I know this place. I spent my twenties there. And in truth that café (pub, in my case) represents all these interpretations of lost youth.
I've always believed certain places are like magnets and draw you towards them should you happen to walk within their radius. And this occurs imperceptibly, without you even suspecting. All it takes is a sloping street, a sunny sidewalk, or maybe a shady one. Or perhaps a downpour. And this leads you straight there, to the exact spot you're meant to wash up.The world Patrick Modiano weaves in The Café of Lost Youth is spell-binding. Time slows. Read a page or two on the commute and the walk across the neighbourhood is suddenly infused with new meaning. I move in a haze, embraced by the city, a stand-in for Paris, and I find myself looking for fixed points.
In this uninterrupted stream of women, men, children, and dogs that pass by and end up lost from sight among the streets, it would be nice to hold on to a face once in a while. Yes, according to Bowing, amidst the maelstrom that is a large city, you had to find a few fixed points.Louki is the fixed point of this story, a young woman who frequents the café among the many writers and bohemians. Her identity is elusive, few know even her real name, but it is around her that the texts revolve.
Four sections, chronologically overlapped, with four distinct narrators, Louki herself one of them.
The opening section presents the café through the eyes of a student at École Supérieure des Mines. He dares not tell the clientele that he's a student though, for fear he'll be mocked.
At the Condé, we never questioned each other about our origins. We were too young and we didn't even have pasts to reveal, we lived in the present.I remember wishing I had a past. I miss not having a past.
The second narrator is Caisley, who smokes American cigarettes and occasionally calls himself an art publisher. He seems to have connections on both sides of the law, and alludes to some shady dealings. This section tells of his stint as a private investigator, hired by a man whose wife has gone missing.
I had a habit of getting to know the lay of the land before jumping straight into the thick of things. In the past, Blémant criticized me for it and thought that I was wasting my time. Dive in, he told me, rather than running in circles around the edge of the pool. Personally, I felt the opposite way. No sudden movements, but instead a passivity and slowness that allow you to be softly penetrated by the spirit of the place.Clearly he is penetrated by the spirit of the café.
In this life that sometimes seems to be a vast, ill-defined landscape without signposts, amid all of the vanishing lines and the lost horizons, we hope to find reference points, to draw up some sort of land registry so as to shake the impression that we are navigating by chance. So we forge ties, we try to find stability in chance encounters.Louki narrates the third section. She's a liar, but she's honest about it. Kind of the way Holly Golightly's a phoney, but a real phoney. In fact, now that I've made the connection to Breakfast at Tiffany's, I wonder if more couldn't be made of it — the need to run, the need to reinvent oneself. What fixed points does one navigate by then?
I was never really myself when I wasn't running away. My only happy memories are memories of flight and escape.It is through Roland, the fourth and final narrator, that we process Louki's end. As Louki's friend and lover, he is privy to Louki's spiritual longing, her need for a guru.
I had the impression that since those days at Guy de Vere's, no time had passed. Instead it had stood still, frozen into some sort of eternity. I remember the text I had trying to write back when I knew Louki. I had called it On Neutral Zones. There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no-man's-lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefited from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.Roland obsessed about the Eternal Return.
Time stood still for me reading this book. As if I had regained my neutral zone. Anything is possible.
I want to read it again. I want to be 20 again.
This book may be a fixed point.