Charlotte Salomon, a real-life German Jewish artist, created a small but radiant body of work before dying in the Holocaust.
Salomon was 26 when she died at Auschwitz. The young artist had recently completed a massive autobiographical project that combined writing and musical notation with vivid, original paintings. That project, which she titled Life? or Theatre?, survived the war, was exhibited all over the world, and is still referred to today. Foenkinos draws on Life? or Theatre? in his tribute to Salomon, a kind of imagined biography—he calls it a novel—which also describes his own preoccupation with Salomon’s art and life. Foenkinos, a French screenwriter and author of 13 novels (Delicacy, 2012, etc.), has a wry humor, a keen intelligence, and a wide frame of reference. This is a smart book, as passionate as it is tragic. The author's language is considered and precise, as is the arrangement of white space on each page. Foenkinos ends a line every time he ends a sentence and begins a new line with every new sentence. This system creates a hushed and poignant atmosphere. Still, his work doesn’t quite hang together. Strangely, he dwells least on what most drew him to Salomon: her art. He relies on glowing but vague accolades about her work (“incredibly moving,” “startlingly powerful”) without going into any greater depth. The question you’re left with is a simple one but stark: why tell Salomon’s story when she already told her own? Foenkinos hasn’t written a biography, but he hasn’t written a novel, either. He’s retold Salomon’s life in his own style. His is an unsettling ventriloquism. It’s as if he’s extracted Salomon’s voice and inserted his own in the space where it was.
A searing portrait of a brilliant artist that doesn’t reveal anything new about its subject.