This novel, originally published in France in 2014 to great critical acclaim, tells the life story of the artist, Charlotte Salomon, born in Vienna in 1917. Charlotte was Jewish, and her life ended in 1943 in Auschwitz, along with that of her unborn baby. Yet for her to have lived so long, in a family dogged by suicides, was little short of miraculous. As Foenkinos tells us in the opening sentence of the novel, ‘Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone,’ being that of her aunt, after whom she was named, who had drowned herself in her teens.
Charlotte’s story is a tragic one, but it also an account of a life lived with passion and intensity by a young woman who doggedly defied all the obstacles put in her way by accidents of birth, history and inheritance to create an extraordinary work of art. Life? Or Theatre?, Foenkinos explains, in one of the metafictional passages of the novel where he gives accounts of his own researches and responses to Charlotte, which inspired him to write his novel. The work overwhelmed him.
Not knowing whether to write biography or fiction, feeling blocked at every point, he realises eventually he can only proceed line by line, and this is what he does. The novel is constructed in a succession of discrete lines, each one a single sentence. It looks like a poem on the page. Sometimes the reading experience jerks and jars but at other times the short sentences and their compelling rhythm convey a terrific sense of pace and urgency.
Perhaps this is more a novel for other artists than for the general reader, but it is magnificent, and I am so grateful for the introduction both to Foenkinos and to Charlotte.