David Foenkinos is a French writer whose career has never quite taken off in English. His novel Delicacy (the basis of a film starring Audrey Tatou) was translated in 2011, The Erotic Potential of my Wife having previously appeared in 2008. Both, it’s fair to say, adopted a lighter tone than Charlotte, translated by Sam Taylor and published Canongate, which arrives here having won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des Lyceens.
The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish painter who was born in Berlin in 1917. Her reputation rests largely on work she produced in the south of France between 1941 and 1943 before she was captured by occupying German forces and sent to Auchswitz. She was murdered on arrival. The novel is told in a series of short sentences, each one set on a new line. While this may give the appearance of poetry, the presence of a full stop every few words makes it intensely prosaic. The constantly abbreviated thoughts come to echo her own abbreviated life.
Death is not only the early end point of Charlotte’s story, it also haunts her beginnings:
“Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.”
She is named after her mother’s sister who committed suicide when she was eighteen:
“While everyone else is sleeping, Charlotte gets out of bed.
She gathers a few belongings, as if she were going on a trip.
The city seems at a standstill, frozen in this early winter.
Charlotte has just turned eighteen.
She walks quickly towards her destination.
A bridge she loves.
The secret locus of her darkness.
She has known for a long time that it will be the last bridge.
In the black of night, unseen, she jumps.”
Later, when Charlotte is nine, her own mother will kill herself, a fact that will be kept from Charlotte until she is an adult. Her father remarries – an opera singer, Paula – whom Charlotte idolises. It is through Paula that Charlotte first becomes acquainted with her Jewish heritage:
“Her childhood is based around an absence of Jewish culture.
In the words of Walter Benjamin.”
Charlotte’s teenage years coincide with the nineteen thirties as conditions worsen week by week for Jews in Germany. The idea it might be a “passing phase” quickly fades:
“It is not coming from a few fanatics, but from an entire nation.”
Of course, this is a story which has been told many times. Should we feel that Charlotte’s treatment is somehow worse because she is a talented artist? Of course not. In fact it’s her family’s relative privilege which makes clear the difficulty of escape. Her father is arrested but freed after the intervention of his wife’s influential friends. Paula, despite strict quotas, is able to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Her grandparents escape Germany, followed later by Charlotte, and her father and Paula leave for Holland. They are not passive; they have resources: but it is not enough.
Charlotte’s art survives (in the care of a doctor) and is recovered by her father after the war. It tells the story of her life and is entitled Life? or Theatre? Indeed, these autobiographical paintings form the basis of the novel. Her story is a very powerful one and certainly deserves to be told, and therefore your view of Foenkinos’ novel will depend on how you feel about his use of the source material. Stripping it back to a skeletal network of sentences suggests he does not want to dress it up unduly; elements are presented as if in a report, badly stated as truths, though the author’s occasional appearance as researcher reminds us of his artistic presence. Foenkinos also draws his own conclusions: amid the battle between art and death we find love, Charlotte’s passion for her step-mother’s singing teacher which, it is suggested, keeps her clinging to life.