I’ve been longing for dark, lonely, European literature, and so I started reading Camus’ The Fall. The novel takes place in Amsterdam. The narrator, a Frenchman, meets a stranger in a bar and proceeds to tell him the story of his life through a series of dramatic monologues. The whole narrative is ghostly, shadowy, murky. And the narrator confesses to deeds better left undone. He expounds on how his past displays of generosity fed his vanity. And he shows no signs of repentance.
What strikes me more than anything is the narrator’s stark honesty. I can earnestly entertain any set of values in fiction, as long as they’re presented honestly, and the narrator’s candid account of his vanity leaves me wanting to sink more and more deeply into the spaces of his mind. I want to feel what he feels and I want to better understand his motivations.
Here’s an excerpt where the narrator, while walking through Paris, is deeply affected by the sound of a laugh. This is the turning point of his life. The writer in me is fascinated by how beautifully setting cues here carry the narrator from calm to vanity to paranoia. (The entire novel, by the way, is available online here.)
It was a fine autumn evening, still warm in town and already damp over the Seine. Night was falling; the sky, still bright in the west, was darkening; the street lamps were glowing dimly. I was walking up the quays of the Left Bank toward the Pont des Arts. The river was gleaming between the stalls of the secondhand booksellers. There were but few people on the quays; Paris was already at dinner. I was treading on the dusty yellow leaves that still recalled summer. Gradually the sky was filling with stars that could be seen for a moment after leaving one street lamp and heading toward another. I enjoyed the return of silence, the evening’s mildness, the emptiness of Paris. I was happy.
I had gone up on the Pont des Arts, deserted at that hour, to look at the river that could hardly be made out now night had come. Facing the statue of the Vert-Galant, I dominated the island. I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and—I don’t know how to express it—of completion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me. Taken by surprise, I suddenly wheeled around; there was no one there. I stepped to the railing; no barge or boat. I turned back toward the island and, again, heard the laughter behind me, a little farther off as if it were going downstream. I stood there motionless. The sound of the laughter was decreasing, but I could still hear it distinctly behind me, come from nowhere unless from the water. At the same time I was aware of the rapid beating of my heart.