Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 29, 2012

All That I Am, by Anna Funder


Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

All That I AmAnna Funder,  as one of her characters in her debut novel All That I Am, makes a cunning observation about authors using people that they know in their writing.  Ernst Toller, (the left-wing activist playwright) is discussing with W.H. Auden(the poet) his reluctance to write about Dora Fabian in his autobiography.  Fabian was his one-time lover and fellow-activist against Hitler and is the central character in the novel.  (She was also a real person but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page):

 This is a conversation we’ve had before – about the temptation of art, like fire, to use people as fuel. (p94)

Like fire, which can be intensely harmful or benign, Funder’s art in this novel is to use the history of real people – including someone now dead that she personally knew and was obviously fond of – to write, as she has before in the non-fiction Stasiland, about the need for public vigilance to guard against totalitarianism.  The book is dedicated to Ruth Blatt, (renamed as Ruth Becker in the novel) and Funder has drawn on Blatt’s life to write this story of a group of idealistic young people who challenged Hitler, ridiculed him in the press until they realised what a serious threat he was, fled to Britain when the repression began and – not without risk - tried to continue their activism from there in the hope of achieving international assistance to save Germany.

I wonder if it is because my mother also knew, and was fond of Ruth Blatt, that I feel a bit uneasy about this?  I never met Ruth Blatt myself, but like others of my mother’s friends, she was a real person to me because my mother talked about her.   To me, Ruth Blatt is not an historical figure at all, she’s one of my mother’s friends who died a little while ago.  And now she’s in a book, where I can get to know her.  Maybe.  It’s very difficult to judge, when reading about heroic people who risked their lives against a monstrous regime, to know whether or not  their lives have been idealised, when real-life people and events have been used to write a novel.

The story is told in alternating perspectives: Ruth Blatt’s, from the vantage point of her fading old age in contemporary times; and Ernst Toller’s, in the mid-to-late  1930s.  So we learn what Ruth thinks in her old age, and what she thought back in the 1930s (or what she remembers that she thought).  She tells us about a group of idealistic young people who tried to tackle Hitler; how they failed, and suffered and died.  We learn what Toller thought,  lionised in left-wing circles in Germany; safe but feeling survivor guilt safe in the US.  We learn about courage, naïvete, betrayal and guilt.  We cannot read this without the knowledge that these passionate young people did not have: as David Malouf  says in On Experience, all of us now know about the Holocaust.  We know what was coming; they did not.  This knowledge influences the way we read this book.

Perhaps this is why it took me so long to engage with it?  As you will know if you read the Sensational Snippet I quoted from this book, Funder writes beautifully.  Time and again I found myself pausing to admire her writing style and her wise observations.  But I also found myself deferring the reading, finding other things to do and starting other books.  All That I Am was not, for me, as the sticker on the book proclaimed, a ‘book you can’t put down’.  I found it only too easy to put down, until about the last quarter of the book, when I knew what was going to happen and read on hoping that it would not, my heart  thudding with the anxiety one feels when an awful inevitability looms.

Geordie Williamson has written a generous review for The Australian but regrettably has gone out of his way to include plot spoilers.  (Why on earth does he assume that readers would Google the characters as they read this book and so there is no need to be ‘shy’ about revealing what happens?)  Marg at The Intrepid Reader found it fascinating but uneven, Rachel Cusk at the Guardian had doubts about it too, and I note that some of the reviewers at GoodReads found that it might have been better rendered as non-fiction.

I am ambivalent about this novel, and am looking forward to discussing it with my book group to see what they thought about it.

Update: March 11 2012
All That I Am has just been awarded the 2012 Indie Best Book of the Year Award: the judges found it ‘flawless’ – which just goes to show that you shouldn’t take any notice of my reservations about this book!

Update: April 1 2012
Other reviews: Joanna Kavenna at The Guardian

Oh, and it’s been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin too, but I still think that it was a story held captive by its own ‘truth’, not free to make a its own fictional storyline that really worked.

Update 20.6. 12  Just as the MF is about to be announced) I am relieved to discover that the august Simon Schama also wanted this book to be better than it was. All That I Am may well win the award, but this book isn’t winning the hearts and minds of the readers I know).

Update later the same night.  Yup, she’s won it.

Update 30.1.13 This essay ‘The Brain Feign’ at the The Sydney Review is mostly about the state of literary criticism in Australia but the author Ben Etherington uses All That I Am as an example of how a work that might be a ‘poor novel’  wasn’t subjected to the scrutiny it should have had.

Update 11.7.13 Is there a bit of a groundswell of discontent about All That I AmChristina Houen at Writing Lives ponders the disappointment in the ‘second wave of criticism’, and the ‘conflagration of awards like a fire in the cane fields’ , see the comments discussion too.

Author: Anna Funder
TitleL All That I Am
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) 2011
ISBN: 9781926428338
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.95

Availability:
Fishpond:  All That I Am or (cheaper) pre-order for May delivery) All That I am


Responses

  1. Add me to the list of those who think this was “not bad…” ;)

    http://www.tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/fictional-slant-on-fact.html

    • Thanks for the link, Tony (I knew I’d seen a good review of this somewhere else, but couldn’t remember where it was!)

  2. The story, the characters (and the way the relationships between them are portrayed), the set pieces such as the afternoon tea you mention and the TicTacToe nightclub – all kept me greedily reading, so I was intrigued by your reaction. Sometimes failure to engage with a book can be blamed on bad writing, but that’s not the case here. You wonder if knowledge of the Holocaust to come could influence our reading but I’m not sure how this would make it harder to engage with the book (although rational reasons often can’t be found for our emotional reactions).

