In the Café of Lost Youth

by Mohammad Khabir Uddin | Published: 00:00, Nov 29,2018


Paris Café Scene, 1950s. —

AT THE outset of the story in this novella In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, observable lines as such follows:
‘Des deux entrées de café, elle empruntait toujours la plus étroite, celle qu’on appelait la porte de l’ombre.’
(Of the two entrances to the café, she would always use the narrower one, the one they used to call the shady door.)
delivered by the anonymous narrator, one of the café-goers may make the readers get prepared beforehand for something ominous awaiting them ahead. The object of such apprehension thought by the first narrator must be Jacqueline Choureau, née Delanque who is the central character circled with the stories of different narrators through different chapters. These are the stories of identity, memory, time, forgetting and escaping—and of course, Paris where they search for neutral zones or free zones to remain safe along with the cafés like Le Bouquet, La Pergola, etc. Of these cafés the busiest one is Le Condé from where the story begins and where get together different young people aged between nineteen and twenty-five, apart from a few customers such as Babilée, Adamov and Dr Vala who are edging gradually towards their fifties and lead a wandering life, without rules or worries about the next day. So ‘bohemian’ would be a suitable word for those who are regulars at Le Condé. Some of them bearing nicknames like Tarzan, Fred, Zacharias, La Houpa, etc are actually seeking refuge here, at Le Condé, as though they want to run away from something, to escape any ominous incidents as has been observed in the first narrator’s thinking of the central character Jacqueline:
‘Zacharias s’est levé et, sur un ton de fausse gravité: «Cette nuit, je te baptise. Désormais, tu t’appelleras Louki. » Et à mesure que l’heure passait et que chacun d’eux l’appelait Louki, je crois bien qu’elle se sentait soulagée de porter ce nouveau prénom. Oui, soulagée. En effet, plus j’y réfléchis, plus je retrouve mon impression du début: elle se réfugiait ici, au Condé, comme si elle voulait fuir quelque chose, échapper à un danger. ’
(Zacharias stood up and, in a tone of mock solemnity announced: ‘Tonight, I am christening you. From now on, you will be known as Louki. ’ And as time passed and each one of them called her Louki, I really think she felt relieved to have this new name. Yes, relieved. In fact the more I think about it, the more I revert to my initial impression: she was seeking refuge here, at Le Condé, as though she wanted to run away from something, to escape from a danger.)
Such escapism was a common occurrence in those earlier decades when Paris turned into a city of shadows and Modiano’s protagonists and narrators had to chase memories and a past that could neither be recaptured nor be fully understood. Their bohemian lives belong to that class of individuals for whom existence is a problem, circumstances a myth, and fortune an enigma; who have no sort of fixed abode, no place of refuge; who belong nowhere and are met everywhere. So for getting some sort of relief those individuals would get together at the crowded places like different cafés. That is why, it has been observed that Patrick Modiano uses the café Le Condé as a fixed point around which much of the action takes place throughout the four chapters in this novella In the Café of Lost Youth translated from the French novella Dans le Café de la Jeunesse perdue.
Actually this novel is a vintage Patrick Modiano, an absorbing evocation of a particular Paris of the 1950s, shadowy and shady, a secret world of writers, criminals, drinkers, and drifters. The novel, inspired in part by the circle (depicted in the photographs of Ed van der Elsken) of the notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, centres around the enigmatic, waiflike figure of Louki, who catches everyone’s attention even as she eludes possession or comprehension, as has been observed in the first narrator’s wonderment:
‘Je me demande, avec le temps, si ce n’était pas sa seule présence qui donnait à ce lieu et à ces gens leur étrangeté, comme si elle les avait imprégnés tous de son parfum.’
(I wonder, over time, whether it was not her presence alone that gave this place and these people their oddness, as though she had permeated them all with her aroma.)
However, through the eyes of four very different narrators, including Louki herself, the readers contemplate her character and her fate, while Modiano explores the themes of identity, memory, time, and forgetting that are at the heart of his spellbinding and deeply moving art. In the first chapter Jacqueline was given the name Louki from the moment she first came to Le Condé which could be deceptive in the slack hours of the afternoon. But as evening approached, it became once more the meeting place of what a romantic philosopher called ‘the lost youth’. At Le Condé some of the regular customers, such as Tarzan, Jean-Michel and Fred, claimed to have been involved with the police on a number of occasions since their teenage years, and La Houpa, at the age of sixteen, had escaped from the Bon-Pasteur remand home. When she mingled with them, she did not attract attention either. She remained silent and reserved and was happy just to listen. She preferred noisy groups, the ‘loudmouths’, otherwise she would not almost always have sat at the table with them. With them, she melted into the background, she was merely an anonymous extra, one of those referred to in photographic captions as, ‘Unidentified person’ or, more simply, ‘X’. Such falsification was prominent in those young individuals’ hide-and-seek game in which the first narrator was a player as he himself admits:
