Thursday, 4 September 2014

ALBERT CAMUS La chute [The Fall] (1956)

Folio France, 2008

C'est si vrai que nous nous confions rarement à ceux qui sont meilleurs que nous.  Nous fuirions plutôt leur société.  Le plus souvent, au contraire, nous nous confessons à ceux qui nous ressemblent et qui partagent nos faiblesses.  Nous ne désirons donc pas nous corriger, ni être améliorés:  il faudrait d'abord que nous fussions jugés de faillants.  Nous souhaitons seulement être plaints et encouragés dans notre voie.  En somme, nous voudrions, en même temps, ne plus être coupables et ne pas faire l'effort de nous purifier

It's so true that we rarely confide in those who are better than us.  Rather, we shun their society.  On the contrary, we confess most often to those who resemble us and support our weaknesses.  We don't want them to correct us, nor to improve us; it's necessary first of all that we be judged as failures.  We only wish to complain and be encouraged to follow the path we've chosen.  Finally, we want, at the same time, not to be guilty anymore and not to have to make the effort to absolve ourselves

Excerpts translated by BR

The Novel Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a lawyer from Paris living an obscure life of voluntary exile in Amsterdam, recounts to an unnamed listener he meets in a dockside bar how he took pride and even pleasure in aiding the poor, the orphaned and the downtrodden during the course of his now-abandoned legal career, how indulging in supposedly selfless acts like helping a blind man cross a busy street provided him with his greatest source of contentment if not of actual joy.  He always had an unnatural fondness, he confesses, for all high places –– for mountains, for tall buildings, for the upper decks of boats –– and viewed himself as being a socially, morally and spiritually superior human being whose sense of worth, he's since discovered, was entirely dependent on the pleasure he derived from feeling that he was looking down on the 'ordinary' mass of humanity from such remote and lofty vantage points.  

But the death of an unknown girl who jumped from a Paris bridge into the Seine – an event Clamence overheard but did not personally witness yet nevertheless made no effort to prevent – triggered a process of self-realization which culminated in him confronting and admitting the truth about himself for the first time in his life.  What he loved, he explains to his perpetually silent confessor over the course of the next five days, was not the act of doing someone a kindness, but the thought of being perceived as having acted kindly towards them by his fellow human beings.  Being perceived as being someone 'kind' and 'good' –– rather than the genuine possession of these qualities and the consistent application of them in his everyday life –– was what motivated Clamence's actions and caused him to behave, or rather not behave, in the shameful way he did that night.  He was nothing, he admits, but an actor playing a familiar, conscientiously rehearsed role which allowed him to create and project the image of himself he wanted others to validate by accepting him for what he pretended to be rather than the charlatan he always secretly feared and knew himself to be.  The splash he heard as the girl's body hit the water signified more than the beginning of her death by drowning.  It also signified the beginning of his own fall from his former state of self-deceiving naiveté to one of bitter if clear-eyed self-contempt.

Stripped of his illusions, Clamence has now become a non-active non-participant in life, a self-appointed 'judge-penitent' whose efforts to lose himself in debauchery have proven as futile as his previous efforts to portray himself as an altruistic, noble-minded individual ultimately proved to be.  His decision to exile himself to the 'hell' that is the red-light district and former Jewish quarter of the Dutch capital was a conscious act of self-negation, his way of avowing and simultaneously disassociating himself from his former life of careless, socially-condoned hypocrisy.  Complacency has now replaced altruism as his new 'religion,' while his desire to hide from those who dared to question his formerly sacrosanct image of himself as a worthy and compassionate man –– the girl on the bridge, a motorcyclist he argued with before leaving Paris who punched him on the street and publicly humiliated him –– is surpassed only by his desire to avoid the memory of his other moral failures: his unacted-upon plan to join the French Resistance during World War Two, his eventual decision to escape the war in Europe by fleeing to North Africa, the time he spent in a concentration camp where he was chosen to act as spokesman – their 'Pope' as he describes it –– by his fellow inmates, only to betray their trust by snatching the last cupful of water from the hand of a dying man. 

Clamence's tale ends with him wondering aloud to his unnamed confessor –– or, in other words, the reader –– how he might react if another young woman threw herself off a bridge while he was nearby, thereby offering him the chance to redeem himself by saving her as he so clearly failed to save her predecessor.    

