I like to take a break late afternoon, and sometimes prop myself on my bed and pick up my latest read. This week I began to re-read a book which was passed on to me in December. On finishing, I passed it onto another friend and regretted doing so, as I had liked the book Charlotte very much indeed.
When I was hunting in our local bookshop, I spotted the book and bought it immediately. I had not read any of novelist David Foenkinos’ books before reading Charlotte. Fortunately the French is translated seamlessly into English by Sam Taylor. It is literally a joy to read.
To many, the theme of generational suicide might persuade readers not to lift the cover; although it was the cover, which first lured me inside. The book seems to come from another era; it is hard-backed and beautifully crafted, with marbled end-papers and simple type on thick cream pages. It is a book to be handled. With Love.
Foenkinos was inspired by the life of artist Charlotte Salomon (1917 – 1943), whose mother named her after her dead sister; whose suicide lamentably, was one of many within the family. The Salomon’s live in Germany, and are Jewish; the horrors of World War Two a decade away.
Charlotte adored her mother ‘with the voice of an angel’. But Franziska succumbs to depression and ultimately suicide. Charlotte’s father and grandparents, wishing to protect her from the family’s tragic history, tell the child that her mother died from influenza. Charlotte is an adult when she learns the heartbreaking truth.
This story undoubtably depicts very bleak and tragic events, but the author knows how to bring beauty to the fore by the nature of the prose and the style with which it is presented. Each sentence occupies one line, like the form of a long lyric poem, a semiosis by design.
Likewise, he lets us see another side to the darkness, by showing the warmth and love of Charlotte’s other relationships, such as Paula the opera singer stepmother, the eccentric musician Alfred, and her grandparents. It is they who show her museums, and thus open Charlotte’s eyes to art.
“Charlotte’s grandparents often go away in the summer.
This year, they are taking a long cultural trip around Italy.
And they want to take their granddaughter.
Despite the anxieties of the past, her father and Paula don’t hesitate.
She will be happy far from the abyss.
For Charlotte, this trip will prove crucial.
Her grandparents are crazy about ancient civilizations.
About anything that resembles a ruin.
They are especially fascinated by mummies.
And by painting, of course.
Charlotte deepens new horizons.
In front of certain pictures, her heart pounds as if in love.
Summer 1933: the true birth date of her destiny.
A precise point exists in the trajectory of any artist.
The moment where his or her voice begins to be heard.
Destiny spreads through it, like blood through water…” (C, 55-56)
(Magdalen, Piero di Cosimo, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome)
Charlotte became an artist, although unknown in her lifetime, a lifetime shortened by murder, not suicide as might be anticipated: she, and her unborn child, were gassed in Auschwitz in 1943. She was only twenty-six.
She was considered to be one of Germany’s great modern artists, and became best known for an autographical series of 769 paintings she completed in the South of France when hiding from the Nazis. Foenkinos, gives us a most poignant, painful, beautifully crafted narrative of Charlotte Salomon’s life. I cannot imagine any reader not being deeply moved by this book.
Charlotte, was published in Great Britain in 2017 by Canongate Books.