In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

I visited the Lost Young cafe in Paris in 1976. A bunch of us wanted to see a real Parisian nightclub, and our guide agreed to take us. I fear something was lost in translation, because the dank club where he took us was a far cry from our imagination. No one was that adventurous. We entered by descending a flight of stairs in the sidewalk, and we had to knock on the door and delivered a password. No joke! The lights were too dim, even for a nightclub; the atmosphere was smoking because everyone smoked. The crowd was young and lively, but there were the older crowd, watching from back of the room. Alcohol flowed in abundance. But the trait everyone shared: they were running away, even for the night. They left jobs that didn’t paid behind them enough, or bad relationships, or some primordial dissatisfaction. Life wasn’t shaping as they dreamed, so for one night, they turned it off and lost themselves in chaos.

Was Louki there?

Of course not. She is a fictitious character, and according to a website I visited, the tale took place in the 1950s. There was no mentioned of the period in the novel—not that I remember—but it could have been the 1950s. Or if could be the 1976. Or, for that matter, 2022. Clutching her copy of Lost Horizon, she sits by herself, or she sits with the old men, though she is young herself, or she sits with her lover. She doesn’t know what she searching for, and who might help her find it, so she seeks from the crowd looking for meaning. 

Jacqueline Choureau née Delanque, but known as Louki to the patronage of the Condé, was a young woman seeking answers to questions she didn’t understand. Her mother, now dead, worked as an usher at Moulin Rouge, so she took the streets and wandered all night. Her husband, fifteen years older than her, saw himself more as a father than a husband. Her lover, Roland, took her away from all that, but he had his trouble past he need to the sort out. 

There were two entrances to the café, but she always opted for the narrower one hidden in the shadows. She always chose the same table at the back of the little room. At first she didn’t speak to anyone, then she got to know the regulars of the Condé, most of whom were about our age, I’d say between nineteen and twenty-five years old. She sometimes sat at their tables, but most of the time she was faithful to her spot, way at the back.

Modiano tells this story in four point-of-views: a patron of the Condé, a detective her husband hired, Louki herself, and Roland. He tells it in memory. Well, most novels are memories; they are written in past tense by events that are completed. That not want I mean when I say In the Café of Lost Youth was written in memory. Imagine a night at the café, and you, a patron of the café, ask four person that same question: Who is Louki? And you record their answers in their random but relevant narrations. 

Local color runs though In the Café of Lost Youth. Much of the action involves walking, and people who walk sees sites common and unique. Louki often passed the Moulin Rouge, and the detective, Caisley, passed Jardin d’Acclimatation when his visit her husband. Not knowing what that was, I Googled it, and I discovered it was an amusement park. Paris has an amusement park! Why didn’t I know that, and why I go? Better than seeing the four hundred and fifty-seventh cathedrals that chaperones took us too. My Google skills not withstanding, Caisley described the park, making it clear that was an amusement park. 

My favorite scene takes place on the allée des Cygnes, the Island of Swans. This is a long, narrow island in the Seine that connect two bridges. Parisians and tourist enjoy walks along the route. Oh, I want to do that, and if I can do it while courting a girl like Louki, so much the better.

Turn away from Lycée Jules-Ferry, Louki craves knowledge that school will not teach her. She attends lectures by Guy de Vere and hangs out an all-night bookstore, where she reads science fiction out of sights of the owner. I would say that she is trying to find herself, but that cliche is used too often that it lost all meaning. She is look for something that explains herself. It wasn’t in her relationship with her mother, nor with her husband, but maybe she find it with Roland. He is looking for something too. In fact, all the main characters are seeking something tangible or intangible. 

We had reached the end of the alleyway, opposite the Statue de la Liberté. A bench on the right. I can’t remember which one of us took the initiative to sit down, of perhaps we both had the idea at the same time. I asked her if she shouldn’t be getting home. This was the third or fourth time she had attended Guy de Vere’s lectures, and each time, towards eleven o’clock at night, she found herself at the foot of the stairs leading into Cambronne station. And each time, at the thought of returning to Neuilly, she felt a kind of discouragement. As it stood, she was doomed to keep taking the same line of the Métro home until the end of her days. Transfer at Étoile. Get off at Sablons.

Patrick Modiano was born at end of the Second World War. Until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, he haven’t been read in English, but I suspect that will change.

Louki wasn’t at the club in 1976, but there were people searching for themselves. That what this make this compelling read. The plot is subtle but relatable. It is relatable because, in the end, we all are searching for ourselves. 

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