' "O jeune fille, jette-toi encore dans l'eau pour que j'aie une seconde fois la chance de nous sauver tous les deux!"  Une seconde fois, hein, quelle imprudence!  Suppose, cher maître, qu'on nous prenne au mot?  Il faudrait s'exécuter.  Brr, l'eau est si froide!  Mais rassurons-nous!  Il est trop tard, maintenant, il sera toujours trop tard.  Heuresement!'  

[' "O, young girl, throw yourself into the water again so that one might have the chance to rescue both of us!"  A second chance, eh, how ridiculous!  Imagine, dear master, that they took us at our word?  We'd have to go through with it.  Brr‚ the water's so cold!  But we can reassure ourselves!  It's too late, now, it will always be too late.  Fortunately!']

Vintage Books UK, 2009
Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus' fellow writer and friend and later his critic and outspoken ideological enemy, called La chute 'perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood' of all of his books.  Sartre was right.  La chute is a beautiful book but in no sense is it a pretentious or difficult one in terms of its language or the simple (but never simplistic) humanistic message it conveys.  (Camus was a great writer and the mark of a legitimately great writer, as opposed to a merely clever or fashionable one, is the clarity of their prose.  Like his English contemporary George Orwell, Camus had something very specific to say and generally found a way to say it with enviable brevity and precision.)  It's been described as an attempt to re-tell the Christian myth of the 'fall' of mankind –– from the state of innocence to that of sin –– in secular terms, an allegory of World War Two and how it and the various atrocities it inspired were permitted to occur and even, by some critics, as a post-modernist update of Dante's Inferno.  (Nine evenly spaced streets ring the port of Amsterdam, just as nine concentric circles surround hell in Dante's famous fourteenth century poem.)  

La chute may or may not be any or all of these things but what it remains, first and foremost, is a fascinating study in human psychology which raises fundamental questions about the nature of identity and what motivates us to act in the way we choose to act or, more significantly, in the way we may choose not to act at various crisis points in our lives.  Are we what our actions reveal us to be or are we what we pretend to be in order to maintain our self-esteem and discourage others from viewing us in a negative light and damning us for our complacency?  If Clamence's honesty condemns him to live out the rest of his days as a tormented 'judge penitent,' his own accuser and perhaps his own redeemer then, Camus implies, the rest of us are surely condemned to share the same unhappy fate.  

Or are we?  If God is dead, as Clamence himself suggests throughout the novel, and mankind is truly alone in a cold uncaring universe, then who besides ourselves is ultimately capable of judging us?  This, I believe, was what Camus strove all his life to make us realize as individuals and act upon as a society.  Civilizations, after all, are only as tolerant, fair-minded and compassionate as the human beings who collectively comprise them.  To end hypocrisy and the evils it inspires – complacency, selfishness, greed, famine, war and destruction –– it's first of all necessary for all of us, whoever we are, to possess the honesty, and the intractable moral courage, to recognize this same hypocrisy in ourselves and do whatever we can to eradicate it.

The Writer:  Albert Camus once said that 'Men are convinced of your arguments, your sincerity and the seriousness of your efforts only by your death.'  His life was, in a sense, a testament to this belief, a philosophical work-in-progress which elevated him, by the time he died in a car accident in January 1960, to the level of an intellectual cult figure and one of the world's most read and still most widely admired writers.

Camus was born on 7 November 1913 in the town of Mondovi (now known as Dréan) in El Taref, the northernmost province of what was then the French-speaking colony of Algeria.  His father Lucien, a farm worker and cellarman who only knew his second child for eight months before being called up to serve in an African Zouave regiment, was killed in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne, leaving his sons to be raised by his wife – a poor, half-deaf woman of mixed Algerian/Spanish heritage named Catherine who scratched out a meager living for herself as a cleaner.  Like her dead husband, Catherine Camus was a pied-noir [black foot, as in 'a treader on black soil'] a French-speaking ancestor of Algeria's original colonizers who considered Africa, rather than Europe, to be their ancestral home.  Ironically, the pieds-noirs would find themselves double exiles, as unwelcome in their adopted homeland as they were in France after Algeria was finally granted independence in 1962.  The idea of exile, social as well as emotional, was to become a dominant theme of Camus' writing.  When Civil War broke out in Algeria in 1954 he found himself caught between his genuinely sympathetic understanding of Arab grievances and the desire to see the civil and property rights of pieds-noirs like his mother recognized and protected –– a moral dilemma as profound, for him, as any he examined in his work. 