‘Mais on était sur la Rive gauche et la plupart d’entre eux vivaient à l’ombre de la littérature et des arts. Moi-même, je faisais des études. Je n’osais pas le leur dire et je ne me mêlais pas vraiment à leur groupe.’
(But we were on the Left Bank and the majority of them lived under the protection of literature and the arts. I, myself, was studying. I did not dare tell them this and I was not really part of their group.)
She probably wanted to be like the others, and one day, at Le Condé, the first narrator caught her on her own reading. From then on, her book never left her. She would place it prominently on the table, whenever she happened to be in the company of Adamov and the others, as though this book were her passport or a residence permit that legitimised her presence among them. Like the other regulars in Le Condé she took refuge from all the dullness that she expected from life. There would be a part of her — the better part — that she would be obliged, one day, to leave there. That is why, the first narrator has drawn the readers’ attention towards his thinking:
‘Alors si elle est venue au condé, c’est qu’elle avait rompu avec toute une Partie de sa vie et qu’elle voulait faire ce qu’on appelle dans les romans: PEAU NEUVE. ’
(So, if she came to Le Condé, it was because she had made a break with a whole area of her life and she wanted what is called in novels ‘a fresh start’.)
In the second chapter the readers discover Jacqueline nicknamed Louki from the second narrator, an investigator named Caisley who has been able to make the readers go deep into the life of the central character with the help of the notebook maintained by Bowing regarded as ‘the captain’ in Le Condé, his own investigated sources and his informer Bernolle. As an investigator he was accustomed to reconnoitring places before plunging immediately into the heart of the matter though in the past, Blémant used to criticise him for this and reckoned he was wasting his time. Dive in, he would say to him, rather than skirt around the edge of the pool. Personally, he thought the opposite as he believed:
‘Pas de geste trop brusque, mais de la passivité et de la lenteur grâce à quoi vous laissez doucement pénétrer par l’esprit des lieux.’
(No overhasty movements, instead passivity and slowness, which allow you to enter gently into the spirit of places.)
So, he proceeds steadily through his investigation. With two passport photos of Jacqueline Delanque in his pocket he started observing the regular customers of Le Condé. Observing them at close quarters made him feel anxious about their futures. He spent a long time waiting there for her. But she didn’t come. For getting more information he interviewed her husband named Jean-Pierre Choureau whom she left and who was a businessman living at a modern building named Port de Madrid and paid him to search for her. The more Caisley investigated this matter the deeper he went into their conjugal life. Through his investigation it came to light that she had telephoned him three or four times confirming that she would not be coming back anymore. She advised him in no uncertain terms not to try to get in touch with her and gave him no explanation. Her voice had changed. It was no longer the same person. A very calm, very self-assured voice that greatly perturbed him. There was a gap of about fifteen years between him and his wife. She was twenty-two. He, thirty-six. She had no family left. She had been taken on at Zannetacci’s to replace an employee who had left unexpectedly. A temp’s job. He had dictated a few letters to customers to her and that was how they had got to know each other. They had met outside office hours. She had told him that she was a student at the École des Langues Orientales where she took courses twice a week, but he had not been able to discover exactly what language it was. Asiatic languages, she would say. And, after two months, they were married one Sunday morning at Neuilly town hall, with two colleagues from the Zannetacci office as witnesses. No-one else took part in what for him was merely a simple formality. They had gone to have lunch with the witnesses very close to his home, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, in a restaurant used by the customers of the nearby riding schools. Besides, thanks to his informer Bernolle’s letter Caisley could know further. He was informed that two years ago, Delanque Jacqueline lived in the Hôtel San Remo, 8 rue d’Armaillé (17th) and the Hôtel Métropole, 13 rue de l’Étoile (17th). In the Saint-Georges and Grandes-Carrières daybooks it is stated that she resided with her mother, 10 avenue Rachel (18th arrondissement). She currently lives at the Hôtel Savoie, 8 rue Cels, in the 14th arrondissement. Her mother died four years ago. On her birth certificate from the town hall of Fontaines-en-Sologne (Loir-et-Cher) it is mentioned that she was born of an unknown father. Her mother was employed as an usherette at the Moulin-Rouge and had a friend, a certain Guy Lavigne, who worked at the La Fontaine garage, 98 rue La Fontaine(16th) and helped her financially. Jacqueline Delanque does not appear to have a regular job.
Having gone through such prolonged investigation the investigator started feeling sympathy towards Louki and decided not to do anything about this matter as it occurred to him:
‘De quel droit entrons-nous par effraction dans la vie des gens et quelle outrecuidance de sonder leurs reins et leurs cœurs — et de leur demander des comptes… À quel titre?’
(By what right do we break into people’s lives and what an impertinence to probe their hearts and minds — and to ask them for explanations… on what grounds?)
