Charlotte, by French writer David Foenkinos, tells the story of Charlotte Salomon, a young artist passionately in love with her art and willing to do whatever she can to give herself time to create. Born into a Jewish family in Germany and coming of age during the Nazi reign of terror, Charlotte barely escapes to France, where she is interned in a work camp from which she narrowly escapes. The next two years she spends in solitude, using this time to create a series of autobiographical images (words, musical scores, as well as visual art) to tell her story. Sadly, in 1943, the Germans discover her, and she is gassed while pregnant. However, just before her death she entrusts her life’s work to a doctor, who is able to protect the work – which was later exhibited in the 1960s, and became a sensation.
In his tribute to Charlotte, Foenkinos chooses to tell the story in poetic form, using lines of free verse to explore the events in her life. And by telling, the novel reads just that way; we are told what happens, rather than shown. Perhaps hearing the work aloud might make it more riveting, or perhaps the translation lacks a poet’s sensibilities. This format is not unique; several American writers have experimented with this form. But somehow, this work, which carries such a powerful story, failed to keep the attention of this particular reader. Obviously, others feel differently because the book has won two awards: the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.