In the Café of Lost Youth
by Patrick Modiano (Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue; 2007)
translated from the French by Chris Clarke (2016)
NYRB Classics (2016)
When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014, I had only heard his name incidentally and knew nothing of his work. Fortunately — because I have found his work to be very rewarding and important — publishers are putting out his work quickly. NYRB Classics joins in this week with two releases from two different points in Modiano’s career: his 1981 novel Young Once and his 2007 novel In the Café of Lost Youth. We’ll get to Young Once soon. Let’s start by looking at the book with the ghostly female on front, looking at us through soft glass.
In the Café of Lost Youth is an atmospheric exploration of people drifting through, and eventually out of, time. Time and memory are veils through which Modiano’s narrators attempt to capture, or recapture, something impossible to hold: the ghosts of the past and paths never followed. Though the narrators do not intend this — they’re genuinely searching for something lost — their stories read like elegies.
The book contains four sections, each told by a different narrator — three men and one young woman (the narratives of the three men are, in fact, centered on that woman, who goes by Louki) — about a specific time and place: a small Paris café in L’Odéon in the late 1950s.
The first section is told by a young student who knows Louki — or, rather, knows of Louki — only because they frequented the same café, Le Condé, where various lonely people got together each night, for a time. This narrator’s grasp of Louki is tenuous. He never really talked to her, and she rarely made herself stand out, preferring to sit quietly in a dark corner. The brief period of time when these people were all meeting in Le Condé is past, and he no longer sees Louki, has no idea what happened to her, and looking back now he is trying to solve an impossible mystery: who was she, and what was she escaping?
As readers, we are restricted by his lack of knowledge, but the account is still beguiling, and we want to get to know Louki better ourselves. We get somewhat closer with the second narrator, a private detective hired to find Louki by Louki’s estranged husband. And we might expect to get even closer when we read the third section, told by Louki herself. Alas, just as she preferred to stay somewhat aloof in Le Condé, she tells us little about the seemingly important moments we yearn to hear about.
Of course, if we did get those details, the book would fall apart. It is not, after all, a book about Louki. It’s a book about seeking for Louki, a process Louki herself is engaged in. Though she remains at a distance from us, there is a richness in exploring why she does this . . . and why the others are drawn to her and to this lost time.
This time has become important, and as such it feels eternal. The final narrator of the book is an author named Roland. He knew Louki personally, though she’s lost to him now, and he’s also thinking back on this time. He was writing a book called On Neutral Zones, in which he meant to examine “a series of transitional zones in Paris, no-man’s-lands where we were on the borders of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefited from a certain kind of immunity.” Though fleeting, constantly disappearing, these moments feel infinite; thus, Roland touches on Nietzsche’s essay on the Eternal Return. How strange to place tangible loss in the same exploration of the eternal return. It makes the human mind infinitely complex, because; it’s there we may continue to live on in posthumous fragments, absent and eternal.
I’ve finished In the Cafe of Lost Youth last weekend. I’ve previously read Missing Person and Dora Bruder. Some reviewers have said that he’s always writing the same novel and I think Modiano has said so himself as well. Reading any of his books has so far been a wonderful experience and I can’t recommend him highly enough. His books are short and easy to read but what I get out of them I find difficult to describe. To me he continuously questions why we are going where we are going but that’s just the top of it. I’m glad more of his work is becoming available in English.
A review obviously detached in time (it’s 2020) and subjective. Maybe fitting for Modiano? Here we go.
This is one of the saddest stories I have ever read. It taught me how it must feel not to belong. Youth is a time when we imagine our future, a time also when parents and family are close behind, supporting, ready to catch us if we fall. Louki has none of these. She has no meaningful ties to people, places or systems of beliefs. She has only an eternal present. In it there can be no hope or happiness, only momentary gratification.
After “Dans le Cafe…” I read other books by Modiano. The much better known “Via delle Botteghe Oscure”, translated as “Missing Person”, and “So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood”. In each of them there is someone “unstuck”, someone who has lost their past, or meaning in life. And who searches for them. What sets “Cafe..” apart is that, in it, there is no explanation. No external cause. Louki — we understand — has always gone through life not belonging anywhere and to anyone, as if a cosmic mistake had put her in the wrong place and time. The book is an elegy, a lyrical rendition of this feeling of disconnet.
The one belief Louki entertains is the myth of ethernal return. Perhaps she is here by mistake? Perhaps there is another time and place where she could belong? Just like the student who drops out of Sorbonne, one day Louki drops out of existence. Is she hoping to arrive in a place that feels more like home? “Let yourself go” she tells herself.