“In the Café of Lost Youth” by Patrick Modiano [Why This Book Should Win]

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.


In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Chris Clarke (France, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 32%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 4%

“She was taking refuge here, at the Condé, as if she were running from something, trying to escape some danger. “

Danger hovers in the background of this noir novel, filled with malaise and post-Vichy fatigue, and exemplifies Patrick Modiano’s atmospheric, understated style. Plain and simple prose subverts the hazy nostalgia that infuses the narrative. In the Café of Lost Youth is vintage Modiano, capturing the elusive qualities of memory where time and place are secondary to the feelings they evoke.

Once the longlist is announced, it’s evident that the aspects of a novel are extremely well executed and translated in all the titles. One must recognize the goals of the author and the impact of the work—what lingers in the mind long after it is read. What makes In the Café of Lost Youth and most Modiano titles a cut above is his ability to capture the intangible, to convey the effect memory has on how a life is lived, and to make the reader reflect on what memories prevail in her own mind. As nebulous and ephemeral as this work is, Chris Clarke’s translation is a simpatico translation. Modiano addresses memory and his story without a tremendous number of specifics and also raises more questions about the “story” as it progresses. It’s as if he presents the hallucinatory remembrance without the typical trappings of narrative structure and objectives of a novel. Yet, in all its slim glory, it is complete.

Told in the voices of four different narrators, the novel’s focus is a young woman who suddenly appears at the Condé. Its regular inhabitants are a mix of hard-drinking young and old bohemians with a dash of small-time criminals. Jacqueline Delanque enters the Condé one evening, a book in hand, sits in the back “where no one would notice her.” Soon she joins the group of boisterous regulars, who name her Louki, while “she remained quiet and reserved, and seemed happy just to listen.” The first part is narrated by a young student who is smitten with her.

The second part is narrated by a private detective, Caisley, who was hired by Louki’s older husband whom she has abandoned. Louki narrates the third part and Roland, a fellow student of Guy de Vere (a mystical philosopher), who becomes intimate with Louki but knows no more than anyone else of her, narrates the fourth.

Through the different narrators, details of Louki’s young life unfold to reveal contrasting lifestyles that she seems merely to exist in without any one of these lifestyles being totally possessing her. Her childhood was poor and lonely as she struggled to survive with her single mother. She escapes into the security of marriage only to have a “feeling of emptiness would come over me in the street.” Her adventures with a drug loving girlfriend circle back in and out of the story until Louki ultimately rests among the crowd at the Condé. It’s there that she is bewitching and unknowable, yet a compatriot in existential despair and loneliness.

This book should win because of the melancholy of memory, what once was so present and undeniable becomes sorrowful nostalgia for youth, a yearning to be where we once were. Wistful and haunting, In the Café of Lost Youth a testament to Modiano’s skill at confronting how memory truly imbues our perception of who we are.

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