Anna Funder’s All that I Am

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Penguin Australia 2011)

1atia I read the first of this book’s three sections to the Art Student on the car trip from Airey’s Inlet in Victoria to Sydney. Given my proofreader past, this can be a punishing way to encounter a book – few things disrupt a book’s spell more than a reader-aloud complaining about misspellings, malapropisms, mixed metaphors, misquotes, or awkward turns of phrase. Embarrassing sex scenes will do it too (we may never get over The Slap). All That I Am stood up to the ordeal well, and we both enjoyed the trip. Mind you, the reading wasn’t disrupted by tears or cries of joy either. And I couldn’t tell at that stage whether hearing myself reading it all aloud made the different narrators’ voices sound much the same.

As everyone probably knows by now, the novel’s main characters were part of the left opposition to Hitler. Alternate chapters are told by Ernst Toller, a playwright and activist, dictating additions to his memoir in a New York hotel room in 1939, and Ruth Becker, a retired school teacher experiencing vivid memories in Bondi Junction in 2001. As both of them think back over their lives and their relationships, their shared story unfolds. Ruth, we are told in a note at the back, is based on a friend of the author. Ernst Toller was a real person, and so are the other main characters: Hans Wesemann, Berthold Jacob and the woman at the heart of the story, Dora Fabian.

Dora is a brilliant, charismatic, passionate revolutionary. She is Ruth’s adored cousin and intimate friend, and she is Toller’s assistant and the love of his life. Our narrators don’t have much to do with each other, but Dora has been central to both their lives. Through Ruth we see snatches of her childhood and later those parts of her activism that don’t revolve around Toller. Toller is very much the centre of his own world, both as the public figure Dora calls the Great Toller and as the private ma prone to depression and self doubt, but in 1939 he is acknowledging how important Dora has been to him in both spheres.

It’s a gripping yarn that takes us from the immediate aftermath of World War One to the brink of World War Two, with Ruth’s old age as a kind of integrated coda. I learned a lot about the resistance to Hitler in Germany and elsewhere, particularly  England. I can’t say that I was swept away by the story itself, but a slow burning emotional truth comes through about the importance of resistance, even in the face of apparently sure defeat: one of the characters says that they will all be forgotten by history, and it’s true that the Germans who opposed the rise of Hitler at huge cost to themselves tend to be ignored in popular versions of that history. The book captures brilliantly the gradual transformation of a group of revolutionaries who see their conflict with the Nazis, not necessarily as evenly matched, but at least on a scale that allows for cheerful awwbadge_2013derision, to their final condition as a dispossessed, demoralised group crying out from the margins and betrayed by those they held dearest. (I’m not giving you any spoilers there: most people know how that panned out.)

So that’s my second book in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. So far, so very good.

3 responses to “Anna Funder’s All that I Am

  1. I have a German uncle – his wife was my father’s twin. She passed away last year. He was put into a Hitler Youth School by his German Army Colonel father when he was eight – in 1937-1938 – in Lahr. (Recently he explained to me that his father was a meteorologist – flew with Hitler’s pilot Hans BAUR – on many trips with Hitler himself. Was in most theatres of the European war – from near Fontainebleau to the Russian front. Gold watch gift from A.H. This was new information. My uncle’s mother (she died “of exhaustion” says her death certificate – in a work camp) was possibly of Jewish origin – although Evangelisch (Lutheran) perhaps too close to Jewish ancestry (as the NAZI rules would have it) – his parents had divorced early 1930s – the school into which he was placed a kind of protection. Bullied by the school’s political Staff member – till the day his father turned up in full military uniform. When I read Anna FUNDER’s All That I Am – I was reminded of one of my uncle’s father’s cousins – who was a “famous” Nazi journalist who spent 1930-1935 as Hitler’s “Völkischer Beobachter” newspaper’s correspondent in England – till deported for espionage (wrote a book about his days as a National Socialist in England- published in 1939)- but for a long time funnelling funds directly from Hitler to MOSELEY – and spying undoubtedly on the German émigré community in London – living on special protection visas (Howard/Abbott anyone?) which made it impossible for them to speak out publicly on what they knew as happening in Germany to family and friends – lest they themselves be deported. I found her novel extraordinarily powerful – if chilling beyond measure!

  2. I read this book over a year ago but had a terrible time writing a review of it and finally gave up . . . until today when I made some notes on it. I linked to your post here. You give a clear sense of the novel, a challenge that pretty much stumped me. I liked the book a lot but was not confident about conveying that enthusiasm to those readers who might appreciate the book. So my difficulty was not the book, but identifying the potential American audience.

    • Thanks for the link, Fay. Your ‘notes’ about potential US readership are very interesting. I tend to think of our countries as culturally very similar, but the resistance to sympathising with leftists that you identify is nowhere near that strong here.

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