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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Charlotte

by
David Foenkinos


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Charlotte



Title: Charlotte
Author: David Foenkinos
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Charlotte - US
Charlotte - UK
Charlotte - Canada
Charlotte - Canada (French)
Charlotte - France
Charlotte - Deutschland
Charlotte - Italia
Charlotte - España
  • French title: Charlotte
  • Translated by Sam Taylor
  • Prix Renaudot, 2014

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Our Assessment:

C- : discomfiting fictional regurgitation of a life

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 21/8/2014 Astrid De Larminat
Die Welt F 19/9/2015 Tilman Krause


  From the Reviews:
  • "Ce récit est sous-tendu par une admiration tendre et fascinée de l'auteur pour la jeune artiste. (...) Sur la route de Charlotte Salomon, il y eut des femmes, des hommes -- des anges peut-être -- qui crurent en elle. À leur suite, il y a David Foenkinos, qui lui rend un très bel hommage." - Astrid De Larminat, Le Figaro

  • "Das wirkliche Ärgernis dieses Buches ist allerdings nicht, dass es die Naivität eines Autors offenbart, der bislang vor allem durch hübsche, gefällige Liebesromane aufgefallen ist. Das wirkliche Ärgernis besteht vielmehr darin, dass er die einerseits so schmerzvolle, andererseits aber auch so aufschlussreiche Geschichte der Charlotte Salomon herunterdimmt auf Sandkastenniveau." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Charlotte is a novel. It says so on the cover, and there is a little note by the author at the start of the book which begins: "This novel" ..... But the note continues: "is inspired by the life of Charlotte Salomon", and for all the claims of fictionality, it strongly resembles biography -- not entirely straightforward biography, but close.
       The author's note also gives away the ending, explaining that Charlotte Salomon was: "A German painter murdered at the age of twenty-six, when she was pregnant". Okay, that doesn't entirely give away the ending, but Foenkinos apparently wants to make clear to those who are unfamiliar with Charlotte Salomon that she dies tragically young; the terminal circumstances (Nazis, Auschwitz) go unmentioned for the time being (though they're helpfully mentioned in the book's front-flap publicity copy ...), but from the get-go Foenkinos sets his stage to make sure everyone can see what's coming.
       Finally, Foenkinos' brief opening note also acknowledges: "My principal source is her autobiographical work, Life ? or Theater ?" This amazing work can be viewed in its entirety online at the Jewish Historical Museum site, and while it has gotten some deserved attention over the years, Foenkinos is right that: "the work's fame does not last as long as it should. The retrospectives become less frequent"; if nothing else the amazing popularity of his weird novel at least has helped bring the spotlight back on that work (with Overlook also publishing a print-version Life ? or Theater ? shortly after publishing the English translation of Foenkinos' book).
       Here, at the start, Foenkinos fails to answer the question of why readers shouldn't just turn to that work, rather than bothering with his -- and he doesn't have an explanation or excuse by the book's end, either. (The obvious one is, right from the start: ditch Foenkinos' novel and go to the source).
       Foenkinos novel is a more or less chronological account of Charlotte's life, and a bit of her afterlife. In the bizarre fashion of contemporary French authors lightly (indeed barely) fictionalizing fact -- Binet's HHhH, Bosc's Constellation, etc. -- here too the author intrudes into the story, occasionally commenting on his research or his feelings. So, for example, sixty-some-odd pages in he describes first learning about Charlotte and her work:

The feeling of having finally found what I was looking for.
The unexpected climax to all my vague longings.
My wanderings had brought me to the right place.
I knew it as soon as I discovered Life ? or Theater ?
Everything I loved.
Everything that had infatuated me for years.
Warburg and painting.
German writers.
Music and fantasy.
Despair and madness.
It was all there.
       Mercifully, Foenkinos doesn't pop up in person too often -- but among his appearances is also the perfect example of his approach, and his cluelessness, as he visits the house where Charlotte spent her last time in freedom, in relative safety until she and her companion were denounced by a local. Foenkinos wants to visit the site of the house, despite the fact that the structure has since been demolished to make place for fancy apartment buildings, with a high wall now: "The place, once so welcoming, is now inaccessible". When the security gate opens, an old woman set to go out, he badgers her to let him in -- just to: "walk in the garden for a five minutes" -- but the "sour, frightened, stupid old woman" won't let him. "Why is she so hostile ?" wonders the author -- but then, despite not getting in, can at least speak of the satisfaction that: "Thanks to this woman, though, I was able to taste a little bit of 1943" -- the setting, he perhaps means to suggest, but also, more obviously, the anti-Semitic hostility. 'A little bit of 1943' in this encounter ? Foenkinos' over-reach is spectacularly misplaced -- but then this is entirely a work of spectacular over-reach.
       Foenkinos also decides that his subject-matter needs a different-than-usual approach, explaining:
I pored over her work incessantly.
I quoted or mentioned Charlotte in several of my novels.
I tried to write this book so many times.
But how ?
Should I present ?
Should I fictionalize her story ?
What form should my obsession take ?
I began, I tried, then I gave up.
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.

So I realized that I had to write it like this.
       So, yes, Charlotte is a novel presented with a line-break after every line (and then a full additional space for the paragraph-breaks). It gives the appearance of very free poetry, the feel of a work that is to be declaimed or even chanted. Presumably, Foenkinos feels it adds weight and pathos. It certainly fills the pages quickly.
       One can understand Foenkinos' fascination with his subject-matter: the brilliant artist whose career is cut short, the horrific, tragic circumstances. There's a wealth of material here, and Foenkinos admiringly shapes it into simple, easily digestible -- and, yes, often quite moving -- form. Born in a family of suicides -- the aunt she is named after, eventually her mother, and a whole host of family members -- Charlotte is a gifted artist who, amazingly, is admitted to Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin in the late 1930s, a time when her grandparents had already fled to France. [So Foenkinos and his translator, anyway: there was no 'Academy of Fine Arts', but it sounds better than the actual 'Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst' (now the Universität der Künste Berlin).] Her Jewish background makes it impossible for her to receive the first prize she otherwise would have won in a school-competition, but she is able to study for a time being, and is recognized as an extraordinary talent. Beyond this, there are: family tensions, a passionate love affair, narrow escapes, generous supporters, evil monsters (notably SS-man Alois Brunner, whose story Foenkinos detours to, a guilty party who escaped and lived on (apparently into the mid-1990s), while he condemned the innocent). Finally, there is the amazing summa, the Life ? or Theater ? that survived her.
       It makes for a great 'story' -- if you want to make a story out of it, as Foenkinos couldn't resist doing. And perhaps there is some value to that: as a YA-introduction to Charlotte Salomon, for a young audience unfamiliar with her life and work, Charlotte is, in its bland simplicity -- but, hey ! cool presentation ! line breaks ! --, entirely adequate. As cultural appropriation, as a life appropriation, it gets a bit more problematic (compounded now by the fact that Foenkinos has won lots of cash and prizes with this work, a stunning bestseller in France).
       Foenkinos seems sincere enough; he seems truly awed by Charlotte's work, and her life-story. But he is ill-equipped to process it in a meaningful, much less artistic way. Charlotte feels more like regurgitated biography (but, hey ! cool presentation ! line breaks ! ...), in simple form (with a few of those melodrama-tricks he's picked up from his super-successful fiction-writing), than meaningful engagement with the life or work. And ultimately it falls very short, both as biography and, especially, as fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 June 2016

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Links:

Charlotte: Reviews: Charlotte Salomon: Other books by David Foenkinos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bestselling French author David Foenkinos was born in 1974.

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© 2016 the complete review

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