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The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari

July 12, 2016 16 comments

The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari (2012) Original French title: Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome.

ferrari_chuteMatthieu Antonetti lives in Paris with his mother and visits her side of the family in a small village in Corsica for the holidays. Libero Pintus lives in this village. The two boys are the same age and become best friends. Matthieu would love to live in Corsica. After high school, they both start studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. When they learn that the café in their beloved Corsican village is for rent, they decide to drop out of university and run it. The Sermon on the Fall of Rome relates Matthieu’s family history, his personal story and his adventure with running the café with his best friend. Parallel to Matthieu’s story, we read about Matthieu’s grand-father’s life. Marcek worked in Africa in the French colonies. Telling Marcel’s life is a way to relate the fall of the French colonial empire.

Part of the novel is probably based upon Ferrari’s personal life. He comes from Corsica, he studied philosophy in La Sorbonne, he ran a philosophical café in Corsica and he was a teacher in Algier.

It is objectively a great idea for a book. And Matthieu’s story, the portrait of his family, the description of life in Corsica would have been a great novel. Something like Le Soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. Where a regular novelist would probably have limited themselves to telling a story, Ferrari had to brew a literary café with a philosophical flavor. The philosopher du jour is Saint Augustine. Perhaps Ferrari dreamt that Saint Augustine was alive as you or me and it gave him literary inspiration. Who knows?

ferrari_englishSo here we are with Saint Augustine who wrote Sermon on the fall of Rome. And…*nudge nudge and eye roll*…look at the book’s title! And, guess what, the titles of the chapters come from… The City of God by Saint Augustine! And the icing on the fiadone, the last chapter is the actual sermon. Yippee!

There’s probably a highbrow explanation as to how Saint Augustine’s point on the fall of the Roman empire has something to do with the rise and fall of a non-philosophical café in Corsica. I’m sure that literate readers see it right away, this brilliant analogy and all. At least, the jury of the Prix Goncourt did. The Sermon on the Fall of Rome won the prestigious prize in 2012.

But poor old common-reader me closed the book thinking “These highbrow French writers, they always have to intellectualize everything.” It feels as if writing a good novel that “just” tells a good story with well-drawn characters is not enough to take them to the pedestal of being un écrivain. Well, for me it’s enough.

You might wonder why I bought it. I had faith in the publisher, Actes Sud and the blurb led me to imagine that the title of the book was more a whim than actually referring to Saint Augustine that way. My mistake I guess.

Unsurprisingly given all the books in translation he reads, Stu from Winston’s Dad has read and reviewed it. You can find his much more positive review here.

PS: a fiadone is a classic Corsican cake.

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