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Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth searches the past

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“This detail may seem trivial, so let’s stick to what’s important.”
—Patrick Modiano, In the Café Of Lost Youth


Patrick Modiano evokes atmosphere with a minimum of adjectives and little in the way of description beyond the perfunctory: “It was dark outside,” “In the middle of the coffee table sat a large yellow ashtray that bore the inscription ‘Cinzano,’” etc. In his short novel In The Café Of Lost Youth, everything seems to be mentioned in passing; paragraphs end as though the narrator (there are four) had forgotten how they began, or had wandered past an insight without realizing it. Only the fourth narrator, a writer, seems aware of the fact that he’s telling a story; the others recount what seem to be irrelevant or unremarkable details and place names. The prose is pointedly affectless: “Then we went our separate ways at the Porte Mailot, by the entrance to the Metro, and I watched her recede into the distance towards Neuilly and the Bois De Boulogne, walking more and more slowly, as if to give someone the opportunity to catch up with her.”

In The Café Of Lost Youth was first published in French in 2007. The title, which is taken from the avant-garde theorist Guy Debord, recalls Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, perhaps ironically; cafés are places of stasis, not search, and in In The Café Of Lost Youth, they are where people go specifically not be found. There is one café in particular, the Condé; it is described in specifics that make it impossible to visualize, and is located in a Paris that is carefully noted, but still vague. There is a young woman named Jacqueline Delanque, who has left her husband for unclear reasons, and is now known as “Louiki.” The time is the late 1950s or early 1960s, never specifically stated, but instead suggested. Each narrator (a student who hung out at the Condé, a private eye with a photographic memory, Jacqueline, and the aforementioned writer, Roland) seems to be more cognizant than the last. Yet none of them can quite describe the Condé or the mysterious figure of “Louiki”—not even Jacqueline herself. Instead, they rummage through memory as though it were a half-emptied drawer.

Memory is the real subject here: the place where you go because it never changes, just like the Condé. And just like the Condé, it’s elusive. One character obsessively writes down the names and arrival times of everyone coming into the café, creating a meticulous log that only frustrates its readers. In In The Café Of Lost Youth, memory is a map, a half-remembered coffee bar, a missing spouse case, an ultimately useless notebook of names, a set of addresses and Metro stations; it neither corresponds to a disappeared reality nor recreates it. In just barely over 100 pages, and with only a faintly perceptible narrative line, Modiano captures the experience of struggling to remember, but always indirectly. In The Café Of Lost Youth trades in detritus, characters who exist only as names, details that have no bearing except to induce a sensation of passing through memory spaces, empty except for the most useless things. Pages go by before the reader realizes that they’ve found themselves inside a metaphor.