In the 1960s, the Café Condé is home to a group of literary bohemians who congregate there every day under the benevolent eyes of its proprietor Madame Chably. It’s a predominantly male world with only one woman in that circle of Condé regulars, the mysterious, beautiful Louki, who appears one day and is integrated into the group, seemingly just by virtue of being there.
The narrative reveals Louki’s background through the stories of multiple narrators, including Louki herself, seamlessly transitioning from one voice to the next. Like many Modiano novels it is a detective story of sorts, both literally –one of the narrators actually is a detective tasked by Louki’s husband to find her – and figuratively.
The milieu in which the 2014 Nobel laureate sets his story is loosely based on the circle around the Marxist author and film maker Guy Debord who coined the phrase that gave the book its title and whose enduring claim to fame is to be the founder of the “Situationist” movement which greatly influenced the 1968 student rebellion. While this might add an additional level of interest for readers with a deeper interest and knowledge than mine in French post-war literature, the appearance of actual thinkers and writers of the time thinly disguised as fictional characters is not at the centre of the book’s plot. Instead, In the Café of Lost Youth focuses on characters on the margin of the group, a senior school student, an aspiring writer, presumably Modiano’s alter ego, among them.
As its title suggests, the novel investigates times past in an elegiac invocation of a Paris which can still be defined through street names and landmarks, but whose poetic past has been usurped by the prosaic present; a city where the near-mythical Condé has had to make way for a banal shoe shop; a place suffused by a vague melancholy of something that has irrevocably ended. Or, as one of the characters puts it, “the Condé was a refuge from all the drabness I anticipated in life. There will one day be a part of me – the best part – that I will be forced to leave behind there.”
This is nostalgia of the highest order, written with wistful elegance, tastefully stylish in a polished, self-contained way. Modiano re-imagines the past as a utopian space in which to get lost and re-invent oneself. Yet, in the end, as a meditation on Modiano’s trademark themes of memory and identity, the nostalgic mood that permeates The Café of Lost Youth also renders the narrative somewhat inconsequential.
Interestingly, Modiano’s novel covers similar ground as Outlaws by Javier Cercas which I reviewed here previously. Both novels work with a strong sense of place where the topography of the setting – the Left Bank of Paris, Le Font in Gerona – becomes a roadmap for remembering the past. Both authors explore how memory turns personal histories into myth and investigate the fundamental unknowability of others.
And finally, both narratives put the somewhat tiresome trope of the enigmatic female who becomes the object of male curiosity and desire, but remains in its final consequence unknowable, at the centre of their plot. This plot device, though, mars Outlaws to a lesser extent than The Cafe of Lost Youth, as the puzzling behaviour of the heroine is more strongly embedded in a meditation on class and plays a more central role in creating the suspense that drives the Cercas’ plot forward.
The narrative structure of The Café of Lost Youth is more circular by comparison. The six narrators examine the lives of the novel’s characters from various angles: lives, which are temporarily put on hold, already untied from the shackles of bourgeois existence, but not yet subsumed by the radical politics of the great upheavals of 1968. The different voices in Outlaws pursue a more radical project, deconstructing the myth of youth and its effect on the characters’ later years.
The Café Condé is a promise of freedom, or in the words of one of the narrators a “no-man’s land where we were on the border of everything else, in transit or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity.” Yet, in the end, what the reader is left with is a beautifully written piece of longing for rather than a critical interrogation of that time and that state of mind.
Patrick Modiano. In the Cafe of Lost Youth (translated from the French by Chris Clarke). New York Review Books