Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth


In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“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 benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.



Book Review: The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This is the first of Zweig’s books I’ve read, and after one taste I know it won’t be the last.  Like Christine, our wilted heroine who gets a glimpse of high society and can’t bear to give it up, I’ve peeked into a new kind of world.

The post office girl of the title is not living a fulfilling life.  The novel’s opening lines attest to this:

“One village post office in Austria is much like another: seen one and you’ve seen them all.  Each with identical meager furnishings provided (or rather issued, like uniforms) during Franz Josef’s rule, all drawn from the same stock, their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere.”

Living in a dreary little town, caring for her aging mother, Christine doesn’t have the energy or the means to dream about a happier life.  She goes meekly from one drudgery to the next, survival the only goal, and maybe a good night’s sleep.  But when Christine’s glamorous aunt and wealthy uncle whisk her away to share in their luxurious vacation at a super (super) posh hotel in the Alps, her perception of life is shattered.  Humble repetition is replaced with the gleaming, giddy swirl of delights these holiday-makers experience every day.  Christine’s initial trepidation at being surrounded with so much careless opulence disappears in one memorable moment when a glimpse of her made-up self in the hotel mirror reveals a fashionable, alluring young lady.  The magic of falling under own charm starts to work on all the other guests, and suddenly our post office girl is a star amongst the bright young things.

But things can not last.  The Post Office Girl is divided into two parts, with a chasm of disenchantment separating them.  We, the readers, have to suffer with the knowledge that Christine finds herself floating above while at the hotel – her effervescent joy is clouding her judgement.  And falling from such dizzying heights makes reality so much worse.  It is a soured young woman who returns to her desk job, and the change is so marked that one can barely imagine the same character.  When Christine meets, by happenstance and a mutual friend, an equally bitter young man who scorns the trap of wealth and class as much as she does (but for different reasons), she finds the company that misery so craves.  But the unhappiness that post-vacation Christine and post-War Ferdinand share builds up from the city’s grime into something more volatile.  In questioning the set up of a society that seems to have failed them, they long for a chance to grab at a moment of the freedom they’ve witnessed in other people.  They devise a plan. The reader wonders if things could possibly work out in their favor.

And that’s the story of The Post Office Girl.

Some dismally fun background info: The Post Office Girl was published posthumously.  Zweig was an unhappy but fascinating fellow in his own right: an Austrian-Jewish writer living in Vienna, who wrote prodigiously in the years between wars.  When Nazism began to gain a threatening amount of power, he and his wife relocated to Brazil, where they committed suicide.  I knew about his demise before I read The Post Office Girl, so the gloomy middle section of the book seemed even more depressing.  And then – once the book’s tone buoys hopefully a little bit in the last forty pages – I couldn’t shake the author’s eventual fate from my head while reading about the characters’ cheerful, fatal desperation.

Yet even while destitution and inescapable dissatisfaction molder within the characters’ hearts, a brisk energy blows through the pages like the Alpine winds which so invigorate Christine on her travels.  The story has peaks of joy and clarity, interspersed with valleys of despair.  It has a sense of humor marred by the cold injustice of poverty and wartime.  When you think that Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” (a film I won’t apologize for loving) was inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writing, you might read with a weather eye out for a flash of the madly comic spark that kept picturesque absurdities piling up in that film. (I do want to read The World Of Yesterday now.) The Post Office Girl does have a fabulous hotel, fast cars, and stunningly delectable food.  There are sharply sarcastic conversations to satisfy the wryest reader: in glamorous repartee during the first half of the book, then in pessimistic rants later on.  But Zweig’s writing (in this particular book, at least) is more morose, ballasted by the weight of past violence and future hopelessness.

To the characters, everything comes down to money: the humiliation of any luxury being “too expensive”, or the mistreatment poor people must suffer without comment while the wealthy enjoy life instead of just enduring it.  In reading the book, I too felt myself scorning the wealthy while lusting after wealth, but Zweig had a talent in letting his characters’ follies speak for themselves.  We can sympathize with Christine’s rapture at the hotel while nodding wisely at the eventuality of her disappointment, because we aren’t struck so silly by the rarity of such happy surroundings.  As readers, we probably see where this is headed, and when her whirlwind of a vacation comes crashing down at the novel’s midpoint then we know there’s still a long ways to plummet.  Zweig made me think about how I experience luck, class, and work without forcing me to take a side.  I could balk in horrified concern at the unhappiness of Austria’s most unfortunate citizens, and gaze agog at the lifestyles of fancy people who have the luxury of wardrobe-drama being the most important aspect of their day.  Conversations on either side of the gap – the gap in society, and the gap in between the novel’s two parts – invite both sympathy and criticism.  I’m glad I haven’t experienced either extreme.

The pacing of this book was a bit too jolting to keep me reading straight through: I got caught up in Christine’s initial transformation in the mountains but had to take a break when disappointment brought things back down to ground-level.  The language itself is by turns gorgeous and grimy (Joel Rotenberg translated my NYRB edition).  A first glimpse of glorious nature took my breath away, and the squalor of a cheap Viennese hotel made my skin crawl.  The descriptions of wartime conditions are appropriately frightful, especially since we listen along through Christine’s sheltered ear.   By the end of The Post Office Girl, I was quite ready to wash my hands of the whole turbulent lifestyle it captures, but I think it was just the right length to really capture the two sides of existence in Europe between world wars.

I don’t know what I’ll read next by Zweig, but if his insights here are anything to base my opinion upon, I expect more sharp observation of the facades and desperation that make people so endlessly fascinating.