Hello Gentle Reader
Family, friends, co-workers, strangers: they all have the most audacious and asinine ability at their disposal. With thoughtless arrogance, they reserve the right to appear and disappear from one’s life without a reason to be given. They can come; and they can go. In and out. Through the door and out the window. It doesn’t really matter at any point. Sometimes they blow in like a spring breeze; while others burst through the doors like a summer whirlwind; or howl at you like a winter blizzard. It is the most threatening prospect of the concept of relationships though, how easily one is in it, and how easy they are capable of excusing themselves from it. Each of us are a sun in our own solar system, and passes through the solar systems of others, like planets behaving as asteroids, continually filled with wanderlust, eclipsing and replacing those who recently departed. All the while, others trespass and excuse themselves for disturbing us in our own self-absorption. The trouble with all this is, there is no real focal point in which we can retrace our steps. Once it’s extinguished, reigniting an old flame is as about as successful as breathing on the moon. On such matters each of us resign ourselves to the emotional fallout, as for the greatest of moments we think we are about to implode, due to the nuclear reactions of the emotional nature. Yet casually, we spin about on our axis of absorption, greeted and left with: ‘hellos,’ and ‘goodbyes.’ In any case, we pass through the interpersonal cosmos with similar devastating and fortunate greetings and passing’s. Relationships, or rather the desire of human connection is a virulent disease of desire, in which all individuals are afflicted with; and all individuals suffer it. Yet we rinse and repeat and move on ourselves.
Patrick Modiano has been referred to as one of the most important post-war French writers at work. Despite this, Modiaono bears no resemblance to other post-war writers such as: Claude Simon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Francis Pong, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, among many others. Yet, Modiano is not a writer of grand epics or historical blockbusters. His work is not saturated in extensive historical research, with bibliographies taking up as much room as the actual novel itself. Rather, Modiano’s work is plain and understated in style and prose. While his themes deal with the elusiveness of time, the melancholy of memories, the displacement of place, and the casual and widespread amnesia and oblivion of guilt and compliance. On an individual or personal level, his themes range from the alienation of an individual, to their dislocation of identity in relation to their surroundings. This may stem from Patrick Modiano’s displaced childhood and youth; which has been described as a tragedy of sorts. Modiano’s father, Albert, was an Italian man of Jewish descent (Sephardic Jewish descent to be exact) who during World War II refused to wear the yellow Star of David to mark him as Jewish; it was during this time he met Louisa Colpeyn a Belgian (Flemmish) actress; and the two had a semi-clandestine relationship. Albert, was rounded up though during the Paris occupation, and was only saved from an end at a concentration camp thanks to the intervention of a friend. It was during this time, Albert would do business on the black market—specifically speaking with the Carlingue gang (who make specific reference in “Suspended Sentences,”) proxy agents to the French gestapo. The leaders of this group were recruited form the French underground. The relationship with Louisa and Albert was doomed to end, and did end at the birth of Patrick. After the War, both of Modiano’s parents were absent in his life: his mother on tour, and his father on matters pertaining to business. In their absence, Modiano was raised by his paternal grandparents on his mother’s side, who taught him to speak Flemish as his first language; and during this time he would become closer with his younger brother Rudy. Upon reaching age, Patrick Modiano was sent to boarding school after boarding school; until tragedy struck when Rudy was nine (or ten) years old, and the young brother died of illness. Modiano recalls being picked up by his father, and being informed of his brother’s death, which would become a hallmark tragedy on the writer’s youth. The abandonment, alienation, displacement, and strained relationship with locations of memory and contemporary present, as well as a desire for human contact, and the incompetency to engage in the warmth of another human being, can all be found in Modiano’s work; and to small degrees reflect the lukewarm atmosphere of Modiano’s early life.
In his novel: “Out of the Dark,” there is a quote:
“We had no real qualities, except the one that youth gives to everyone for a very brief time, like a vague promise that will never be kept.”
