Anna 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 Am? Christina 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
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $29.95