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The Fall

The Fall. Simon Mawer. Boston: Little Brown, 2003. 370 pages. $24.95

The Fall is the first novel with a climbing background by a respected talent since James Salter’s Solo Faces 20 years ago: long enough to suggest that the climbing novel is an endangered species. Ex-climber Simon Mawer wrote five novels, including his acclaimed Mendel’s Dwarf, before drawing on his personal experiences in the pubs and crags of Wales, Scotland, and the Alps for what New York Times Sunday Book Review Section dubbed a “fine new mountaineering novel.”

Mawer begins with a report of a fatality. Soloing a route far beyond his ability if roped, the celebrated mountaineer Jamie Matthewson, 50—he is given the status of a British Messner or Kukuczka—falls off a Welsh cliff and dies. “Why?” is the presenting problem designed to hold much of the novel together. Upon hearing the news bulletin, estranged mate Robert takes leave of career and beautiful wife and children for a recherché du temps perdu and Llamberis. At the memorial service, Dewar reads from Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps.

There is more excitement in the story development than my summary conveys. Mawer is a literary conjuror with time, cryptic character, selective evidence, and non-disclosure. The second-generation story is based on Robert’s recollections of his youth and relationship to Jamie. At 12, on the two boys’ first experiments at climbing in a slate quarry, Jamie is captured and sodomized by a caretaker. At 16 Robert gets his sexual initiation from Jamie’s glamorous Caroline over a torrid London weekend. Later the two men take up climbing avidly in Wales and Scotland. Enter Ruth the bohemian painter. At first she favors Jamie, then Robert, and one night both men together in a camper van while they wait for bad weather to clear off the face of the Eiger Nordwand.

Whereas in the boudoir Mawer descends to the conventions of the bodice-ripper, on the Eiger his writing is almost pitch perfect. Here is a sample of the pair enduring a storm above the Traverse of the Gods:

“Powder snow avalanches spilled over the cliffs above and hissed like snakes down the ice. I stood in the stream and watched the snow course around my axes and over my boots. When the flow died away I continued climbing, through a world that was reduced to the limits of my body, a world contracted to this patch of dirty ice, this length of frozen rope, these thoughts of supplication and anger. The wind roared and stung. Beneath it was the sound of my breathing and the pain in my muffled hands.”

Off-route near the exit cracks, Robert is hit by an avalanche while leading, falls, and breaks a leg. Impervious to his partner’s cries not to be abandoned, Jamie solos out and away. A short break in the storm allows Robert one pathetic chance to signal distress with his flash light, and a rescue ensues. Jamie makes it to the top, while Robert is choppered out (another well-crafted scene), and forever loses his toes, Ruth, and his will to climb. His sense of betrayal by Jamie is one of the more credible emotional moments in the book. Robert will not accept Jamie’s justification that he’d climbed out to get a rescue started.

This incident is the first step for Jamie up the ladder of mountaineering fame. For the next 20 years the two rarely meet. Their last encounter follows a London lecture by Jamie to promote his biography, In the Death Zone—so named because, according to him, over half of all souls who’ve been above 26,000 feet have died. Over beers at a pub, Jamie is a burnt-out case.

“He sat back in his chair,” Mawer writes. “He wasn’t looking at me any longer, but at the beer in front of him, and the beads of condensation that ran like tears down the glass. He wiped them away with his finger, smiling a tight smile, the kind of smile you give when you’re in pain, the kind that signifies that it hurts but that you are going to put up with it, like you put up with the headaches and the pain in the lungs, the cerebral edema, the diarrhea, the vomiting, all those things of high altitude. Then he looked me directly in the eye ‘Thing is my whole life has been an escape, Rob. Escape from Guy Mattewson, from my mother, but above all’—he nod ded, as though the idea had just occurred to him—‘from you.’ Seconds later he adds, ‘The trou ble is that I’ve been wrong all the time. I think the person I’ve really been trying to escape is myself. That’s why it has been so difficult.’”

Right there is one of the flaws of this book: declamatory self-discovery more suitable to a play. The above excerpt is one of several moments when Jamie’s fascination with Robert is inexplicable. At times Jamie seems on the point of saying the unutterable—a deeper secret even than the knowledge that his pal has poked his Mum—and then draws back. These red herrings get in the way and lead the reader on false trails: such as a possible homoerotic drive in Jamie. A similar problem is posed by Robert’s character. Mawer has a number of people tell narrator Robert that he is a selfish bastard. But the reader is denied the privilege, and excitement, of find ing this trait emerge from the narrative.

It may come as something of a surprise to readers of the AAJ that climbing and climbers are psychologically suspect. Jamie and Robert are not attractive characters. For Mawer climbing is fueled by repression, self-doubt, and the denial of reality, which in the end cleans a man out. Ruth sums up husband Jamie as follows: “Did you know that they brought him down from K2 after some kind of collapse? Cerebral edema, or something. He was weeks in hospital. I mean he’s putting his mind on the line, his fucking mind, Rob. It’s not just you with your wretched toes. It is his whole bloody personality that he is risking. And then I wonder, what else is there? Other than this obsession….”

Biblically the fall represents the ejection from paradise. In this story several characters at some point fall from some state of innocence, but only Jamie dies by falling, because he fails the Delphic oracle’s test of “know thyself.” Thus Mawer successfully answers the presenting problem of Jamie’s motive for suicide. Not coincidentally, the women who don’t climb end up more fulfilled than the men who do. Rich and glamorous Caroline has a prolific sex life, Diana the satisfaction of motherhood, and promiscuous Ruth has the satisfactions of becoming a suc cessful painter besides. The Times’ reviewer complained that sex and climbing were “compared once too often.” But the moral might be (readers take note when planning your next visit to the crags) that sex is the better of the two.

The great strength of The Fall lies in vividness of the climbing action. For writer aspirants to The Great Climbing Novel I’d recommend Mawer’s style: so fine is its tone, its rhythms, and economy of effects. His grasp of the British climbing scene is also very good. His chief defect is an over-indulgence in the machinery of suspense at the expense of the characters’ density and development. Reading it a second time, I admired the consistency of the narrative and structure with the final denouement, which is revealed in a letter from Kangchenjunga. But on the first reading, the letter comes too late: for the characters Diana and Robert, and for the reader.

John Thackray, AAC