Catherine raised her sons in Belcourt, a working class suburb of Algiers, in a three room apartment without electricity or running water which they were obliged, due to their extreme poverty, to share with her own tyrannical mother and her two brothers.  Camus, who was by nature a bright and curious child, did not attend school until the age of ten.  A diligent student who was already passionate about reading and football, he was encouraged in his studies by his teacher Louis Germain –– a man he would publicly thank for the positive influence he'd had upon his life in the acceptance speech he gave after winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.  It was Germain who persuaded Camus' grandmother to allow the boy to apply for the scholarship that permitted him to finish school and gain admittance, in 1933, to the University of Algiers.  Unfortunately, his academic career was interrupted –– as was his by-now promising career as a footballer – by his contracting of what was, at that time, the normally fatal lung disease tuberculosis.  

The disease, which is highly contagious, forced Camus to leave the family home and move to the childless home of his aunt and uncle, Antoinette and Gustave Acault.  His uncle, a self-educated butcher who owned complete editions of Balzac and Zola, described himself to his customers as an Anarchist –– a label his nephew, who adored the work of André Gide and André Malraux and enjoyed dressing like a dandy courtesy of the small allowance his uncle provided for him while he was recuperating –– would apply to himself in a few more years.  The relationship between nephew and uncle soured, however, after they argued about Camus' habit of bringing girls home and 'entertaining' them in his room with the door shut.  Camus moved out of the Acault household for good when he was twenty-one and, by June 1934, found himself married to Simone Hié, the flirtatious, morphine-addicted former sweetheart of a friend.  He had, by this time, found a new, more useful mentor in Jean Grenier, a philosophy professor who helped him get a few articles published in the Algerian literary magazine Sud.  It would be Grenier who would encourage his young protégé to join the Algerian Communist Party and become, for a time, one of its most devoted and hardest-working members.

Camus earned his licence de philosophie (what in English-speaking countries would be called his BA) in 1935, following it a year later with his diplôme d'études supérieures (his MA) for a thesis titled Néo-Platonisme et Pensée Chrétienne [Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought].  He planned to become a teacher but was prevented from doing so by the condition of his lungs, which had stabilized to some degree without showing any significant signs of improvement.  (The disease would continue to plague him all his life.)  His marriage was also in trouble by this time, with Simone refusing to seek treatment for her addiction while she continued to take lovers (as did her husband, a habit he never abandoned).  They split for good in 1936, freeing Camus to pursue his interests in politics, philosophy and writing.  

Under Grenier's guidance, Camus began writing propaganda plays for the party and delivering pro-Communist lectures activities he felt uncomfortable recalling after being expelled from the party in 1937 and eventually disavowing Communism and the totalitarianism he felt to be an inseparable component of it.  He would spend the rest of his life looking for a non-tyrannical, Socialistic alternative to Communism that was as tolerant and non-partisan as Communism itself had originally and so falsely claimed to be.  In time, he would develop his own philosophical response to the problems of politics, morality and existence, a system which favored individual action over collective inaction and the abandonment of any form of doctrinaire approach which obliged human beings to deny their individuality.  As he once put it:  'The only real progress lies in learning to be wrong all alone.'

After returning from a trip to France, Camus, denied access to the Communist-run theater group he'd been writing plays for prior to his ejection from the party, decided to seek work  as a journalist.  He was unhappy about this, viewing journalism as hack work rather than his true vocation, but was left with little other choice after abandoning the novel he'd been working on for several months and needing to earn some sort of steady income.  (This abandoned novel, titled Un mort heureuse [A Happy Death], was an early version of his debut novel L'étranger [The Stranger] and remained unpublished until 1971.)  He worked as a court reporter, political correspondent and occasional book reviewer for the newspaper Algiers Républicain while continuing to work on his own projects, which by now included L'étranger, his full length play Caligula and a long essay on the absurdity of the human situation that would eventually appear, in 1942, under the title Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus].  

By the time this essay was published Camus' name was already reasonably well-known in Paris, where he had worked for Paris-Soir following the closure of the pacifist Algiers Républicain by the reactionary Algerian government.  He was in Paris when the Germans began bombarding the city in the spring of 1940 and, despite several attempts to enlist in the French army which saw him rejected for service on medical grounds, was relocated along with the rest of the newspaper's staff to Clermont before the Germans gained full control of France in May.  The war did not hamper his sex life in any way and saw him conduct relationships with several different women including Francine Faure, who had become his second wife in December 1940.  It was with Francine that he returned to Algiers in early 1941, where he soon began to complain to friends of feeling bored and suffocated.  He was to remain in this dejected mood until April of that year, when he sent the completed manuscripts of L'etranger and Caligula to his Paris friends Pascal Pia and Jean Grenier.  They arranged to send on his manuscripts to his childhood hero André Malraux, who in turn arranged to have them published by the prestigious firm of Gallimard.   

