Book review – In the Café of Lost Youth

This is my first post for the blog at TripFiction (many thanks for the invitation, Tina, and for the book!).

What a great website this is, combining twin JustRetiring passions of books and travel.

Books set in a location help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, novel set in Paris

You know those enigmatic, slightly pretentious French language films, with lots of silences and meaningful looks between the protagonists, played out in a smoky café on the Rive Gauche?
This book reminded me a little of one of those.
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The central human character is the young, lost soul of Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed “Louki” by the cast of regulars at the tacky Café  Condé she wanders into one day. The louche bunch of actors, writers and poets take her under their artistic wing, without ever really knowing her past or helping her figure out her future.
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But through flashbacks and other characters – and in one of the four chapters, from Louki herself – we gradually come to understand her troubled and impoverished upbringing. She becomes known to the police, wandering the streets of Montmartre alone and too young, while her mother works at Le Moulin Rouge. Gradually she explores further afield, bumping into the drug world through a chance meeting with Jeanette Gaul, known ominously as “Death’s Head“. Louki fails in her ambition to study, when she is rejected by the esteemed Jules-Ferry lycée. She drifts into a brief, doomed marriage with Jean-Pierre Choureau, director of a real estate agency.
 
But through Roland, a lover she lives with after she walks out on Jean-Pierre one day, we sense she might finally find a little happiness.
 
Roland binds the narrative together, through his obsession with the real star of the story – Paris. He talks about the Neutral Zones: “intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man’s-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there. I could have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more exact.” 
 
Louki lived with Jean-Pierre in the affluent, sterile suburb of Neuilly, where there is an inevitability that the marriage will fail. She and Roland find a temporary peace wandering the grimy streets of the neutral zones late at night, but a tragic ending to this sad, short novella comes as no surprise. 
 
You may not fully engage with the human characters of In the Café of Lost Youth, but TripFiction fans will love the book’s insight into Paris. Stroll along the sleazy side streets of la Ville Lumière, drink with the regulars at the Café Condé and share Louki and Roland’s aimless meandering through the dark underbelly of the city.
“We were wa;king without any precise aim, we had the entire night ahead of us. There were still glimmers of sunlight beneath the arcades of of rue de Rivoli. It was early summer and we were going to go away soon. Where? We didn’t yet know. Possibly to Majorca or Mexico. Perhaps to London or to Rome. The places were of no importance, they all merged together. The only purpose of our journey was to go to the heart of the summer, to where time stops and the hands of the clock are set forever at noon.”

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