“You should perhaps at some point consider reading something post-1300.”
Deciding to heed the advice of my grammar tutor and get out the medieval period for a bit, I spent half an hour of the final Friday of Week 8 feeling mildly overwhelmed by the well-stocked French section of St Anne’s library. Telling myself that staring at spines is, alas, not actuallly the same thing as actually reading, I grabbed three titles and scurried off to finish packing.
A few weeks later, I’ve finally got to the end of the first one: La Chute (‘The Fall’) by Camus. I’ll admit this straight up: I know nothing about Camus except he wrote L’Etranger, which I haven’t read, and all my linguist buddies describe him as “depressing, weird and kind of confusing.”
My experience showed that the description of “depressing, weird and kind of confusing” turned out to be fairly apt – yet I can’t help feel that the struggle to ‘get it’ is very much the point. La Chute is Camus’ final work, and it’s masterful. Trying to outline the plot is quite hard – essentially ‘lonely man describes life to random strangers.’ It sounds simple. It is anything but. Jean-Baptiste Clamance, who calls himself a “judge-penitent”, offers his perspective on all the Big Life Issues: crime and punishment, innocence and sin, life and death, love and hate. So often I was vividly reminded me of those late night drunken conversations (aided perhaps by the initial setting of an Amsterdam bar) when everyone’s a philosopher – except in this case, the speaker truly is.
It’s a damn clever book. There’s a sense of poignant pointlessness and hopelessness in Clamance’s descriptions of his fall (hence the title) from wealthy, popular Parisian lawyer to a grim life in Amsterdam, which becomes a ‘Dantesque’ Hell with the red light district at the centre. Camus’ work constantly explores the issue of truth: what it is, and how to recognise it, yet all within a fictional framework. The novel so easily seems to wander into transcendent existential discussion, but then suddenly with a direct question to you, the holder of the book, you’re jolted back into an earthy, grimy setting where high flying ideals feel incongruous, uncomfortable and more than a tad ridiculous. It’s deeply clever. It’s deeply unnerving.
The protagonist’s struggle to find meaning in his life as he describes his ideals crumbling very much reflect the experience of struggling to impose a unified reading on the novel. It doesn’t work. Interpretation is not straightforward and neat – it’s messy and difficult. Neither Clamance nor the reader can ever truly settle on what anything means, but nevertheless both endlessly seek to find cohesiveness in experience.