Young Once by Patrick Modiano

In 2014 Patrick Modiano who is called “Marcel Proust of our time” won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.” He was a well-known writer in France at the time, but he was not popular anywhere else, even though his books had been translated into English. Last year NYRB Classics published two of his books: In the Café of Lost Youth and Young Once, so I decided to make Young Once, which is considered to be Modiano’s breakthrough novel, a part of my NYRB Classics project.

Young Once is the story of Louis and Odile. They are roughly the same age, and the story opens in 1980 when they are about to celebrate their thirty-fifth birthdays. Louis and Odile have built a happy life together. They have two children and a business and they seem to be doing quite well.

But they were not always thriving. They were ‘young once,’ and the story turns fifteen years back to show the beginning of this solid couple. Both Louis and Odile are orphans, and when they were nineteen – with no worldly experience or anyone to guide them – they depended on the ‘kindness’ of strangers. In their seven-month odyssey, they met a string of people who either genuinely tried to help them or make use of their innocence, and over the course of that period, the couple reached the maturity of independent adults necessary to go their own way in life.

In this coming of age novel, Modiano’s writing style is seductive from the beginning. There are not many ‘fireworks’ in terms of the plot – the novel is a subtle piece of work beautifully captivating memories. Reading it made me feel warmhearted and nostalgic even. I would love to reread Young Once in future.

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