1950s Paris comes alive in haunting tale by Nobel winner

I admitted I was not up for the challenge of the 600-page Bleak House. Even though I enjoyed it and still think about the characters, I realize that it was like tackling a marathon after having only run short sprints. One has to build up.

Exhausted from my marathon, I’m back now to sprints.

If you’re a regular reader of Shelf Improvement, you’ll know that book covers draw me in as often as a title or author. So when I saw the title, “In the Café of Lost Youth” and the author, Nobel Prize-winner Patrick Modiano (to whom I had just been introduced) and size (118 pages) I was almost there.  The cover was the clincher.

In_the_Cafe_of_Lost_Youth_1024x1024.jpgYou can see it here, its ever-so-slightly-out-of-focus photo of a beautiful, waiflike creature staring at us through a dirty window, brought me immediately to the Paris I think of when I think of the City of Light.

No, I’ve never been to Paris, and yes, I hear it’s filthy and the people are rude. Still, there is a romance to the Paris of bygone days when American ex-pats like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Sophie Tucker lived and loved there. It’s probably crap, and the Ugly American stereotype probably originated with drunks like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But drunkenly discussing art with passionate, intelligent people at a sidewalk café surrounded by history and beauty is something I always thought I’d be doing one day. Of course, I realize I’d soon grow disenchanted with the bohemians I would have done that with and wonder why they didn’t have jobs. And no, you can’t share my French fries, you freeloader, and would it kill you to wear deodorant? By the way, just so you know, that beret looks ridiculous.

Sorry.

Anyway, Modiano’s 2007 novel, in a new translation, is that kind of Paris. Where no one knows anything about anyone else and it doesn’t matter until it inevitably, tragically does.

Told by four narrators, “Café” is the story of Louki, a lost soul who draws the attention of all who see her. But Louki is, like the Paris I described, something that only exists in our imagination. She’s real, of course, but as she mingles with the people at the café, they mold her into an image they want her to be. To each person, she becomes something more and less than she is, to everyone’s folly.

As in “Paris Nocturne,” Modiano explores themes of identity, time and memory, in a way that can be beautifully unnerving.

“I am trying to recall what she said to me that night. It was all rather confused. Nothing but snippets. And it’s too late to find the details I’m missing now, or those that I’ve somehow forgotten,” one narrator says, then goes on to relate Louki’s story in broad strokes that are filled in elsewhere. Only the reader has a full picture of Louki, and even that, like the cover photo, is not completely in focus.

Later, another narrator seems to sum up the theme: “Rumor was he collected paintings. You know how people talk. And then people just vanish one day and you realize you didn’t know the first thing about them, not even who they really were.”

This is the kind of book I’d want to talk about at that Paris café, because it’s so ambiguous. Read it and comment. No berets, please.

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