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Book club: Charlotte by David Foenkinos

by
04 January 2024

Emily Rhodes reads Charlotte, an account of a short-lived life

CHARLOTTE SALOMON was a German Jewish artist, whose vivid, expressive paintings convey a feeling of hopeful vitality, although she created them under Nazi rule. Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte was gassed in Auschwitz in 1943, when she was pregnant. The French novelist David Foenkinos spent eight years writing this intensely powerful slender novel about her short life.

This is definitely not the book for you if you are after a light, uplifting read to see you through a dark January, but if you’re feeling emotionally robust enough, I urge you to read it. Charlotte is a compelling account of an under-known genius. The portrayal of her devotion to art, fervently persisting as the Nazis close in, is tragically inspiring. Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January makes this an especially apt time to read it.

The opening line sets the macabre tone of the book: “Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.” The gravestone is for Charlotte’s aunt, who killed herself, as will her mother before long. Charlotte’s life is laced with death, even before we reach the Holocaust, but, rather than succumb to its pressure from all sides, she pushes back with a quiet, fierce determination to live.

Foenkinos writes hauntingly about the silence of Christmases after Charlotte’s mother’s suicide. She isn’t there to play the piano, and Charlotte “is incapable of touching it. . . On this instrument, the past is alive”:


Every day, she stares at the open
    sheet music.
The last piece her mother ever
    played.
A Bach concerto.


Relief comes in the form of a kind stepmother, Paula, a renowned opera singer. When she first comes for dinner, they ask her to sing:


approaches the piano.
Charlotte’s heart is no longer
    beating — it is pounding.
Paula leafs through the sheet
    music next to the piano.
Finally she chooses a Schubert
    lied.
And places it over the Bach.


Foenkinos has a novelist’s eye for the revealing detail that illuminates a character’s emotional life in the way that is often lacking in a purely factual biography. Paula’s covering Bach with Schubert allows Charlotte to move past her mother’s suicide.

It is one of many gestures in the book which Foenkinos highlights as enabling her survival. When her father begs her to leave Berlin, Charlotte dries his tear with her handkerchief, unknowingly echoing his first meeting with her mother, when she offered him a handkerchief: “Mother and daughter reunited by a single gesture. . . With this gesture, Charlotte is agreeing to leave.”

AlamyCharlotte Salomon’s self-portrait, 1940. Gouache on cardboard

In Nice, in 1942, when Jews are rounded up on to a bus, a policeman “puts a hand on her shoulder . . . stand up and follow me”: a gesture that saves her life, at least for another year.

Foenkinos manages to portray Charlotte both as a genius, creating the most extraordinary work, and as a girl, trying to live a normal life. In so doing, he elicits our empathy alongside our veneration. For instance, when Nazi law forbids Charlotte from studying, and she is confined to the apartment, Foenkinos describes classic teenage angst: “Charlotte blames her stepmother for her exclusion from the world. Paula is the only person she can yell at.” So far, so normal, but when, consequently, Charlotte turns to pursuing art, Foenkinos reveals her genius:


Nothing but painting matters
    now: it has become an
    obsession.
She absolutely has to apply to the
    art school in Berlin.
She prepares rigorously.
The demon grows inside her.
Albert and Paula begin to worry
    about the intensity of her passion.
But for Charlotte it is a source of
    joy.
After feeling so lost, she has at last found her way.


Charlotte is accepted by the art school, thanks to a supportive professor, who manages to find one of the “breathing spaces in the general suffocation”. Charlotte’s life is a constant search for these “breathing spaces”, as she weaves her way through the double oppression cast by her suicide-ridden family and by increasingly restrictive Nazi laws.

This intensely claustrophobic atmosphere explains the unusual way in which Foenkinos has styled his prose, giving each sentence its own line. His own intriguing quest to write the book, including accounts of visiting Charlotte’s homes and school, is woven through the story; and, in one of these passages, he elaborates on his difficulty in writing it:


I couldn’t manage to string two
   sentences together.
At every point, I felt blocked.
Impossible to go on.
It was a physical sensation, an
   oppression.
I felt the need to move to the next
    line in order to breathe.


Inverting time by writing about his connection to Charlotte in the past tense, and her story in the present, Foenkinos gives her life captivating immediacy. As the story gathers pace, and the Nazis close in, the line-break between sentences becomes vital to allow the reader “breathing spaces” as the pressure mounts.

It also means, with just one sentence per line, that the book is far shorter than its 200 pages imply, making it feasible to read in its entirety in a single sitting. Indeed, the book is so compelling that it’s hard not to.

Emily Rhodes is a writer and journalist, whose features and reviews have appeared in publications including the Financial Times, The Spectator, The Guardian, and the TLS.

Charlotte by David Foenkinos is published by Canongate at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78211-796-4.


Listen to Emily Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


CHARLOTTE — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. Foenkinos wrote this in the present tense, although the events take place a century ago. Does he succeed in transporting you back to 1930s Berlin? Did you find reading this book an immersive experience?
  2. Charlotte encounters death several times, from a very young age. What are some of the ways in which she survives its impact? How does she find the strength to try to live?
  3. Charlotte is reluctant to leave Berlin for a life in exile in France. What elements of her life will she lose by being in exile? What do you make of her decision to leave? Is there a bitter irony in her parents’ remaining and surviving?
  4. What did you make of the moments when the author wrote himself into the book? Did you enjoy following him in his journey to discover more about Charlotte and treading in her footsteps, or did you find it jolted you out of her story?
  5. In the epilogue, we discover that Charlotte’s parents disagree with vital parts of Charlotte’s account of her life, in her work Life? Or Theatre? Foenkinos asks: “Who can know the truth?” (page 213), which feels like a question that we could also pose to him about his retelling of Charlotte’s story. Where do you stand on the tensions between history and fiction in the book? What do you make of Foenkinos’s decision to write it as a novel, not a straight biography? Is there a “truth” in this story which is independent of facts?
  6. Alongside Charlotte Salomon, a host of fascinating people are featured in the book, including her stepmother, the opera singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg; the singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn; Aby Warburg; Ottilie Moore; Hannah Arendt; and Walter Benjamin. Has the book inspired you to discover more about Charlotte and her work, or about any of these other figures?

 

IN OUR next Book Club on 2 February, we will print extra information about our next book, The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. It is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-78746-096-6.

 

THE BOOK

Robert Harris’s dystopian thriller is set in the 15th century, but, although medieval in tone and atmosphere, the date is misleading, as it is set 800 years in the future, because time has been restarted at the year 666. All traces of modern life, such as electricity and decimal currency, have disappeared. And the country is gripped by religious fundamentalism. The story begins with the young priest, Christopher Fairfax, arriving on horseback in a remote village in Exmoor to conduct the funeral of his predecessor, who met a mysterious death. Over the next six days, the young priest’s faith is tested as he uncovers the chilling truth.

 

THE AUTHOR

Born in Nottingham in 1957, and brought up on a council estate, Robert Harris was encouraged in his interest in books by his parents’ love of reading and his visits to the printers where his father worked. Harris went on to study English at Cambridge University, and started his career in journalism as a TV correspondent for the BBC, then as a writer for the national newspapers, becoming a well-known columnist for both The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph. Now, he is more widely known for his bestselling historical thrillers, including Fatherland and The Cicero Trilogy. His novel Enigma was made into a feature film in 2001.

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

MARCH: Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

APRIL: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

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