In a review post titled “Memories Unmoored” on the website of the Oklahoma-based magazine World Literature Today (@), Andrew Martino, a professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University states that “this French author with an Italian last name has written some of the most powerful postwar narratives examining memory, place, and identity since Camus.” Martino is speaking of Patrick Modiano (born 1945), winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, whose books are now being rapidly translated into English. Publishers include Quercus in Britain and New York Review Books and Yale University Press in America.
The shy and withdrawn Modiano, British author and journalist Alan Riding points out in the New York Times, has “never sought celebrity”. He has had a long writing career, having published his first novel in 1968 at the age of 22. This debut – La Place de l’étoile, an autobiographical work, was the story of Raphael Schlemilovitch, a French Jew born after the war who is haunted by thoughts of persecution (Modiano was born to a Jewish father and Flemish mother). The title of the book was both a reference to the square around the Arc de Triomphe and to the yellow star worn by Jews under Nazi rule.
The examination of the “postwar condition” that began with La Place de l’étoile has been an important, possibly the most fundamental, element of Modiano’s entire oeuvre. He was, after all, honoured by the Swedish Academy “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation” – of France by Germany during the Second World War. (See the brilliant essay “Patrick Modiano’s Postwar World” by Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker).
The first Modiano book that I decided to read was In the Café of Lost Youth (2007). Really, just for its intriguing and inviting title. Set in the Paris of the 1950s, this slim novel, its American publisher NYRB mentions, was “inspired in part by the circle (depicted in the photographs of Ed van der Elsken) of the notorious and charismatic Guy Debord.” Ed van der Elsken (1925-1990), the Dutch photographer, is known for having chronicled the rebellious bohemian European youth of 1950s Paris. Supposedly the Marxist theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord (1931-1994) also appears in the grainy, monochromatic shots of bars and cafés and clubs. (Learn more about van der Elsken and Debord in this Guardian article “In the mood for love: Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank” by Sean O’Hagan and see pictures here).
The van der Elsken-inspired shadowy world evoked in Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth begins with an epigraph from Debord:
Halfway along the path of real life,/ we were encircled by a dark melancholy,/ expressed by so many sad and mocking words,/ in the café of lost youth.
The war has ended but Paris, although gorgeous with its carefully laid out rues and arrondissements, is left somewhat hazy. And Parisians are unnerved and lonely. Places cannot be mapped and people cannot be memorised. There is a character who is so disturbed by the “anonymity of the big city” that he fights hard against it by crazily filling a notebook with names and addresses. He hopes to find some “fixed spots”, be able to retain a face.
The main story revolves around a young woman called Jacqueline Delanque, better known as “Louki”, who hovers ghostlike over the dreamy and melancholic pages. The daughter of an unknown father and a poor mother who worked as an usherette at the Moulin Rouge, the 22-year-old Louki begins frequenting a café called Le Condé, a haunt for talkative and adrift 19 to 25-year-olds. As she tries to hide herself, she becomes an object of obsession and admiration to multiple men – a young engineering student, a private detective hired by her much older husband whom she has abandoned and a new lover, somewhat goalless too – but who manages to fill her mind with thoughts of “eternal recurrence,” new beginnings.
Louki – herself in urgent need and search of some intoxication, ecstasy, rapture – is investigated and chased but remains elusive, evasive. She is a mystery unto everyone, a mystery unto herself…till the very end, even when all of her little life with its pains and tragedies is open and evident before the reader. In Modiano’s Café, the sun of clarity does not ultimately disperse the fog of confusion and yet the narrative seems to linger. Somehow, it does not give up. Does not sink into nihilistic despair. And this makes the novel an odd but beautiful thing.
A good introduction to the celebrated writer.