L'étranger appeared in 1942 and was immediately hailed as a work of genius by Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-wing intellectuals.  Camus, however, was not there to enjoy the acclaim his work now began to earn him.  Back in France but sick again, he was advised to remain with Francine's family near Lyon while she returned to Algeria and the job she had waiting for her there.  The Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 effectively severed all links between Algeria and the Continent, separating Camus from his wife until France was finally liberated in June 1944.  Francine had not accompanied him, therefore, when he returned to Paris in December 1942 to be hailed by Sartre and others as a major new literary and philosophical talent.

ALBERT CAMUS and JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (seated), c. 1950
In 1943 Camus joined the staff of Combat, a Resistance newspaper for which he wrote articles under the pseudonym of 'Beauchard.'  He soon became editor of the newspaper and finally met Sartre in June of that year.  Their friendship was never as close as it has often been portrayed as being and broke down completely after the war when Camus publicly attacked Communism in the pages of Combat and then again during a US lecture tour.  The 1951 publication of L'Homme Révolté [The Rebel], his book length study of rebellion and revolution which was highly critical of Communist doctrine, turned him and Sartre into ideological enemies and saw both Camus and his work reviled by many other left-wing intellectuals as well.  From then until his death Camus remained a firm opponent of Communism, protesting in the pages of Combat, and later in L'Express which he began writing for in 1955, against the USSR's crushing of a worker's strike in East Berlin and its efforts to crush similar uprisings in Poland and Hungary.  

He was equally outspoken in his condemnation of capital punishment and the problem of Algerian independence, which he believed could only be resolved by the adoption of tolerant, non-violent attitudes by both sides.  He remained emotionally and morally divided on the subject of Algeria, with his failure to take the expected, politically-correct public stance on the question further isolating him from Sartre and many other French intellectuals, some of whom accused him of being a closet imperialist.  Camus responded by accusing Sartre and his friends of being nothing more than 'armchair revolutionaries.'

Although Camus became the father of twins in 1945, his new role did not prevent him from conducting numerous affairs with women like the actress Maria Casarés and the young American writer Patricia Blake – a habit which, in time, led to his wife's emotional breakdown and a failed suicide attempt.  (Francine attempted to throw herself off a balcony –– an event which found its way, with the balcony substituted for a bridge, into the pages of La chute.)  Depressed by his inability to help his wife and feeling alienated from and even despised by many of his former friends and political colleagues, he continued to be plagued by ill health and disturbed by his financial and critical success, once stating that 'What makes my books a success is the same thing that makes them a lie for me.'  As the war in Algeria escalated he also found himself coming increasingly under attack for remaining silent on the issue of Algerian independence, with a student he encountered at one meeting angrily accusing him of cowardice –– an accusation that went unanswered and quickly reduced him to tears.  His winning of the 1957 Nobel Prize only added to what were now his almost continuous fears and anxieties, reminding him that his time on earth was limited due to his lung problems and that he had yet to write what he considered to be his masterpiece.  Later works like his story collection Exil et le Royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] (1957) were greeted coolly by the critics who expected him to follow the unexpected return to form of La chute with another major novel.  

Camus was working on this new novel, based on his childhood and tentatively titled Le premier homme [The First Man], when he died in a car accident in the Burgundy village of Villeblevin on 4 January 1960.  He'd originally planned to take the train to Paris but was persuaded by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, to accompany him there by car.  (Gallimard also lost his life in the accident.)  His unused train ticket was found in his pocket, while his briefcase was found to contain drafts of the early chapters of his incomplete final novel which was published, under the supervision of his daughter Catherine, in 2009.

Click HERE to visit the homepage of THE ALBERT CAMUS SOCIETY, where you will find a wealth of information about his life, work and philosophy.  To read some interesting (but unfortunately unreferenced) quotes by ALBERT CAMUS, please click HERE.  There are several biographies available, the most recent of which is Albert Camus: Elements of a Life by ROBERT ZARETSKY, published by The Cornell University Press in September 2013.  It should be easily obtainable via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer, as should the less scholarly Albert Camus: A Life by OLIVIER TODD, published in a new edition by Vintage/Random House in 1998.

You might also enjoy:
TAHAR BEN JELLOUN Au pays [A Palace in the Old Village] (2009)
CARLO LEVI Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
FRANÇOIS MAURIAC Le Baiser au lépreux [Kiss For The Lepers] (1922)

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