Patrick Modiano's Powerful Glimpse Into the Spirit of Paris

by Hans Rollman

23 March 2016

Young Once and In the Cafe of Lost Youth offer a concentrated sense of both the immensity of space and density of meaning that defines Paris.
Rainy Street, Marais, Paris by
© James Saunders from Shutterstock.com
cover art

In the Cafe of Lost Youth

Patrick Modiano

(New York Review of Books Classics)
US: Mar 2016

cover art

Young Once

Patrick Modiano

(New York Review of Books Classics)
US: Mar 2016

Patrick Modiano collects literary awards the way some people collect neckties. But it was his winning of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature that’s sparked an explosive Anglophone interest in the French novelist whose career spans over two dozen books that have already been translated into more than 30 languages.

New York Review of Books is now unleashing a spate of English-language Modiano translations and two of them, In the Café of Lost Youth and Young Once, offer a telling glimpse into the qualities which have been riveting European readers for decades.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Modiano’s writing has magical qualities. He writes sparsely, with the short clipped sentences of a Hemingway. Yet where Hemingway’s clipped sentences clip the imagination and evoke atmospheres as superficial as they are over-praised, Modiano has the opposite effect. He evokes a Paris that is rich with meaning and, like his spare descriptions, a city that hides far more than it reveals. The sense of mood and atmosphere in these novels is breathtaking.

But there’s a narrative too, and room for other literary techniques. In the Café of Lost Youth (originally published in 2007 and now translated by Chris Clarke) tells the story of a young woman, known as Louki to her friends, from multiple perspectives. The perspectives: a private investigator, hired to find her by her husband when she leaves him; a young student, bedazzled by the café life he discovers outside his college walls; a close friend and lover; and Louki herself. What past led her to the cafés and social circles she becomes part of and then abandons with cyclical regularity; what motivations drive her and what future awaits her? It’s a bleak tale, elusive as the enigmatic characters that populate it and dark as the bars and cafes in which it plays out.

But the story, while compelling and original in its presentation through four different perspectives (it’s not the same story told four times, but a single story each part of which moves forward from a different perspective), is almost secondary to the backdrop against which it plays out. Modiano depicts the rich nocturnal café life of Paris with a dizzyingly descriptive power. It’s not just the name-dropping of neighbourhoods and streets and parks and landmarks; it’s the way they are evoked against each other to build a backdrop far richer and more complex than the individual characters who populate it. Indeed, the richest character depicted, and a recurring one in his novels, is the city itself.

She didn’t want to remain in a neighborhood that was so close to where her husband lived. Barely two Metro stations away. She was looking for a hotel on the Rive Gauche, in the vicinity of the Conde or near Guy de Vere’s apartment. That way she could make the journey on foot. Personally, I was afraid to return to the other side of the Seine, towards the sixth arrondissement of my youth. So many painful memories… But what good is there in talking about it, seeing that these days the sixth only exists for those who run the luxury shops that line its streets and the rich foreigners who have bought up its apartments. Back then, I could still find traces of my childhood there: the dilapidated hotels of rue Dauphine, the Sunday-school hall, the Café Odeon where the odd deserter from an American base did his shady dealings, the dark stairs leading to Vert-Galant, and an inscription on the grimy wall of rue Mazarine that I read each time I made my way to school: WORK IS FOR SUCKERS.

When she rented a room a little to the south of there, down towards Montparnasse, I stayed behind near Etoile. I wanted to avoid running into the ghosts on the Rive Gauche…

Modiano is well known for his powerful Parisian atmospheres, but In the Café of Lost Youth they serve a role beyond backdrops. The book itself describes the complex cartography of life in the city, a life through which we drift seeking fixed reference points that define who and what we are. The different characters and perspectives portrayed in the novel drift aimlessly between these fixed points, defined by the cafes and bars they spend time at, the arrondissements they grew up in and the streets on which they live. Their homes are ephemeral; their routes from apartment to café to apartment a more definitive depiction of who they are than the jobs they hold or the lives they lead. Modiano has written a book about life as constant journey between fixed geographical reference points; the intervening spaces comprised of “neutral zones” and “black holes” and “dark matter” that buffet us back and forth with a power that emanates from the city itself, and often operates beyond the control of its inhabitants.

