August 23, 2016

In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano


Title: In the Cafe of Lost Youth
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Translated from the French by Chris Clarke
Publisher: New York Review Books
Year: First published in 2007; this edition published 2016.
Pages: 118

In the Cafe of Lost Youth takes place in the Paris of the 1950s. Paris is known as the "city of light," but this short novel looks into the shadows of that city and the bohemians that wandered it and frequented its cafes.

The focus of the story is a twenty-two year old woman, named Jacqueline Delanque, who quietly arrives one day at the Cafe Conde -- no one is quite sure when she first began frequenting the cafe -- and sticks to the shadows. Who is Jacqueline Delanque? What is her past? Why does she haunt the Cafe Conde? No one knows. She is eventually given the nickname Louki by the other habitues of the cafe and enfolded into that small group; she is, in a sense, baptized or given a "second birth" whereby her past becomes unimportant.

The story is told by four narrators -- the mysterious Louki and three others who are themselves only partially revealed. I believe it is the author's intent to keep his characters shrouded in order to create an atmosphere that is reflective of the Paris he is trying to portray; this may be somewhat disconcerting to readers who are looking for character development and a reason to care about those characters. This tactic does create modest suspense though.

Major themes of In the Cafe of Lost Youth are identity, memory, time, and escape. The theme that stood out to me is that of escape. Louki is clearly trying to escape, but from what or from whom? A sense of discontent, always seeking, never finding -- this is Louki. She is self aware enough to reveal, "I was never really myself when I wasn't running away."

Generally, where there is a desire to escape there is also a search. Again, a search for what? Perhaps we are provided a clue in a small detail. Louki is given a copy of Lost Horizon to read, which she carries about with her and conspicuously displays. This is a book about a search for paradise. Maybe this is what Louki and the other wanderers seek -- an undefined paradise.

In the Cafe of Lost Youth is a melancholy little piece that leaves the characters and the reader without any true resolution, yet I am strangely drawn to it. Perhaps it speaks to my own "lost youth" and the restless need to escape and seek out that indefinable paradise.
"At the halfway point of the journey making up real life, we were surrounded by a gloomy melancholy, one expressed by so very many derisive and sorrowful words in the cafe of the lost youth." -- Guy Debord
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Read this book if you are looking for a quiet and moody story that will make you think. Do not expect a tidy plot with resolution or full character development. This is a reflective piece.

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