Finding the Themes

It’s not the best idea to be blogging from work, for a variety of well-known reasons. But the one that’s currently standing out for me is the absence of the text I’m so eager to discuss that I’m going to go for it without the ability to reference page numbers or relevant phrases, or to look at scrawled notes, and thus avoid forgetting and/or misremembering something. Who said I was afraid to walk on the wild side?

Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue turned out to be a remarkably easy read, “easy” meaning the French was uncomplicated and clear, in the same way that Kafka’s very precise German makes it a breeze to dip into his texts in the original language– a pleasant surprise for someone who tends to pack so many layers into so little space. My guess is, I’ll give the Modiano a quick second skim-through, because I picked up on and want to look more closely at three main ideas threading themselves throughout the narrative: a concern with “points of reference” as anchoring a person’s or society’s life; the eternal return; and the disappearance of foundational and/or meaning-rich places, courtesy of encroaching moneyed and market-driven forces.

That first motif, or, rather, the attempt to find and hold onto points of reference in a larger project of figuring out who one is and where one stands, is, of course, exceedingly complicated by the third reality, which tends to bypass questions of selfhood in favor of profit. When an establishment or building or square, on which you’ve grounded the core meaning of your self, is gutted or razed, transformed or destroyed so quickly and dispassionately it’s as if it never even existed, you can’t help but be visited by visions of finitude or fatality or ultimate emptiness– or, what may be a good thing, learn how to cease depending on externals as constitutive of identity. That may all be good and well for an individual– but is a society or culture affected differently by the demise, whether willed or accepted or not, of its creations, its visible and tangible monuments to some sort of identity that makes that group definably who it is, and not some other? As global capital flows make a newly developed block in Paris look increasingly like another one in Milwaukee, does anything fundamental change in either or both of the communities in which the physical transformation has taken place?

Going beyond the influence of exchangeable things, do people count as externals? Do experiences, which mostly feature place and context as essential parts? When someone is taken out of, or extracts him- or herself from, your life, what does that mean for you, an interdependent being who cannot exist in isolation from others? Memories and all of their components, including beings and objects long gone from our physical presence, stay with and shape us, whether we like that fact or not.

Maybe that’s why the question of the eternal return showed up late in the book, although I’ll have to go back and see if I can discover whether the concept is used for different and/or subtler purposes. I didn’t detect much of the Nietzschean in its presence– but then again, you never know what will emerge on a second read, and make you feel like an idiot for not having grasped it the first time around.

I’ll finish this post with a completely patched-on ending: a note about what got me reading this book in the first place, namely, an eighty-something-year-old woman who decided she’s going to learn French, and whose teacher recommended she do so partly by checking out this particular work by Modiano. An inspiration? I’d say so. Never quit, and never allege you’re too old to learn something new, even if it’s an entire, unfamiliar language system.


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