this reader.

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