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.
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 condemned by the Nazis, and to pursue a union of the arts; painting, writing, and music, as a reflection of a whole life.
This novel celebrates the fundamental and vibrant intermediality of Charlotte’s work, ‘[a] union of arts necessary for healing a wrecked life,’ in the musical 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.
Foenkinos brings music into his novel not only through these diegetic or literal references, of which there are many, but also through the structure of the writing itself. In one poignant scene, Charlotte dries her tears on a handkerchief. Witnessing this, her father, Albert, immediately recalls his dead wife—Charlotte’s mother—taking his handkerchief during their first meeting:
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; a correspondence highlighted by Foenkinos’ reference to ‘the end of the movement.’ The structure of this passage is representative of a wider scheme of repetitions that flow through the novel as a whole, motifs which center on suicide, death, and madness: ‘The roots of a family tree gnawed at by evil,’ and which establish Charlotte as a musicalized, and therefore intermedial text.
The broader 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 [image]. 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.
The sensitivity and empathy with which Foenkinos treats his subject suffuses every page of this novel, but it is the sense of respect and admiration for this young artist that strikes me most forcefully. 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.