*Amsterdam. Capital city of the Netherlands; at thirteen feet below sea level, it has the lowest elevation of any capital in the world. Its concentric canals are likened by Jean-Baptiste Clamence to the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320; English translation, 1802). Its Zuider Zee is called by him almost a dead sea. He lives in the Jewish section and preaches in a bar, which he calls his church. Amsterdam, in this way, lends itself to various Judeo-Christian references, which include his own name, a pseudonym meaning “John the Baptist, crying out.” The references are ironic: Clamence does not believe in the Judeo-Christian deity, by whom he would, as a believer, be judged. Needing to be judged, he must, lacking a judgmental deity, judge himself for having lived inauthentically. His self-judgment includes his self-imposed exile from Paris to the equivalent of Hell (Amsterdam), where his penance consists of confessing his inauthenticity to anyone who will listen. He calls himself a “judge-penitent”: one who judges himself and carries out the penitential sentence imposed upon himself by himself. Furthering his secularization of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is his recollection that, in the prison camp, he was given the role of “pope.” In the camp he contracted a disease, possibly malaria, and the climate of Amsterdam has aggravated that disease.
Mexico City Bar
Mexico City Bar. Saloon in Amsterdam. An actual “Mexico City” bar was located in Amsterdam by at least one diligent scholar, but its historicity is of less importance than its thematic suggestiveness. The name of the bar intones a contrast to the city of Amsterdam: Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, has, at seventy-two hundred feet above sea level, the highest elevation of any capital in the world. The bar is the “church” from which Clamence “preaches.” The ecclesiastical aspiration to spiritual ascension is secularized, adding to the theme that, in a world where there has ceased to be a God to effect judgment and salvation, the person in need of both must achieve them in and of herself or himself. This is the gospel which the secular John the Baptist is preaching, with gin as the baptismal liquid proffered in the bar. Amsterdam and Mexico City maintain the intimations of the low and the high (both spatially and morally) and are consistent with Clamence’s inclination to identify himself in those terms.
*Paris. The capital of France is the scene of the activities recalled by Clamence: his success as a lawyer, his ostentatious conference of kindnesses and benefits upon his fellow citizens, and his realization that his life has been a sham, an existence marked by hollow affectation. The realization is wrought by his experiences at each of two bridges. At the first, the Pont Royal, in 1936 or 1937, his prolonged hesitation resulted in his failure to attempt to rescue a woman who had leaped to her death from the bridge. At the second, the Pont des Arts, in 1939, he twice hears laughter, which, as it seems to go downstream, causes his heart to pound and his breath to shorten. Later, he hears some young people laugh on the sidewalk under his windows and assumes that they are laughing at him. When he looks in the mirror, his smile seems to be double: He has realized his duplicity. The two bridges, the two cities (Paris and Amsterdam), along with his double role as judge-penitent and numerous other instances of doubling, inform the major theme of the novel, the inherent duplicity of human nature, that is, every human being is both good and evil, spiritual as well as materialistic, and both honest and dishonest.
The Fall is a long monologue, a confession, a methodical introspection. In contrast to the informal style of The Stranger, the language is classically pure. Where The Stranger abounded in the informal passe compose, The Fall has conditionals and subjunctives. It is ironic and sarcastic throughout, yet with a tragic note in...
(The entire section is 1,252 words.)