Characters define themselves through these reference points; one of them is even writing a book On Neutral Zones. Louki’s life is a constant quest to expand the boundaries of her own engagement with the city, constantly moving farther and into new neighbourhoods, reshaping her personal relationships as she expands her geographical world, seeking a liberty of movement in time and space that takes on tragic dimensions as the novel reaches its crescendo. As characters fade in and out of her life and in and out of the novel, the city is the constant which remains.

If In the Café of Lost Youth is delineated by fixed points of cartography, Young Once is inscribed against fixed points in time. The book (originally published in 1981, and now translated by Damion Searls) opens with a couple preparing to celebrate their 35th birthdays, comfortably ensconced in the mediocrity of middle age. It then abruptly shifts back to the year they met, aged 19. Louis has just been demobilized from the army; Odile is an aspiring singer, and all around them a gritty Paris emerges from the Second World War. Well-intentioned Louis is quickly drawn into the black market criminal underground; he and Odile struggle to find their direction in a Paris through which they drift aimlessly and helplessly, but with a certain youthful, carefree insouciance.

While In the Café of Lost Youth evokes the streets and bars and cafes of the city, in Young Once it is the cartography of age which is depicted most tellingly. Louis and Odile are uncertain which direction they want to take with their lives, and which they want to avoid; even when they feel a yearning this way or that, they are unable to figure out how to make it happen. On they drift, helpless observers of the events transpiring around them, exerting their own tenuous agency in the slightest of ways.

Modiano evokes a spirit which alternates between the languid torpor of youthful indifference and the tense yearnings of futuristic ambitions. Louis and Odile have only each other as an anchor against these alternating waves, and around them Modiano depicts what awaits them after youth. A distracted, kindly mentor realizes his impending slow decline and commits suicide; a friend twice their age tries to escape his past with criminal ‘adventures’ that grow more desperate each time; another older friend tries to escape his checkered past and inevitable future by reinventing himself as a student, while realizing despite himself that his student status and even his young girlfriend “were no longer enough to protect him from the passage of time and the indifference of the world.”

The characters of this book drift aimlessly through a narrative where memories are the only fixed reference points: a memory of tricks pulled as young children; yearnings for a Zippo lighter fulfilled only in adulthood; a girlfriend’s obsession with horse-riding juxtaposed against a father’s equestrian leanings. Louis and Odile try to sort out the mystery and memory of how the characters who shape their lives know each other; what lies in their past and what forces shape their present.

As with In the Café of Lost Youth there is a growing air of menace; the action builds slowly but inexorably toward a reckoning with the truths that are first hinted at and gradually given shadowy form as the novel progresses. Here too Modiano draws on the rich and endless geography of Paris to enchant the reader. From warehouses overlooking the Seine to the rich architectural diversity of the Cite Universitaire, Young Once offers a brighter and more diverse cartography than In the Café of Lost Youth, but it’s peopled by as richly dark a diversity of demons; broken souls who meet you on the street and invite you into their apartment to share a peach Schnapps and to look at the photos that haunt them.

Modiano makes literature a sensory experience, evoking the imagination in its most sensuous forms. His literary oeuvre, like Paris itself, is immense, rich and deep. These two novels, short as they are, offer a concentrated sense of both the immensity of space and density of meaning that defines Paris. If Paris were a perfume, Modiano’s fragrance is distilled with all the heady power of innocence, yearning and wonder that define its streets and people alike.

When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, it wasn’t because of the things he managed to represent on the page. It was because he offered such a powerful glimpse of something too immense to be represented. For those who love Paris, both the dream and the reality, Modiano is a must.

In the Cafe of Lost Youth

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