I’d never heard of Charlotte Salomon, the German artist whose tragic life and death is the story of this award-winning novel by French writer David Foenkinos. I bought it somewhat impulsively at a supermarket in Brussels one day as I queued for the checkout. Having tried and failed with a number of French classics, as well as some modern novels, I decided I needed something simple yet interesting. Charlotte is both.
The first thing that strikes you is the bullet-point style of the prose. Take the opening as an example:
Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.
So she wasn’t the first Charlotte.
Before her, there had been her aunt, her mother’s sister.
The two sisters were very close, until one evening in November 1913.
No, it’s not Victor Hugo, but then, it doesn’t need to be. The minimalism works quite well for a story as bleak and tragic – and brief – as this.
Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte grew up to become a renowned artist thanks to her autobiographical work Life? Or theatre? The various tragedies that she interprets in her paintings are interesting enough, but if I tell you that her parents were Jewish you can probably guess how and where the drama comes in.
France had some dark secrets in the 20th century – the wars in Algeria and Indochina, nuclear tests in the Pacific – but its role in the attempted extermination of the Jewish people is the blackest of all. Even in a small town in the chunk of French territory not occupied by Germany, the refugee Charlotte is in danger. It was, therefore, perhaps a sense of guilt and not acknowledgement of the simplistic prose that motivated the judges of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens to award Charlotte its top prize in 2014.
The prose may be one dimensional, but it’s often moving, and never bland. In the original French it might be suitable for A-level students, or even high-level GCSE students. For others, the translation by Sam Taylor is elegant and effective. Whatever the language (and it’s been translated into quite a few already), Foenkinos’s blending of Charlotte’s story with his own attempts to retrace her steps is very well done.
It’s always worth reminding oneself that the Holocaust took place, and that it was carried out by people evil enough to drag a pregnant woman to a death camp (and that’s not a spoiler: the blurb reveals as much). What’s special about Foenkinos’s novel is that this act of genocide, merely the last tragedy in Charlotte’s life, did not prevent the eponymous heroine from achieving posthumous fame.