5 February 2014

Jérôme Ferrari: Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome (2012)

Le Sermon sur la chute de Rome was the 2012 Goncourt winner. Jérôme Ferrari's title relates to the sermons Saint Augustine made about the fall of Rome in Hippone, where he was bishop between 396 and 430, and which is now Annaba, Algeria. However, in spite of the quotations from Saint Augustine's sermons which introduce all sections of the book apart from the last one, and in spite of the final section relating to Saint Augustine's words on the fall of Rome, the book doesn't obviously concern the fall of Rome in any way: it ostensibly just concerns a village pub in Corsica.

There are seven sections, with the first, third and fifth detailing the grandfather Marcel Antonetti's life up to the present; all three consist of one long paragraph and total about forty pages.  The much longer second, fourth, and six sections are essentially an account of the early adult life Marcel's grandson Matthieu and his long-term friend Libero, who like Matthieu lives in Corsica, although he is of Sardinian ancestry.

Libero and Matthieu go to Paris to study philosophy, and Libero is taking his master's on Saint Augustine, Matthieu his on Leibnitz, although they're both unhappy with their studies and then they see that the possibility of running a bar in the Corsican village so familiar to them is a chance to create, er, 'the best of all possible worlds'. Surprisingly, Marcel provides the necessary finances: he had previously taken out his anger on Matthieu because he is the product of his only child Jacques and Marcel's sister Claudie – making them first cousins.

Claudie and Jacques are initially far from happy with Matthieu abandoning his studies, although the bar – which has gone through several unfortunate unsuccessful incarnations – is soon not only thriving, but attracting a great number of locals and regular visitors who are far from local. The female staff are the major attraction – especially Annie, who kisses on the cheek all male customers entering, and discreetly has a feel of their balls: she finds she gets great tips if she regularly performs this service for customers staying for several drinks, because surely everyone is then happy, and who can complain? For a brief time, it really does appear that this is the best of all possible pubs.

The problems obviously begin when Matthieu brings a revolver into the bar, which he leaves in a drawer ready to act as a deterrent to any thieves. And there it stays, only occasionally mentioned in the narrative, just a memory to the reader that trouble will come at some time.

Matthieu has obviously been going to seed running the bar – he drinks a lot, is terrified of moving more than a few kilometres from the village, has sex with a member of staff, and is even prepared to go to his father's funeral in scruffy clothes, smelling of sweat and women: it seems likely that he's going to blow a fuse soon. However, the trouble comes from Libero, who discovers that's Annie's been pocketing some of the takings, and instead of accepting her repaying him he sacks a very valuable asset to the pub on the spot.

Things get worse and Libero realises that he doesn't like what he's become, that all they're doing is attacting brutalised men who have no future and merely want to spend their money drinking; they also entertain forlorn hopes of getting laid – they'd be far better off just going to a brothel. And when Matthieu loses the Castillian-speaking Izascun to the local Lothario Pierre-Emmanuel he contents himself with screwing drunken tourists, and it's Libero who loses it with Pierre-Emmanuel, even to the point of actually using that gun.

The book tells us that Matthieu marries Judith, who's always loved him from university days, and they have kids and live in Paris and Matthieu avoids going back to Corsica, but it doesn't exactly tell us what becomes of Libero, although he's undoubtedly still in prison. What goes up must come down, and vice versa if you're lucky.

(Linda Lê's Lame de Fond, which I've yet to read, was also among the final five elected for the Goncourt in 2012. I'd like to see her get through to the end one day, as she deserves it.)

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