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Fleeting moments in Corsica

28 November 2014

by Alexander Lucie-Smith


The Sermon on the Fall of Rome
Jerome Ferrari
Geoffrey Strachan, translator
MacLehose Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT292 )

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 pompous.

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 Gallic whimsy. 

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