Book review: two Parisian café’s, two mysterious women, two novels

Both slim pockets start with the main character, a man, sitting in a Parisian café. Both men notice a woman whose story then becomes the novel’s focal point. In Joseph Kessel’s book “La Passante de Sans Souci”, the café’s name is “Sans Souci”. In Patrick Modiano’s “Le Café de la Jeunesse Perdue”, the café’s name is of course quite clear.

Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his complete oeuvre in 2014. So never having read anything by him before, I decided to find myself one of his novels. “Le Café de la Jeunesse Perdue” was the first one I found.

cafe 1The first few chapters of “Le Café de la Jeunesse Perdue” reminded me strongly of “La Passante de Sans Souci”. The novel actually mentions a café called “Sans-Souci”. I read Joseph Kessel’s “La Passante de Sans Souci” in the summer of 2014, after finding a second-hand copy in Brussels. Of course “La Passante” is well-known because of the film “The Passerby” in which Romy Schneider plays mysterious Elsa.

The first chapters of each novel describe the main male character having a drink. Each story starts from his perspective, his point of view. Both men notice a mysterious woman. In “Le Café”, she sits at the edge of a set of people or sits with a book at a table. She does not totally belong there and receives the nickname Louki.

Cafe 2In “La Passante”, the woman passes and uses a café window to adjust her clothes. The man then starts noticing her regularly and in the end, when he is drunk, Elsa ensures he gets home safely. The books describe a Paris, café scene and people of different eras. “La Passante” describes a Paris recovering from the Second World War. “Le Café” seems to describe a Paris in the sixties or perhaps shortly after that wild time, but when drugs and addictions are already firmly established.

In “Le Café”, names are jotted down by one of the crowd. When he disappears, the main character notices Louki’s name is always jotted down in a different colour. This is one of the things which intrigue him. When he later accidentally crosses her path in a different Parisian neighbourhood, he starts playing detective.

He finds her husband and pretends to search her. From then on, the viewpoint of the story regularly shifts without warning. The history and story of Louki are told partly by Louki herself, partly by friends and partly by the main character. Of course, the story ends badly: it is a story of lost youth, innocence and lives.

In “La Passante”, the main character discovers Elsa lives with a small young boy. It turns out, she fled Nazi occupied Austria and the boy is not her son. They are waiting for her husband to return, after he was arrested by Nazis. This story is told from one single point of view: the main character narrates it. Of course, it also ends badly.

Though Patrick Modiano received a Nobel Prize for his complete oeuvre, Joseph Kessel’s “La Passante the Sans Souci” is by far the better one. The tragic story of a life spiralling downwards and out of control is revealed slowly and remorselessly. Elsa is caught up in events she is unable to escape from. Jacqueline on the other hand, makes her own choices – up to a degree. Elsa seems helplessly caught in a downward spiral, whereas Jacqueline chooses from various options.

Tragic events taking place in “La Passante de Sans Souci” remain lodged in one’s memory. Elsa and little Max, as well as the man who becomes caught up in their tragedy, are far more sympathetic than Jacqueline and the main character of “Le Café de la Jeunesse Perdue”. The shattering of illusions, dreams, and hope is far more profound and more absorbingly described in “La Passante de Sans Souci”.

“La Passante de Sans Souci”, Joseph Keller, 1936
“Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue”, Patrick Modiano, 160 pp, 2007, Editions Gallimard

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