Anita Brookner

Vagabonds in Paris

Anita Brookner on Patrick Modiano's new book

Text settings

Patrick Modiano is a nostalgic novelist who has consistently shown courage in investigating the boundaries between duty and loyalty. This ambiguity has featured in all his novels and seems to have had its roots in the character of his own father, whose activities in the troubled era of wartime and post-war Paris have left their mark on his writing. Conscious of his flawed moral inheritance, Modiano has applied himself to testing the limits of his own freedom and has found that shame is not so easily dispersed. It is a quality that inhabits all his elegantly written novels and is equally present in Dans le Café de la Jeunesse Perdue which reverts to the same troubled era as its predecessors and occupies a doubtful position on the periphery of the natural order. He finds even less reassurance in the role of hapless investigator of another’s misdemeanours, thus compromising his own conscience, apparently without relief.

The present novel purports to be about a group of young people who frequent Le Condé, in the Odéon district, at a hazy time, probably the early Fifties, and in particular a girl, nicknamed Louki, who appears in their midst without introducing herself or divulging any details about her life and activities. As is usual in Mondiano no questions are asked; direct exchanges are scrupulously avoided. Yet Louki is an object of fascination to the other habitués, who, true to type, are without distinguishing characteristics. Even their real names are not known. Their encounters take place at odd hours of the day or night and it seems a matter of honour to eschew identities and rely only on appearances.

Except that ‘rely’ is not a concept that is held in much regard. These people remain strangers to each other, and this applies in particular to the narrator, who, some time later, introduces himself as a private investigator whose task it is to probe the mystery of a woman who has left her husband and whose present whereabouts are unknown. The missing wife is Jacqueline Delanque, whom the reader knows as Louki.

The voice now shifts to that of Louki herself who divulges a few details of her life preceding her appearance at the Condé. She is the daughter of a woman who works at the Moulin Rouge and who is thus out of the house between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., during which time Louki virtually goes missing, drifting from café to café, linking up with strangers, solitaries like herself. This forms the connection between the narrator/investigator, who may or may not be called Roland Caisely, although we are warned that this is not his real name. At some point they become lovers. And when Louki drifts into marriage, and drifts out again, Caisely is called in on the case, though he is equally unreliable and refuses to convey what he knows.

The point of this novel, or memoir, or episode is the wandering, vagabond life of Roland and Louki, who spend days and nights crossing and recrossing Paris and ending up in one small hotel after another. The reader of Modiano’s previous novels will now find himself on familiar territory, as walks are manically chronicled, street names and metro stations itemised, times of day noted, a whole alternative world of unattached activity meticulously charted. On one of their walks they discover that the Condé has become a luxury boutique selling crocodile handbags. This presumably signifies the end of their youth, their jeunesse perdue. Whether this will do for the reader is another matter.

This is an opaque and troubled novel which casts an uneasy spell and is imbued not only with regret for lost youth but equally regrettably with something like lost nerve.

The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication.