I was standing in Waterstones when a slim novel caught my eye and I withdrew it from the bookshelf.
A large letter C framed the following passage on the cover:
Franziska wants to call her Charlotte,
in homage to her sister.
Albert does not want his daughter
to bear a dead woman’s name.
Still less one who committed suicide.
But he senses that conflict is pointless.
Besides, who ever feels like fighting
during a war?
So Charlotte it will be.
Hooked I opened the book,
and discovered a piece of history that is relatively unknown.
A true story about a young woman called Charlotte Saloman written in single lines.
One perfect line after another.
My heartbeat quickened with excitement.
As it always does when I’m intrigued by an original voice.
Foenkinos shares the heartbreaking tale of a German-Jewish child called Charlotte,
who is born into a family haunted by multiple suicides.
Charlotte develops a natural gift for creating modern art through words, paint and music.
Her greatest achievement is a work titled Life? Or Theatre? A Song-play,
an autobiographical expression of Charlotte’s interpretation of life,
and the impact of World War II, both within and around her.
In the past, Charlotte falls in love,
with a man who does not appreciate the influence he has on her,
as the Nazis march across Europe.
In the present, Foenkinos shares his passion for his subject,
and the parallels he discovers between his own life and Charlotte’s.
In the past, Charlotte is compelled to leave the people she cares about
and is lost for a while in her pain.
Until love finds her again.
But there is nowhere to hide when deception is rife,
and the price of betrayal is a life for a life.
In the present, Foenkinos writes his way into Charlotte’s world,
describing how she infiltrates his work,
how hard it is to convey the influence she has had on him.
He shares the moment he understood how to tell Charlotte’s story,
and why the discovery of her work was profoundly moving
for those who had sent her away in good faith,
believing it was the best way to keep her safe.
For years, I took notes.
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.
Should I be present?
Should I fictionalise 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 on to the next line in order to breathe.
So, I realised I had to write it like this.
Foenkinos made me live this moment in history.
And I wept for a woman I never knew existed,
until I read this beautifully conceived and executed tale.
One that marks the life of a remarkable young artist,
her grand passions, frustrations, sadness and joys,
leading up to the moment the Nazi’s ‘final solution’
murders any thoughts of hope, of finding a resolution.
As one heartbeat stops, followed by another and then millions more.
Foenkinos has created a work of art in Charlotte,
Line by perceptive line.
This is a masterclass in the emotional power of structure, of form.
And the enduring level of insight that can be shared in a single line of prose.
Charlotte often looks at the piano.
She is incapable of touching it.
She can still see her mother’s fingers on the keyboard.
On this instrument, the past is alive.
Charlotte has the feeling that the piano can understand her.
And share her wound.
The piano is like her: an orphan.
Every day, she stares at the open sheet music.
The last piece her mother ever played.
A Bach concerto.
Several Christmases will pass this way, in silence.
Interview Paula and Albert Salomon for Pariser Journal, 1963
Charlotte has won the Prix Renault and the Prix Gonccourt des Lycéens and more than half a million copies have been sold to date in France. Charlotte has been translated into nineteen languages.
Follow the author on Twitter: @DavidFoenkinos