Charlotte by David Foenkinos is a novel based on the true story of artist Charlotte Salomon, a German Jew growing up in Berlin in the late 1930s. From a family ravaged by mental illness and suicides, Charlotte grows up in the shadow of death and depression but also with a huge creative talent. David Foenkinos’ all consuming passion for his subject matter shines through in this intense little book which, as its first page will tell you, ends in tragedy.
Against all odds – she’s a Jew and it’s 1937 – Charlotte is admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. She’s unusually talented, the ultimate proof of which will be her collection of paintings Life? Or Theatre? produced during a frantic period of painting and writing in the last two years of her life.
The author appears in the novel as he walks in Charlotte’s footsteps while doing research for the book, adding poignancy to the story. Charlotte’s home in Wielandstrasse has been turned in to offices for a website developer who, it turns out, is less than keen on talking to Foenkinos. At least there is a plaque on the door, he consoles us (and himself). The spectacular villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, owned by a wealthy American widow who turned it into a refuge for Jewish children during the war, has become a gaudy hotel. All the more reasons to remember rather than forget.
Foenkinos has chosen to write in short, staccato sentences and when you open this book it looks like an epic poem rather than a novel. Don’t be turned off as you’ll soon find the rhythm to his prose. The urgency of the writing parallels the briefness of Charlotte’s life. She dies at 26 in a gas chamber, pregnant with her first child. It’s a book that feels like a punch in the stomach.
Charlotte is published by Canongate and translated by Sam Taylor, 217 pages.