This quote still resonates with me. It’s a great depiction of youth: how it misspends its time, it lacks any definitive character or experience; and is completely oblivious to the realities which will come to shape it its character, mold its mind and define its being. Until then though, the qualities of youth are brief, and glorious; shrouded in a haze of glowing nostalgia, but ensnared in gossamer which deceives the reality of the past in comparison to the present. Everything always looks more enticing and delicious in hindsight—because the work is already done; and as per usual conveniently one forgets the mess made to reach the end result. The quote is also a unique summary of the lost youth, which drifts and radiates through Modiano’s novel “In the Café of Lost Youth.” Despite a decade difference between their publication dates (“Out of the Dark,” published originally in 1995 and “In the Café of Lost Youth,” appearing in 1997) they are more sibling like then they are different; though only by thematic elements and connections. As in most of Patrick Modiano’s work his novels are continual doors leading to a new room or wing in a never ending house or run down hotel; where the remnants of his ruined characters essence lingers, by the objects of their departure, such as a blue ether bottle, ballet shoes, faded photographs, or simply an open window eluding to the unfortunate, the imagined, and the all but tragic.
“In the Café of Lost Youth,” is one of Patrick Modiano’s more unique novels; as it is his first (and to my knowledge) the only novel in which he employees multiple perspectives to narrate the novel. Besides the divergence in his literary format, Modiano’s novel progresses much in the same manner: an ambiguous relationship with time, an ambivalent association with memories, a displacement of landscape and location, and of course the lurking threat of danger, which never truly arises.
The novel itself revolves around a café ‘Le Condé,’ and its eccentric and eclectic clientele and patrons; superficially though it focusses on the haunting and elusive young woman, nicknamed Louki, who drifts into the café, and sits down with the locals, but does not participate in their conversations. Her wafting and waif like nature, often make her a point of conversation and desire. Throughout the novel, Louki is the focal point, specifically pertaining to questions of who she is, where she came from, and what is her story. Three men and Louki herself narrate the events of the novel, and through the melancholic tour of postwar Paris in the 1950’s/1960’s we come to learn her story and her own place within it. Despite the admiration, desire, and herself being the topic of speculation and conversation, she eludes being understood and caged—which only makes her personal mythology grow.
Through three different perspectives, and her own, we begin to understand what transpires in one’s life to truly shape their identity. Louki – or Jacqueline Delanque (a familiar name to those seasoned with Modiano’s personal flavours of streets and names) – grew up with an absent and nameless father, and her mother was poor, working as an usher in the famous Moulin Rouge. Louki (or Jacqueline) would spend her childhood wandering the neighbourhood and exploring its gloomy alleys, and hidden histories. Yet, like all youth born of transient circumstances, Louki finds herself walking down a path to ruin. Her friendship with a certain Jeannette Gaul would be an upstart of excitement, but would lead Louki’s life to its present situation of existential ennui, postwar disenfranchisement, and youthful lack of direction. Through the second narrator, a private investigator hired by her husband to find out about her disappearance, we learn about Louki’s desire for escape or some sort of revelation to awaken her. Safe to say she never truly realizes this. Its Roland though the final narrator of the novel, who may or may not be Modiano’s stand in—does his best to understand Louki; though he obsesses about the Parisian ‘neutral zones,’ dark matter, and all sort of physic, philosophical astrological curiosities.
At the end of the novel Louki remains an unknown and elusive creature, who wafts and drifts through the personal solar systems of the patrons of ‘Le Condé.’ She is admired, desired, sought after, speculated and discussed – yet all the while remaining completely unknown and even untouched by her fellow clients and patrons. “In the Café of Lost Youth,” Patrick Modiano returns to his well weathered themes and motif’s, the aimlessness of youth, and how youth is the focal point in which ones character is shaped and developed; and at times even destroyed. It’s a literary road map of a Paris not well traversed or discussed, one filled with starving artists, rebellious bohemians, and the aimless youth looking for the ecstasy and adventure of life—in the end though all that awaits any of them is: disappointment, disillusionment, discouragement and disenchantment. Reality is always a coarse pill to swallow in comparison to our dreams.
Much like all of Patrick Modiano’s novels, more questions are always asked then answered. The pleasure of reading a Modiano novel is how information just rises and is divulged in its atomized and fragmented format. “In the Café of Lost Youth,” employee’s different narrators, to offer a variety of information, which may contradict the information already presented, simply because the perspective itself is different. Unfortunately I found the novel, not as moving as Modiano is capable; but this may also stem from the fact that I read the book on and off, over the course of weeks, rather than settling down and devouring it in a single sitting. In the end Modiano portrays youth, childhood, society and location, as the defining environmental incubators, which shapes individuals we become. I look forward to returning to “In the Café of Lost Youth,” down the road and at such time reading it in one sitting.
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
And As Always
Stay Well Read