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Patrick Modiano: Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue (In the Café of Lost Youth)

As I say in every review of a Modiano novel, we find a lot that is similar with his other books. There is a mysterious woman – she is called Louki here or, rather, she is not but that is her nickname, used throughout the book,; there is a place where various people assemble, including the narrators, with the first narrator being a naive wannabe writer, based on Modiano; the action takes place in Paris sometime in the past but we see a later point of view, which points out that Paris has changed and the people all seem to have disappeared with the possible exception of one whom the narrator bumps into.

The differences are that there are multiple narrators (four to be precise) and that there is a specific theme, as we shall see.

The café where they meet is the Condé. A group of people, mainly but certainly not all, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, meet there regularly. Most of them are literati, writers, critics and the like and are classified as Bohemian by the first narrator. They often have books with them. The owner, Mme Chadly, calls them all lost dogs. Our first narrator is studying at the Ecole des Mines but keeps quiet about it, fearing he might be otherwise mocked. We later learn that they find out anyway. Louki is the mysterious woman, whose name most of the others do not seem to know, though we soon find it out. Zacharias, one of the customers, calls her Louki and it sticks.

We know who most of them are because one of their number, Bowing, kept a record of who came and went, though not always with names. Later a photographer, who may not be what he seems, takes photos of them and publishes them in a book. Interestingly, we mainly learn their first names or nicknames. Two are known by their surnames, Adamov and Larronde. Larronde is almost certainly the very real poet Olivier Larronde (link in French). This seems likely as his best-known book, Les Barricades mystérieuses, is one of the books mentioned that the clients read. The other three – (Les Chants de Maldoror, Les Illuminations and The Lost Horizon) – are far better-known. Arthur Adamov is the absurdist playwright? Two other real authors who pop up are Maurice Raphaël (link in French), real name Victor Le Page, who wrote under various pseudonyms, and James Jones.

The alleged photographer is next up as narrator and we learn that he is not a photographer. The final two narrators are Louki herself and, finally, Roland, who becomes her boyfriend.

The main theme that Modiano seems to posit is the idea of fixed points and neural zones. Indeed, Roland plans to write an essay on the topic and makes some headway on it but does not seem to finish it. The idea is that we all have (or want) fixed points. Bowing is the one who is most interested in this topic. He argues that big cities are like maelstroms in which we get lost, so we seek out fixed points. For him it is the cafés of Paris. We know he keeps a record of the comings and goings at the Condé. His idea would be to have a register of all the cafés of Paris over the past hundred years.

Related to that is Roland’s neutral zones. For him these are areas in Paris where one is nowhere specific, between a particular district and its neighbour, a no man’s land (he uses the English term in the French text) where one is not tied to a specific neighbourhood. These two ideas will reoccur throughout the book.

We follow Louki’s story. She had not had a happy childhood. She never knew her father. Her mother worked nights at the Moulin Rouge. Louki was left alone. When she was thirteen, she used to sneak out at nights and walk the streets. Twice she she was picked up for vagrancy. However, she did get to know the streets well. She was associated, as are all good Modiano heroes and heroines, with an odd group of people, who were involved with a small restaurant. She then met her husband and married him but it did not work out and she started coming to the Condé.

In the other Modiano books, it is the Modiano-like narrator who takes an interest in the woman but he plays a very small role in this book and it is Roland who is the one that is attracted to her. They seem to have a precarious existence. (Virtually all the people in this book seem to have a precarious existence, as is normal for a Modiano novel.) She has left her husband. He has a job, which disappears, not fully paid, but he does not seem too concerned. They plan to go to Majorca. However, it does not, as is usual in a Modiano novel, work out well.

Roland and other characters are interested in the mystical and otherworldly. Roland himself is particularly interested in the idea of the eternal return, the idea that everything reoccurs over and over again. One of the characters holds séances and Louki becomes interested in this subject as well. However, like much in Modiano novels, the bookshop associated with these ideas disappears and the topic fades away with the characters.

However, as in many Modiano novels, things do not work out. People die. People disappear. Buildings disappear or, at least, change their function or are rebuilt. People disappear one day and we notice that we knew nothing abut them, not even their real identity, says Roland but it could be the epitaph of any Modiano novel.

I thought that this was one of the best Modiano books that I have read. Having four narrators gives us a much broader perspective than we normally have. The idea of fixed points and neutral zones was certainly fascinating. While we do have a mysterious woman, we know more about her as she is one of the narrators. Even throwing in a few real writers added to the interest.However, as always, we learn that people may seem superficially connected but somehow, things and people drift apart.

First published 2007 by Gallimard
First published 2016 by Maclehose Press/New York Review of Books
Translator: Euan Cameron (Maclehose), Chris Clarke (NYRB)