“Charlotte” by David Foenkinos (2014) – book review

Celui qui, vivant, ne vient pas à bout de sa vie, a besoin d’une main pour écarter un peu le désespoir que lui cause son destin”.

Never have read any Kafka, and clearly this is to be redressed. Most recent Man Booker prizewinner, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is a fan; literary heroine Zadie Smith devotes an entire chapter to him as ‘Everyman’ in one of her occasional essays in “Changing My Mind”; and now David Foenkinos chooses the quote from him above to preface his novel based on the short and tragic life of Charlotte Salomon – time to delve deeper, methinks, and discover more about the ‘Everyman’ described by novelist and critic Adam Thirlwell as “a genius, outside ordinary limits of literature, and a saint, outside ordinary limits of human behaviour”.

It’s all news to me; any light to be shed gratefully received …

Meanwhile, back with modern times, Foenkinos has recently celebrated another burst of recognition with the reception to his thirteenth Novel, “Charlotte”, which ran off with the French awards of the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2014. It’s a somewhat controversial victory, as readers tend to sit on one side of a fence or the other with the author’s departure from the norm. First and foremost, while so many good writers tend to do everything in their power to leave the reader guessing as far as possible to the very penultimate line, here the author chooses to do quite the opposite. We are apprised in a mini preface before we even reach the first line that :

Ce roman s’inspire de la vie de Charlotte Salomon.

Une peintre allemande assassinée à vingt-six ans, alors qu’elle était enceinte.”

So before we even kick off, we know that our real life German “Charlotte” of the title was murdered, pregnant, at just twenty-six years old. Doom, gloom and assured absolute tragedy before we even start. Furthermore, the way Foenkinos chooses to recount this tale is told in a way that makes us as readers sit up and be counted. Eschewing the traditional narrative style, the novel is entirely composed of short lines that give the novel the appearance of a Hiawatha-style poem:

“Pour l’instant, restons avec Charlotte.

La première Charlotte.

Elle est belle, avec de longs cheveux noirs comme des promesses”.

It takes quite a while to settle into this departure from ‘the norm’ but it would be churlish to dismiss it out of hand, because it definitely does work and throngs have applauded this more approachable fashion. It allows the author to compress much into a very short space too :

“Elle sait simplement qu’elle est bien ici, avec lui.

Combien de fois éprouve-t-on ce sentiment?

Une fois, deux fois, jamais”.

But while it’s a crowd-pleaser, can also see where those who agree to differ can pick fault with this cropped and slightly forced style. Smiled all the way through this rather acerbic review (en français) by the clever and caustic David Caviglioli:

Dans «Charlotte» (Gallimard), David Foenkinos raconte la vie de Charlotte Salomon.
Peintre allemande, et juive, assassinée à Auschwitz en 1943.
Pour ce faire, il revient à la ligne à chaque fin de phrase.
Comme ça.
Au début, on se demande pourquoi il fait ça.
On se dit que c’est une coquetterie inutile.
Des romans en vers, il y en a beaucoup.
Des bons et des mauvais. 

On se demande bien à quoi riment ces vers-là.
Ses phrases méritent-t-elles d’occuper toute une ligne ?
Sont-elles si singulières ?

Ouch.

Having devoured this book in what felt like a trice, I think I sit firmly plonked right ON the fence for this one: I can see how Foenkinos has touched a chord with very many readers, and feel sure he has appealed greatly to the younger generations too. I confess I didn’t love the style, but I do think he found an entirely new way to revisit a terrible episode in time and bring it alive again, and press home with utter conviction the tragedy of so many brilliant lives cut prematurely short. Charlotte Salomon was about to become a mother, and her unpainted pictures could have told a story we could still ‘read’ about now. Instead, of necessity, David Foenkinos successfully and poignantly has to do it for her.

Rating : 8/10

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens 2014, winner of the Prix Renaudot 2014.

Images taken from here and here.
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One Response to “Charlotte” by David Foenkinos (2014) – book review

  1. Pingback: Reading Challenge from January 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

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