Miranda‘s Fall?

If one wishes to revisit a classic, Albert Crunus’s The Fall is a riskier choice than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which Steven Lubet eloquently discussed last year in these pages. It is not only that Camus’s work will be less familiar to legal audiences than Lee’s, despite the fact that The Fall is becoming recognized through critical “revisitation” as perhaps Crunus’s greatest novel. It is also that the legal protagonist of The Fall, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, does not have Atticus Finch’s immediate appeal. Finch is idealistic, Clamence is existential; Finch is pious, Clamence is debauched; Finch is hopeful, Clamence is mordant; Finch is American, Clamence is French; Finch is a lawyer, Clamence is an ex-lawyer who is now a judge-penitent. Indeed, “the fall” of the title describes Clrunence’s fall from being an idealistic attorney much in the mold of Finch to being the urbane, dissolute, and strangely knowing expatriate he is at the time he tells his story. At least regarding the question of whether it is possible to live greatly in the law, The Fall is a much darker and more disturbing work than To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a less charismatic classic – a song of experience rather than one of innocence. Yet like many songs of experience, Camus’s novel has a polyphony that simpler stock narratives about the law – or the simpler stock narratives that are the law- do not possess. Clamence is too urbane (to repeat the adjective that best describes him) to be a lawyer. He has seen too far into the world, and too deeply into himself, to believe, or even to pretend to believe, in the particularized determinations of guilt or innocence that the law requires. His urbanity causes him to leave his Finch-like career to adopt a hermit-like existence. He shifts from going to court (p. 17) to holding court in seedy bars (p. 3), from having many possessions (p. 120) to having little more than stewardship over a stolen van Eyck painting (p. 128), from arguing other people’s cases (p. 3) to ritually confessing his own sins (p. 139). So what can we learn from Clamence’s urbanity? In my view, it most starkly illuminates the nature of confessions. Among literary characters, Clamence is perhaps unsurpassed in his grasp of what confessions mean and how they work. To see this, we might begin by noting that the entire novel appears to be a monologic confession on Clamence’s part. At the novel’s inception, Clamence strikes up a conversation with a stranger in an Amsterdam bar. That conversation leads to a series of others over five days, in which Clamence reveals more and more about himself. While we discern Clamence responding to (and sometimes repeating) the stranger’s questions, we never hear any voice in the novel other than Clamence’s own. At the end of the novel, Clamence tells his interlocutor that he is engaged in ritual confession (p. 139) – like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, he finds listener after listener to whom to tell his life story.