A novel that's been described as a poetic Corsican epic has won France's top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.

French writer and teacher Jérôme Ferrari was named winner of the venerable literary honour on Wednesday for his book Le Sermon sur la Chute de Rome (The Sermon on the Fall of Rome).

Le Sermon follows a young philosophy student who tosses aside his schooling for what he imagines will be a peaceful, easygoing life running a bar with a friend on the island of Corsica. However, the pair's idealistic dreams are dashed, amid alcohol, sex, corruption and violence.

The French island has made headlines in recent years for its increased violence, with a disproportionate number of murders or attempted murders for its population of about 300,000.

The jury praised Le Sermon as a "fine parable on contemporary hopelessness, but with a hopeful message: the end of a world doesn't have to spell the end of the world."

Ferrari, who beat 11 other novelists for the literary prize, named his book after the first of four sermons by ancient philosopher Augustine, made after the fifth century sacking of Rome.

Born into a Corsican family that had relocated to the French mainland, Ferrari returned to the island to teach philosophy to high school students. He continues to teach, now in Abu Dhabi.

First awarded in 1903, the Prix Goncourt is named after French author and publisher Edmond de Goncourt and recognizes "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year."

Though the winner only receives a nominal cash prize of €10 ($12.72 Cdn), being chosen typically results in a major boost in an author's prestige as well as in his or her book sales. Past winners have included Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Canadian Antonine Maillet, the first non-European recipient of the prize.