The Fall begins with the narrator offering you his services. Yes, he’s speaking to you. This is a conversation in which we only hear one person speaking the entire time.
The services in question have to do with getting you a drink from the barman, a burly man who only speaks Dutch.
The narrator assists you in getting a gin, and then pulls up a chair for a chat.
He reveals that you’re in a bar in Amsterdam’s not-so-classy red-light district, and the joint is named Mexico City.
He continues to talk about the barman some more, admitting he’s "drawn" to the man because he is ape-like. Any one who has studied humans, he declares, has an affinity for the primates because they have no ulterior motives.
The narrator now draws your attention to the empty rectangle on the wall behind the bar, where a picture used to hang. He himself was here for the hanging of said painting, and for its being given up. In both cases, the barman seemed distrustful.
Not that he’s judging. (He actually says he’s not judging.) Distrust is natural.
But a little more about this narrator: he used to live in France.
He then uses the subjunctive, and remarks that you, his listener, are intelligent, because you smiled at his use of the imperfect subjunctive, which means you are an intellectual – just like him.
As it turns out, you, the listener, are also from Paris.
The narrator declares that Parisians, like all modern men, have two passions: ideas and fornication.
The Dutch, he says, are different, because they are not "modern men." They are not intellectuals, he says, but very moral. (This seems like a contradiction, because the narrator also points out the pimping, prostitution, and violence that he's a witness to from his stool in the red-light district.)
Still, he compares the civilized way that "others" live to the way a swimmer gets eaten up by piranhas in Brazil. If you, like these others, opt for a "good, clean life," then you are nibbled to pieces by the conventions of a job, a family, a house, until you are a skeletal version of your former self. (It sounds to us like he’s talking about identity; if you want a standard, socially acceptable job/home/family, then you’re going to be stripped of your real identity.)
The gin arrives at the bar. The narrator explains that he used to be a lawyer, but now he is a "judge-penitent."
And now, a gin later, he’d like to tell you his name: Jean-Baptiste Clamence.
He’d also like to tell you a little bit about…you. You’re the same age as he is, so in your forties. You’re a man. You’re well-dressed and have smooth hands, so you’re probably a cultured bourgeois (again, because of that whole subjunctive incident back there).
Just when he is about to guess your occupation, he stops: "No matter," he says, "professions interest me less than sects" (1.8).
He then asks if you have any possessions: you do.
Do you share them with the poor? No, so you are a "Sadducee," he tells you.
(Note: The Sadducees were a Jewish sect in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. They believed in "eye for an eye." The Bible didn’t look too nicely on them; in the Gospel of Luke they’re called "snakes.")
Now Jean-Baptiste moves on to talk about himself. He looks like a rugby player. He’s sophisticated. He goes to the sailors’ bars.
Since he no longer has any possessions, he can’t be guilty of being a Sadducee. However, he used to be rich and shared nothing with the poor, which means he was a Sadducee back in the day in Paris.
He draws our attention to the foghorns in the distance and declares there will be fog tonight.
You get up to leave, and he picks up the check. He’ll be here again tomorrow night, he says. Actually, he’s here every night.
Jean-Baptiste decides to accompany you on your walk home to the Damrak, a major city street where your hotel is located.
Jean-Baptiste himself lives in the Jewish Quarter, or what used to be the Jewish Quarter, he says, before Hitler. He’s amazed at Hitler’s "diligence" and "methodical patience"; when you have no character, he says, you need to have method. He wonders at the fact that he lives at the site of one of the "greatest crimes in history."
This, he explains, has much to do with his natural distrust of others. When he is attracted to another human being, his internal alarm goes off, warning him of danger.
He recalls a German invasion in his village, when a woman was asked to choose which of her two sons would be shot to death. He can’t imagine such a choice.
But speaking of distrust, he says, he once knew a trusting man with a pure heart. This man was a pacifist. He used to welcome everyone into his home, until he welcomed in the army, who promptly disemboweled him, Candide-style. (If you haven’t read Candide, we suggest you Shmoop it immediately.)
Jean-Baptiste is suddenly aware that, actually, disembowelment isn’t the greatest thing to be talking about in public. He apologizes to the woman beside him, even though she didn’t understand him anyway. (Remember, you’re in Amsterdam, and you two are talking in French.)
He stops to ruminate on how wonderful gin really is.
Then Jean-Baptiste talks some more about Amsterdam; it inspires him. He likes the people, because "they are double. They are here and elsewhere."
Fortunately, he explains. The Dutch are physically walking around in the streets, but their heads are in the clouds; he compares them to Lehengrin, a mythical character who used to drive around in a boat pulled by swans looking for a princess to rescue. In other words, they’re dreamers.
He apologizes for his digression.
And yet…he’s not done talking about Amsterdam. He asks if you’ve noticed that the concentric canals of the city resemble the circles of hell. It’s a middle-class hell, of course, filled with bad dreams.
Here, he says, you are at the heart of things, at the innermost circle, the circle of…
Then he trails off; but you smile, knowing his reference, which in his eyes makes you "harder to classify."
(OK, so Jean-Baptiste is talking about Dante’s nine circles of hell. Dante, in his Inferno, explores hell, which he describes as being composed of nine concentric circles. Jean-Baptiste thinks the canals of Amsterdam look a lot like these nine circles. Now, Dante describe each circle as housing a different group of sinners. The first and outermost was for those who weren’t baptized, the second for the lustful, etc., etc. The sins got worse as you went farther in. The innermost circle of hell – which Jean-Baptiste says you and he are currently in – was reserved for those guilty of betrayal. When he mentions the innermost circle, he trails off, and is surprised to see that you knew what he was saying. That is, you knew that he was talking about the circle of hell reserved for traitors. He’s all impressed with your knowledge of 14th century Italian epic poetry. For more on Inferno, check out our Shmoop module.)
Parisians, he says, can travel no further than this. They stop as they face the inner sea and end up at the bar Mexico City, where he – Jean-Baptiste – waits for them.
He leaves you at the bridge, bids you farewell, and concludes that he will see you tomorrow. He can accompany you no further, since he never crosses a bridge at night – it’s a vow he made.
Why? Because, what if someone jumps into the water? Then you would have to fish him out and risk dying of some rather uncomfortable hypothermia, or you'd have to leave him there to drown and feel a sort of "ache."
(Go ahead and dog-ear this page, its important.)
Before you part, he comments on the "ladies in the windows," whom he calls "cheap dream[s], a trip to the Indies" (1.15).