For the first time in his professional life, he experienced the need to go against the flow in his investigation. Yes, he was making the journey that Jacqueline Delanque had made in the opposite direction. As for Jean-Pierre Choureau, he no longer mattered. The only interesting person, in fact, was Jacqueline Delanque. There had been many Jacquelines in his life… She would be the last. Gradually he became so obsessed with the matters of Jacqueline that he had the sense of being in a dream in which he continued following her tracks. He felt as though he had a rendezvous with her. At the top of place Blanche, his heart was beating slightly faster and he felt unsettled and even nervous. He had not experienced this for a long time. He continued to walk along at an ever brisker pace. There, he had arrived. He had forgotten the cinema at the corner of the avenue. It was called Le Mexico and it was no coincidence that it had such a time. It gave someone like Louki a longing for journeys, for running away or escaping…
In the third chapter a different life-sketch of the central character Jacqueline has gradually been revealed through her own thoughts, memories and modes of conducting life. As Jacqueline was a reticent girl by nature she did not intend to be exposed to others unless any situation would oblige her to express herself. That is why the readers have been able to learn about some of her own personal information when she has been asked to convey at the police stations. She was not used to being asked questions. She was even astonished that they should be interested in her. At the Grandes-Carrières police station, she came across a copper who was nicer than the previous one and she liked his way of asking her questions. She felt safe with him and managed to communicate a few bits of information: her mother Geneviève Delanque came from a village in the Sologne, the place where M. Foucret, the manager of the Moulin-Rouge, had a property. And it was because of this that at a very young age, when she came up to Paris, she had got a job in this organisation. She did not know who her father was. She was born down in the Sologne, but they had never gone back there. That is why her mother often used to say to her: ‘We’ve no longer got a framework…’ After being able to convey such information she experienced a novel sensation: as she was giving him these pathetic details, a weight was lifted from her. And she was talking more and more quickly, and the words kept getting jumbled up: Moulin-Rouge, her mother, Guy Lavigne, Jules-Ferry lycée, the Sologne… As she was never able to speak to anyone in such manner and felt so much relief as all these words came tumbling out of her mouth, she started thinking:
‘Une partie de ma vie s’achevait, une vie qui m’avait été imposée. Désormais, ce serait moi qui déciderais de mon sort. Tout commencerait à partir d’aujourd’hui, et pour bien prendre mon élan, j’aurais préféré qu’il raye ce qu’il venait d’écrire. J’étais prête à lui donner d’autres détails et d’autres noms et à lui parler d’une famille imaginaire, une famille telle que je l’aurais rêvée.’
(A part of my life was coming to an end, a life that had been imposed on me. From now on, I would be the one to decide my own fate. Everything would begin from this day on, and to get a really good head-start, I should have preferred him to cross out what he had just written down. I was prepared to give him further details and other names and to talk to him about an imaginary family, the sort of family I would have dreamt of having.)
She used to feel the same exhilaration each time she broke up with someone. Her escapist mind makes her keep herself aloof from others. She was not truly herself except at the moment she was running away. Her only good memories are memories of flight or escape as she has lapses of memory. Or rather certain details come back to her in a jumble. There are impassable frontiers in life. And yet she had been very surprised on her first visits to Le Condé to recognise a customer she had seen at Le Canter, the guy known as Maurice Raphael, whom they nickname the Jaguar. She recognised him. She did not feel that her face reminded him of anything. So much the better. What a relief…
The feeling of anxiety that often came over her at night and which was even stronger than fear — that feeling of being left on her own now without anyone to turn to. Neither her mother nor anyone else — made her have company of someone like Jeannette Gaul, a little older than her, who led her ultimately to a level of narcosis that gave her a sense of freshness and lightness. She felt certain that the anxiety and the feeling of emptiness that came over her would never return. Ever since the chemist in place Blanche had talked to her about low pressure, she thought she needed to brace herself, to struggle with herself, to try to control herself. There is nothing she can do, she has been brought up the hard way. Sink or swim. If she fell, others would continue to walk. She should not have any illusions. But, from now on, that would change. What’s more, the streets and the frontiers of the neighbourhood suddenly seemed to me to be too narrow. No matter. She waited for a sign that would tell her. What word would convey her state of mind? She only has a very limited vocabulary. Intoxication? Ecstasy? Rapture? In any case, this street was familiar to her. It seemed to her that she had walked along it in the past.
In the fourth chapter Roland, the aspiring writer steps forward. He identifies with Louki and her attempts to flee and hide, for he has had many of the same experiences. In this chapter another part of Jacqueline’s life has been revealed in the observation of the fourth important character Roland who seems to be the personification of Patrick Modiano as he continues to grope in the memories remembering his passing moments with Jacqueline.
