“A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand.”
Psalms xci, The Book of Common Prayer
In the introductory section of The Fall, Rob Dewar, a London art dealer, is driving to his home in London when he hears over the radio that his lifelong friend and former mountain climbing buddy, Jim Matthewson, has died in a fall near his home in Wales. Without hesitation or reservation, Rob points his car toward Wales. He does bother to call his wife, Eva, and right away we get the idea things aren’t right. Eva, a Marxist and a materialist without a grain of sentimentality, reminds Rob that she saved him from ‘these people’ once but she doubts she has the energy to do it again. In Wales, Rob’s approach to Ruth, Jim’s widow, and Caroline, Jim’s mother, enhances this foreboding that things really aren’t right. The rest of the novel explores what is wrong and how it got that way through a series of seemingly unrelated episodes that take us as far away as the Alps and as far back as the London Blitz.
The introduction affirms that we must confront our past, for we are our past and nothing else. Oh? Sounds good, the modern, liberal way to think. But not everyone would agree. Among the dissenters is Rob’s estranged father who warns him that raking over the past does no good, and Rob’s mother, Diana, argues there is no use looking back. Little wonder, since Diana’s affairs with Jim’s father, who has since been freeze-dried on the top of some Asian mountain, had baffling results not just once but twice. It is Jim’s father’s widow, Caroline, who once long ago introduced Rob to the full glow of sexual passion. And if that isn’t enough, Rob goes on to enjoy the favors of Jim’s girl and life companion, Ruth. Eva comments, ‘Christ alive, his mother and his girl. What kind of a bastard are you?’ And this is only the beginning of the complications.
The dust cover of this book led me astray. It promised me a story about climbing complicated by a love triangle. I had expected something romantic and ecological. I got neither. The author, Simon Mawer, a retired but highly skilled mountaineer, writes about climbing with fervor and passion, but he writes about it less than I had hoped. He captures the climb, the adventure, danger and sense of accomplishment, but he doesn’t go out of his way to do so. He appreciates the wilderness but doesn’t feel compelled to convey much of its beauty or horror. He plays with the paradox of a rapidly expanding civilization immediately adjacent to a bitter wilderness. He is aware that the raw sport of climbing has become stylish, complete with corporate sponsorships. Regrettably, he simply accepts these as facts without developing them. We might wish he had worked a little harder at the weird world of the climber but he doesn’t. His climbers do it for him and they are a weird lot beyond our wildest expectations.
My romantic expectations anticipated at least a few sympathetic characters. Again, I was disappointed. The love triangle is really something more complex than a triangle. It’s more like a bunch of rabbits copulating in an irregular tetrahedron and doing so over generations. Any attempt to sort things out just makes it worse. There’s not a single character that commands either respect or sympathy. They are arrogant, obsessive, selfish, irresponsible and stupid. They act like they’d just fallen off the turnip truck. Worse yet, none is monumentally evil. They are just bad, by accident or with malice though not much forethought, in such trivial, pathetic ways that the reader can only despise them.
A novel that seemed to promise romance and adventure but is chock full of despicable characters is something of a shock. I wasn’t enjoying it in the slightest until I realized that my reaction was exactly the author’s point. If we confront our pasts honestly we have a lot to be ashamed of, but most of it is just pathetic at its worst. There are two literal falls in The Fall. One kills Jim and the other changes Rob from a ne’er-do-well mountain mouse into a toeless art dealer. But there are hundreds of little, symbolic falls, fallings away from expectations, from self. The characters’ sexual antics speak most vividly to this. The morning after, none of them are able to say, ‘Gee, that was great fun, let’s do it again.’ Instead they slink away to nurse their wounds, to nurture their regrets. They all hope their peccadilloes will go undiscovered but that never happens. Sooner or later, these all creep out of the closet to haunt them each time in new and strange ways.
And therein is the lesson. Climbers may be strange but only because their world is more intense and immediate than the relatively secure world of, say, an art dealer. When climbers stumble, the results are colossal. But art dealers stumble, too. None of our fallings, little or great, can be swept under the carpet. They must be confronted and dealt with directly. The Fall has little to do with mountain climbing and a lot to do with the general situation of humankind. With that realization, the lights came on for me anyway, and this novel became compelling.