Albert Camus (Vintage, 1956; trans: J. O’Brien)
149 p. First reading.
“A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”
That is probably the most famous line in this book, but evidently we’re not intended to take it too literally. The speaker, Jean-Baptiste Clamance, keeps spinning out sentences, and his theme throughout, in one way or another, is modern man. The note of world-weary resignation, cultured disdain, and epigrammatic wit struck by the saying is fairly representative of Clamance’s style. There’s more where it came from: “Anyone who has considerably mediated on man, by profession or vocation, is led to feel nostalgia for the primates”, “Hurray then for funerals!”, “Truth, cher ami, is a colossal bore”, “In a general way, I like all islands. It is easier to dominate them”, “Truth, like light, blinds”, and similar sentiments trip easily from his forked tongue.
Clamance lives in the tawdry core of Amsterdam, at the center of the city’s nested circular canals — at the center, as he remarks at one point, of the Inferno. He landed there after a long fall from grace: he had been a successful lawyer in Paris, fighting on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed. Now he plays a gadfly on the shadowy side of life, coaxing confessions from the wounded souls who wander his way. He is a kind of modernist Socrates, who questions and provokes, but whose object is to elicit self-disclosure rather than objective truth, and whose method is calculated misdirection rather than honest argument. He offers a therapy of resignation: acknowledge your own failings, and accept them. One suspects that his concern for his interlocutor is not quite sincere. “I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiveness,” he says, then adds, with a certain lack of decorum, “I feel at last that I am being adored!”
How did he come to this low estate? Good luck piecing the story together. The narrative, told in unordered fragments dropped here and there into his monologue (the book is one long monologue), is not easy to see clearly. The fact that he lies, or at least claims to lie, about himself makes the effort more difficult, and perhaps pointless, but his descent seems to have been caused primarily by two things: a realization that his assiduous labour on behalf of the weak had in fact been only a selfish quest for the particular kind of recognition he craved, and a fateful and chilling encounter one night on the banks of the Seine that haunted his mind and punished his conscience ever after.
I wouldn’t want to present Clamance as a font of wisdom — like Nietzsche, many of his remarks would be best prefaced by a discreet negation — but there are occasions on which he says something worth remembering. Consider these remarks on confession:
“. . .we rarely confide in those who are better than we. Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society. Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses. Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default. We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen. In short, we should like, at the same time, to cease being guilty and yet not to make the effort of cleansing ourselves. Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue. We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good.”
This is a perceptive observation. Confession of wrongdoing is a need of the human heart; ideally it is accompanied by contrition and a healthy resolve, but not always. Sometimes, instead, one seeks out the company of those who also will not ask for repentance, who perhaps share the fault in question, and confession becomes merely the bond of a sad camaraderie.
There are some intriguing particulars dropped here and there in the book: Dante comes up more than once, and van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb, a favourite of mine, has a prominent place in the story as well. I have a feeling that Camus might be using such things to say something subtle. But what that subtle something is, I am unable to ascertain. Such is the life of a blundering literary dunderhead. Under other circumstances I might have paged back to dig a little more deeply, but I have had quite enough of this “false prophet crying in the wilderness” for the time being. Farewell, Monsieur Clamance. I shall not miss you.