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