Having just finished Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, I feel reaffirmed in my earlier judgment of him as a writer: very much what it would be like if an Éric Rohmer film was transformed into literature, a novel that’s made out of bits and pieces that aren’t really novelistic, a book that seems bound together by a desire to talk about something that isn’t very easy to talk about. And also, a book full of moments, phrases, sentiments that are very easily legible as “literary,” that all but cry out for you to underline them and reflect on them.
He is a writer that I never know exactly what to think about. One of the “good” writers who seems most immediately unimpressive, and yet one who rewards—almost requires—re-reading and pondering more than most I can think of. A writer who is clearly doing his own thing, and who makes you fight to say exactly that that thing is.
Modiano published this book in 2007, but it has a very timeless feel to it. The incidents here could have occurred at almost any time after World War II (somehow this book, like seemingly everything Modiano wrote, feels like it’s taken place in the world wrought by the Second World War), even though the book’s biggest cultural signpost, Moulin Rouge, had seen its best days in the Belle Époque. But I suppose that’s all to the scene Modiano is constructing, a belated world whose inhabitants are characterized by a lack of direction, a feeling of missing out on something good.
This is a book about what transpires during one’s youth, and how that contributes to the person you become as an adult, even if what transpires isn’t very much at all. The book opens by depicting the scene at the titular cafe—basically twentysomethings wasting time and finding themselves. In this first chapter, Modiano sets up the rest of the book and describes the lost youths in the process of losing their youth. We very quickly come to understand that the real action is happening elsewhere—vague personal histories and individuals that only make the briefest impressions on what happens in the cafe. One of the group that regularly meets at the cafe takes a sort of roll call, careful to record who comes in to the cafe on each day. A certain person borrows this register, underlining the name of a woman nicknamed Louki in a blue pen. That same woman is also occasionally seen in the company of a mysterious “brown-haired guy in the suede jacket.” The subsequent three chapters, each told from the perspective of one of these three people, will delve into the shadow-life behind the appearances in the cafe.
One character observes of his relationships at the cafe, “we live at the mercy of certain silences.” This is a statement with a degree of truth, but I think that this is mostly his truth, that of a hardened type who doesn’t mind escaping from his past. The others in this book seem to have more ambiguous relationships with these silences, more need to open them up, even as they fear them.
A different individual, the book’s final narrator, is obsessed with black holes, dark matter, and parts of Paris that he calls “neutral zones,” places that aren’t a part of any other place. As the city modernizes and reshapes itself, getting rid of old landmarks and installing new ones, he references the possibility of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life.” All the places from one’s youth gone, all the people died or moved away. This seems to be the sort of life he has reached, a life filled with silences, and it is an unhappy one.
This character also obsesses over the idea of eternal return, particularly the image of a beautiful summer, a perfect noon that he would like to live out forever. It’s a different sort of “end[ing] up without a single reference point in your life,” the fantasy version, the happy counterpart to his unhappy real life. This book may be thought of the story of how he got the one and not the other, and why one seems to impossible, the other inevitable.
As a writer, Modiano seems most interested in our relationships to our childhoods, and the way that the society and relationships of our young adulthood make us into the people we become as adults. He seems to be trying to fix the point at which our lives lose the sense of having new possibilities. Not only determining that moment, but also depicting the intangible aspects of that process, and trying and imbue it with a certain sense: a melancholy, dingy, and down to earth heroism and romanticism.