Jacqueline did not want to stay in a neighbourhood that was too close to her husband’s home. Barely two métro stations away. She was looking for a hotel on the Left Bank in the vicinity of Le Condé or Guy de Vere’s apartment. In that way, she would be able to walk there. At the time, he still found traces of his childhood: the run-down hotels on rue Dauphine, the place where catechism classes used to take place, the café at the Odéon crossroads where a few deserters from the American bases used to traffic drugs, the dark staircase of the Vert-Galant, and that scrawl on the grimy wall on rue Maza-r-ine, which he read every time he went to school: NEVER WORK.
Today, he realises that it was not merely a course of action that she was looking for in reading those pale green booklets and the biography of Louise du Néant. She wanted to escape, to run ever further away, to make a sudden break from day-to-day life, so that she could breathe the fresh air. And then there was also that panic-stricken fear, from Tim. Tim, at the thought that the hangers-on she has left behind can come back and find her and ask her for explanations. She had to hide to escape these blackmailers, hoping that one day she would be beyond their reach for good. Up there, in the air of the mountain crests. Or in the sea air. He could understand this very well. He, too, still carried around bad memories and the nightmare figures of his childhood and he planned to give them the two fingers once and for all. Actually he is getting engrossed so much in his nostalgia enlivened still by Jacqueline, her memories haunt him ceaselessly as revealed in his own illusion:
‘Encore aujourd’hui, il m’arruve d’entendre, le soir, une voix qui m’appelle par mon prénom, dans la rue. Une voix rauque. Elle traîne un peu sur les syllabes et je la reconnais tout de suite:la voix de Louki. Je me retourne, mais il n’y a personne. Pas seulement le soir, mais au creux de ces après-midi d’été où vous ne savez plus très bien en quelle année vous êtes. Tout va recommencer comme avant. Les mêmes lieux, les mêmes rencontres. L’Éternel Retour.”
(Even today, in the evenings, I occasionally hear a voice calling me by my first name, in the street. A husky voice. There is a slight drawl to syllables and I recognise it immediately: Louki’s voice. I turn around, but there is no-one there. Not just in the evening, but in the midst of those summer afternoons when you are no longer quite sure what year you are in. Everything will begin again as before. The same days, the same nights, the same places, the same encounters. The Eternal Recurrence.)
However, a student, a private investigator, the young woman at the centre of the story, and her writer lover. Segment by segment, each tells their part in the tale, building a picture of a person, but never a complete one. The ones who have the facts can only guess at her thoughts, the ones who know her thoughts cannot know where she is going. Told in such a way, one is never sure of what elements are fictions, a bare truth, or perhaps one slightly embellished or tarnished. All four of the narrators come together in the final pages for a dramatic ending. After Roland’s return to the café Le Condé many years later, along with him the readers got shocked hearing the words in Zacharias’ dead pan voice: ‘Louki. She threw herself out of the window.’
This may be regarded as one of the most haunting novellas by Modiano. The atmosphere he creates is utterly enveloping. It grasps the reader emotionally with little incidents and never lets go. At the same time, the protagonist, Louki, is omnipresent, but essentially remains elusive to the end. This is hinted at, from the moment that her real name is replaced by Louki, by the group of regulars in the cafe where the story starts. From that moment the readers feel that this adopted name will act as a powerful screen to protect her from our fascinated but inquisitive glances. Whatever happened to Jacqueline Delanque? Through recollections and jaded memories, a picture is built up of a young girl growing up in poverty in Montmartre. She meanders through life, on a restless quest to an unknowable destination, accumulating a cocaine habit and a disastrous marriage, and frequenting Le Condé, where a rabble of failed writers, world-weary academics and dissatisfied students are all in search of the same indefinable something. Years later, they all remember the girl they named ‘Louki’, but are at a loss to say what became of her. Ever-present through this story is the city of Paris; a Paris of no-man’s-land, of lonely journeys on the last métro home or nocturnal walks along wide boulevards; of cafés where the lost youth wanders in, searching for meaning, and the older generations sift through the memories of their own long-gone adolescence.
In the Café of Lost Youth is a novel bathed in a sense of both melancholy and nostalgia. Indeed, as a mastermind Modiano had logical reasons to take a quote from the late Guy Louis Debord as an epigraph in this novel for presaging the imminent mood of the whole story:

À la moitié du chemin de la vraie vie,
nous étions environnés d’une sombre mélancolie,
qu’ont exprimée tant de mots railleurs et tristes,
dans le café de la jeunesse perdue.

(Halfway along the path of our lives,
we were enveloped by a gloomy melancholy
expressed in so many mocking and sad words,
in the cafe of lost youth.)

Mohammad Khabir Uddin is a researcher and an instructor of English and French.

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