Two men meet in a bar in Amsterdam. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, talks for the rest of the book. The other man is never named. He occasionally speaks but his words never appear. The Fall is a monologue, in which Clamence talks to his new acquaintance about the hypocrisy, foolishness and self-deception of the human race.
Clamence eventually identifies himself as a “judge-penitent”. He used to be a lawyer in Paris. Now he occupies himself by striking up conversations with strangers who come into the bar. He then confesses his various misdeeds, including his failure to intervene in a woman’s suicide back in Paris. This is the penitent part of his new occupation. Having made his own confession, he thinks that he has the right to judge the rest of humanity. And judging the rest of humanity allows other people to share the guilt. Hence, his role as judge-penitent.
I often didn’t understand what Clamence was saying. But reading The Fall did have an effect. Near the end of the book, Clamence remarks that “we are odd, wretched creatures, and if we merely look back over our lives, there’s no lack of occasions to amaze and horrify ourselves”. He suggests to his new acquaintance: “Admit that you feel less pleased with yourself than you felt five days ago” (when their conversation began).
I feel a little less pleased with myself after reading The Fall. Not because I am newly aware of any of my serious misdeeds (no news there). Rather because Clamence explains at one point how good it used to make him feel to do nice things for other people, like helping to push a stalled car. Such actions seem less significant when we consider how much we enjoy performing them. I might be less pleased with myself the next time I give someone directions or push a stalled car. (2/21/12)