You know when you’ve come to accept your solitary life, when things like “days” and “underpants” don’t necessarily change at the same time? When cobwebs form sturdy shelves on which to set things like keys and toothbrushes? When you not only speak to your cat, but set a place at the table for him… ha ha, just kidding, you don’t set a place for the cat, you can’t even remember the last time you ate at a table. You eat slumped in the corner and you glare at the loveseat for reminding you of your loneliness through its two person seating capacity. Well, shave your mustache pretty lady, we have company. Amy was originally going to do this review in French, but she took pity on me and translated it. Merci!
Patrick Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue reminds me of that painting you often see as a poster, of a neon lit café in which you can glimpse the portraits of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I just found out that it is called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, that Green Day has a song named that too, but in typical internet information fashion, I still don’t know who painted it.
The punk song connection is interesting though, since I think the book is a look backwards at the darker side of a youthful and revolutionary period in Parisian life, the late sixties and early seventies, though no date is ever mentioned. The title comes from a Guy Debord quote, and the descriptions of the city in the novel remind me of Situationist work on the city, how we walk in it, where we go, the places we stay, how those places change, how our paths in the city cross other people’s paths, for different reasons, or for no reason at all.
Modiano writes detective stories that aren’t detective stories. I like reading him because the feeling of a mystery is there, but the context isn’t clear. The reader feels suspicious and anxious and curious, but the point of view constantly changes and you are not really sure who is investigating what or why. But this is perhaps why I like it: you get to be the ultimate detective. This sad story of a lost young girl told around the streets which lead people to and from a café called the Condet in Paris’ Odéon neighborhood is told from four points of view, and though you understand the story at the end, having pieced together what you think is the main narrative from the bits Modiano gives you, you don’t fully understand why he’s told it. It’s like parts of a destroyed photograph pasted together, or a puzzle with key pieces missing; it keeps you wondering. While you read, you have to remember, but you forget, and the novel has an ephemeral quality, which aligns itself with dark, smoky bars and foggy Parisian streets.
This book is also about our inability to communicate with each other, be with each other, or help each other. How we often meet, get involved, yet totally miss each other. The characters are unable to experience and express their emotions, so their youth really is lost, lost in a kind of alcoholic or drug induced torpor, lost in who they are trying to be, unable to be themselves. Lost also in the past, in memory. Modiano often represents memory as the same grey matter of his stories, a place in which you wander around looking for something solid but meet only ghosts.
I’m not really youthful anymore, I’m less lost than I was, and maybe that’s why I liked wandering through this book. I am not sure how Modiano’s ambiance comes across in English, but one of his books at least has been translated. It’s been appropriately called Missing Person. Maybe I’ll go missing and translate this one, in the café of a lost generation.