Charlotte Salomon was a German born Jewish artist of significant achievement and greater promise, but aged just 26, and pregnant with her first child, she died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
The crowning achievement of Charlotte’s tragically short life, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?), is a project that combines autobiographical paintings with text and musical notation. And it is this work above all else that has been evoked with such great care and dexterity in David Foenkinos’ latest novel, Charlotte, translated into English by Sam Taylor, and available from Canongate in early 2017.
Foenkinos’ Charlotte is a sincere homage to Charlotte Salomon, and to the ongoing significance of her art. Blending a novelised biography of Charlotte’s life with memoiristic details of Foenkinos’ own discovery and appreciation of Charlotte as an artist, this novel emulates, in literary form, the aspirations of Salomon’s artistic project as a painter: to reveal the author within the work, to create in the ‘degenerate’ style (read: Jewish and/or not realist) condemned by the Nazis, and to pursue a union of the arts; painting, writing, and music, as a reflection of a whole life.
The stylistic approach to Charlotte, minimalist, yet not spartan, is discussed in one of the handful of metafictional asides found throughout the novel:
For years, I took notes.
I pored over her work incessantly.
I quoted or mentioned Charlotte in several of my novels.
I tried to write this book so many times.
Should I be present?
Should I fictionalize her story?
What form should my obsession take?
I began, I tried, then I gave up.
I couldn’t manage to string two sentences together.
[…] So, I realized that I had to write it like this.
Grouped into paragraphs, then collected into parts, these single sentence lines produce a fragmentary effect, similar to the modulated repetitions of figures, representing both herself and others, in Charlotte’s Life? or Theatre? paintings (left). This effect is compounded by the various temporal shifts between Charlotte’s and Foenkinos’ timelines, and the occasional ‘now’ that punches Charlotte’s timeline into the present– disruptions that serve as continual reminders that while her art continues to be seen and appreciated by new audiences, Charlotte, and her story, live on.
As well as its rejection of traditional narrative in the invocation of Charlotte’s artistic style, Foenkinos’ novel celebrates the intermediality of her work: ‘A union of arts necessary for healing a wrecked life,’ in the musicalised elements of the narrative. Through the influences of her mother, her step mother, and the big romance of her life, Alfred Wolfsohn, music went hand in hand with love, stability, and comfort for Charlotte:
What are Charlotte’s first memories?
Smells or colours?
More likely, they are notes.
The tunes sung by her mother.
Franziska has an angel’s voice and she playes the piano too.
From the first days of her life, Charlotte is soothed by this.
Later, she will turn the pages of sheet music.
And so her early years pass, enveloped in melody.
Foenkinos brings music into his novel not only through these diegetic or literal references, of which of course there are many, but also through the structure of the writing itself:
Charlotte takes out her handkerchief to dry the tear.
Albert suddenly thinks of Franziska.
The scene reminds him of their first meeting.
When she took his handkerchief to blow his nose.
While he was in the middle of an operation, close to the battlefield.
The two scenes resonate with him.
Mother and daughter united by a single gesture.
And he realizes that it is the end of the movement.
With this gesture, Charlotte is agreeing to leave.
The handkerchief, resonating between the two instances of its appearance, has a similar effect to modulation in music, as a similarity or sameness altered by its context. A correspondence underpinned by the notion that this scene is ‘the end of the movement.’ This passage is synecdochical for the wider scheme of repetitions that flow through the whole novel, motifs which centre on suicide, death, and madness: ‘The roots of a family tree gnawed at by evil.’
At its heart though, this novel is conversation between artists, between Salomon and Foenkinos. It is a conversation about art, about what it is to produce art, about why we produce art, and, inevitably therefore, it is also about life, and one life in particular.
Charlotte’s voice in this novel is captivating in its youthful wisdom, maturing as we follow her through her teenage years, and into her twenties. Cocooned within her artistic pursuits, Charlotte is never far from the tragedy and madness that has plagued her family, or from the growing dangers of Nazi rule that would eventually lead to her death. Yet her story is not led by melancholy or fear, but by the one weapon Charlotte used against both: her art.
This book’s greatest success is in shining its spotlight on Charlotte Salomon: artist, over and above Charlotte Salomon: Holocaust victim. A success that I hope will see many more people coming to appreciate this unique and deeply personal artist.