The Sermon on the Fall of Rome
Geoffrey Strachan, translator
MacLehose Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code
THIS small novel has won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and
comes to us expertly translated from the French by Geoffrey
Strachan. The action takes places in Corsica, with a few side trips
to Paris and North Africa.
The chief characters are two young men who have undertaken the
management of a bar in their native village, having come back from
Paris to do so. The sister of one of them is an archaeologist,
working on the ruins of what is supposed to be St Augustine's
cathedral, in Algeria. The old grandfather remembers the time of
France's colonial empire in Africa.
The time is never openly stated, but it must be in the 1950s, as
there is mention of attending Tenebrae and the snuffing out of
candles, a liturgical practice that disappeared during the reforms
initiated by the Second Vatican Council.
This is a strange, playful novel, rich in incident but light on
plot, designed to give us a feeling for the transience of life
rather than tell us anything about what life is like for most of
us. The characterisation is thin, which means that it is hard to
distinguish who is who; and the various elements, such as the
references to St Augustine, do little to form a coherent whole.
Its chief stylistic pose is to express itself in very long
sentences. These are clearly designed to weave a magic spell and
enchant the reader, and this may work in the original, but it also
runs the danger of seeming orotund and, at times, downright
Corsica is certainly an interesting place, and the scenes that
evoke the life of the island are the most successful; the female
characters are more interesting than the men, who have a tendency
to be monochrome.
Some may find this book charming. Others may dismiss it as