David Foenkinos’ astonishing new novel tells a fictionalized true story of the life and artistic work of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German girl who lived from 1917 to 1943. It’s a familiar Holocaust story told with exceptional difference — the narrative is a vertical stack of sentences that breathe intensity and authorial passion. “Her life has become my obsession,” this experienced French novelist tells us. He saw an exhibition of Life? or Theater?, Charlotte Salomon’s autobiographical artwork, and became overwhelmed with soul-reaching connection. “I am an occupied country,” he confesses.
The novel begins with Charlotte’s namesake, her mother’s sister, who exited life without warning by jumping off a bridge when she was 18 years old. Thirteen years later, Charlotte’s mother is affected by the same depressive condition and consequence. Charlotte is left to be raised by nannies and a father devoted to his medical career. He marries again to an opera star, who brings joy and the cultural life of Berlin into their home. Charlotte falls in love with Albert, her stepmother’s voice coach, and attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Except, it is the 1930’s when Hitler comes to power. Charlotte is robbed of deserved recognition at the Academy. Her father is taken away by Nazi officials and then returned, broken and unequivocally aware of the danger to his Jewish family. Charlotte is sent to live in southern France with her grandparents, despite her hysterical resistance. At the train station, her lover Albert whispers in her ear, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”
The author interjects himself into the narrative in a way that heightens our sensitivity to the story. The effect is mesmerizing, drawing us into his passionate desire to know everything about his subject. He visits Charlotte’s childhood home and grade school in Berlin, her refuge in southern France and the office of a doctor who treated her. The doctor, recognizing Charlotte’s artistic genius, tells her she must paint, despite the world’s darkness. It is the 1940s. Charlotte has endured and escaped an internment camp for Germans and suffered the loss of her grandmother, yet another suicide. She secludes herself and creates hundreds of paintings with text and music that becomes Life? or Theater? When completed, Charlotte gives it to the trusted doctor for safekeeping, declaring to him, “It is my whole life.”
Not long after, Charlotte is denounced anonymously to the Nazis. She’s sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she dies at the age of 26. Her father and stepmother survive the war, and in 1961 produce a catalog and exhibition of Life? or Theater? Briefly, Charlotte Salomon becomes famous. In 1971, her parents bequeath Life? or Theater? to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
To experience Charlotte’s artwork in Life? or Theater? is to understand the author’s passion and –after reading the novel — to feel more deeply this piercing, tender story.
The paintings are accessible on the website of the Jewish History Museum under Special Collections. The image above is captured from the museum’s online exhibit.
Charlotte by David Foenkinos is translated from the French by Sam Taylor.