    You also wonder if your unease arises from the way Funder uses Ruth Blatt. This was not a problem for me. The real Ruth has inspired a fictional Ruth, whose story differs but who shares similar qualities, such as courage. For me, the book honours Ruth Blatt.

    My review discussed this at http://brycealcock.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/anna-funder-all-that-i-am/ Imagination is the key to empathy and compassion, and so also to writing. Funder provides a model for how she uses the character and story of the real Ruth when she has the fictional Ruth imagine another life for Dora, a long and rich one with a different ending, “as a way of trying to measure the dimensions of loss.” In the book Ruth believes that imagining the life of another is an act of compassion: “I can imagine what it is like to be another till I float in and out of them, till the imagining sets like memory. How else can we know anyone, love anyone, but by imagining ourselves inside their skin?”

    • HI Bryce, yes, you are absolutely right about the writing which is really good. And I was well-disposed to this book before I started reading it too, because I think Stasiland is one of the finest NF books I’ve read over the past decade. As it happens, I’m currently listening to C K Stead’s Mansfield, which is a re-imagining of three years in the life of Katherine Mansfield, and I’m having the same less-than-wholehearted engagement with it.. I’ve read Kathleen Jones’ excellent biography of her life, and it suffers a bit by comparison. Interestingly some of the members of our reading group had the same not-quite-enthusiastic response to All That I Am, which was not what they expected. They were interested in an aspect of history that they hadn’t known about, they admired the characters and their bravery, and – once they got used to it – they felt that the dual perspective narrative structure worked well. And they loved the writing. But for all that, for some of us, though by no means for all, it wasn’t a book that was compelling reading. Strange isn’t it, how some books haul us in so that we cannot bear to put them down, and others, while pleasurable or interesting to read, just can’t do it. It’s a matter of personal taste, eh? Lisa

  3. I think I would share all the concerns that you raise in your review (and would have that same response of finding other things to do or other books to read — it is interesting how a ‘not-bad’ books takes three or four times as long to read as a good one does).

    Obviously, from the prizes and positive reviews, not everyone would be in that camp. I often think with books like this that juries tend to give more weight to the author’s ambitious creative goal than to how well it is accomplished for the reader.

    • Hi Kevin, I agree, and it’s also a ‘worthy’ topic with an overt political agenda too (as Funder made plain in her acceptance speech) and there are always juries that think that’s more important than whether the book is a good work of literature.

  4. I had a similar reaction to All That I Am. I adored Stasiland, so I was really excited to read the novel. But I found it odd that, whereas I’d been unable to put down the non-fiction Stasiland due to its compelling and personal narrative voice, Funder’s “fictional” characters did not have the same pull for me. It’s certainly well written, and I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I hadn’t read Stasiland and known the brilliant imaginative feats that Funder is capable of.

  5. Ditto to Kevin (but then you already knew that!).

  6. Fascinating period in history, but like others I wondered if I would have enjoyed a non-fiction account more, whether the fictional elements were interesting enough to justify the choice of the novel form.
    The writing is intelligent and good, but I kept getting distracted by wondering what was fiction and what was fact, and where details might have been researched (maybe if the acknowledgements had been at the beginning…)
    When reading the descriptions of the Elderly Ruth, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, which, as a novel, found more interesting.

    • Hello, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:)
      I share your reservations, and so do many readers I respect. The novel has won heaps of prizes, but my feeling is that admiration for a worthy story doesn’t translate into a satisfying reading experience.
      I’m intrigued by your comparison to The Blind Assassin, and would have to agree. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve ever read by Margaret Atwood.

  7. Dear Lisa
    I too struggled with All That I Am, as I increasingly feel repelled by authors ‘imagining’ the inner lives of real people who have lived, and who may have relatives or friends still living (and how might those people feel?) Obviously all historical fiction puts made-up words and emotions into the lives of ‘real’ people, but it is less troubling to me when it’s Cleopatra or Napoleon – these are people whose inner lives have been imagined over and over again, so we have many views of them and histories to go by as well. But the appropriation of the lives of people not long dead is bothersome to me – it seems to be a kind of literary cannibalism. Why not invent people? Isn’t that what fiction is meant to be? If you can’t invent, write non-fiction. There’s a good market for non-fiction. I felt similarly troubled by Colm Toibin’s The Master, his book about Henry James. I think there’s a kind of writerly hubris with this kind of fictional appropriation – the belief that you can really imagine yourself into the mind and body of another human is surely false, and I find it invasive and presumptuous. At least biographers have the humility to present their portraits as possibilities. I liked Stasiland but was really put off by All That I Am.

    • Hello Belinda, and welcome:)
      You’ve said it so much better than I did, and I like your term ‘literary cannibalism’. I’ve occasionally felt this too with historical fiction, such as Richard Flanagan’s Wanting: I didn’t mind him inventing Mahinna because he was giving an Aboriginal person who’d been mistreated a voice that needed to be heard. But Dickens was another matter: he was an author well capable of expressing his thoughts and feelings, and he did so, in his fiction.
      Lisa

  8. [...] je lis beaucoup de bonnes critiques sur de nombreux blogs dont Bite the book, The Intrepid reader, Lisa de ANZ LitLover ou encore Geordie Williamson, critique littéraire pour The Australian. Mais rien y fait… [...]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 510 other followers

%d bloggers like this: