In Young Once, we meet Louis and Odile, married with children, living comfortably in Switzerland but feeling vaguely lost. They are only thirty-five years old, yet it feels like they have nothing more to expect from life. “Could anything new happen to them at thirty-five?” One day, while downtown, Louis hears the voice of a singer on a television program drifting out from open café windows. He can’t understand the words. A warm wind starts blowing. The first drops of rain appear. And just like that we are taken back to Louis at the age of nineteen, just demobilized from the French army. Louis immediately falls in with a man who promises to get him a job in Paris. The job turns out to be sitting at a desk at nights in a garage where men deliver cars, leaving them for someone else to drive them away later. Louis never does get an explanation of what is going on, but we suspect something illicit. Louis first meets Odile in a train station and before long they begin to live together, although they fail to display much that can be considered tender or loving. They are two aimless souls who seem to prefer letting other people make decisions for them. At nineteen, the can’t envision the future. “Lying down, looking at the ceiling, [Louis] would think about the future, or in other words about nothing.”
Young Once is a case study in withholding information from the reader, a carefully modulated story in which almost everything we learn about it characters comes through innuendo, vague hints, and brief glimpses. In one of the central sections of the story, Louis and Odile are prodded into smuggling a large amount of cash out of France and into England by pretending to join a youth group. We see them being prepped on how to look innocent as they go through customs, but then Modiano jumps ahead and we next see them on the bus with the youth group, having already landed in England. We have been set up for the nervous interchange between Louis, Odile, and the customs officer, but Modiano refuses to spend time on that. Instead, he focuses on the sudden flare of jealousy that erupts when one of the students discerns that the youth leader (who is somehow involved in the smuggling and will apparently receive the money) is now more interested in Louis and Odile than in himself.
Unlike most of Modiano’s books, which flicker back and forth between several points in time, Young Once has only an after (when they are thirty-five) and a before (when they are nineteen). The book ends when Louis and Odile are once again asked to smuggle a very large sum of money out of France. Instead, they take the money and head to Switzerland.
Something – he wondered later if it was simply his youth – something that had weighed upon him until that moment broke off him, the way a piece of rock slides slowly into the sea and disappears in a spray of foam.
Originally written in 1981 under the title Une Jeunesse, Young Once has just been translated into English by Damion Searls for the New York Review Books. It’s a brilliant and devastating piece of writing.
Written twenty-six years later, in 2007, In the Cafe of Lost Youth centers around Louki and Roland, a pair of lost twenty year-olds who hang out with a group of people in the Paris of the 1950s, a group that is partly based on the circle that surrounded the French writer and thinker Guy Debord. The book is sequentially written from the perspective of four narrators: an unnamed student who hangs out at the edges of the group, the detective hired by Louki’s husband when she walks out on him, Louki herself, and finally Roland. With each narrator we seem to learn more about the mysterious Louki, but when we are presented with a surprise twist at the end of the novel, it becomes clear that we have learned nothing at all but a few dry facts about her life. Roland, a would-be writer, is working on a paper about “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 these areas live the “absentees” ( so named after the French legal term for someone who has disappeared and been declared “dead”). Everyone in this book seems to belong to the absentees.
A reader with some knowledgeable or interest in Guy Debord’s Situationist International might be more welcoming to In the Cafe of Lost Youth (New York Review Books, 2016) than I was. I found it to be one of Modiano’s less successful novels, covering territory that is more richly presented in some of his other books. Translated by Chris Clarke.