Anna Funder's "All That I Am" ­ Articles ­ ISAA

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Anna Funder's  "All That I Am"

Anna Funder's "All That I Am"




Independent Scholars Association of Australia


NSW Chapter


Open Forum: Where Does Truth Lie?


Wednesday 21 March 2012




Of its time, its place, its audience:


Anna Funder’s All That I Am  












Dr Wendy Michaels


Conjoint Honorary Research Fellow


The University of Newcastle



‘When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.’ So begins Anna Funder’s All That I Am – a robust opening sentence for a novel that pits a vulnerable human being against the sadistic power of the ‘Great Dictator’ – Charlie Chaplin evocative allusion to the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler.  


Since its 2011 release Anna Funder’s debut novel has attracted a swathe of reviews that have proclaimed it a ‘bravura piece of story telling’, ‘a love story’, ‘an intimate exploration of human connection‘, a gripping spy novel’, ‘historical fiction at its finest’, ‘far more than mere history’, and so on. On 10 March 2012 at the Leading Edge Conference in Melbourne it received the double distinction of being awarded both the 2012 Indie best Debut Novel and best overall Book of the Year, and it has also been shortlisted for the 2012 ALS Gold Medal to be announced in July by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.


I preface my response to the novel with some observations about the book-as-object. The cover of my paper-back edition carries the image of a rain drenched noir-style photo of the Reichstag, in the middle distance a poster-covered cylindrical shaft, the main legible word, ‘Leiser’ a musical term meaning ‘play more quietly’. A solitary red-coated, black-booted woman walks in the foreground. Over the image are layered the names of the author and book title. The cover also announces that the book is a novel, ‘by the author of Stasiland, and ‘A ripper’, according to Stephen Romel of The Australian. The colours red and black, suggestive of Nazis and Communists predominate.


This image is also replicated in two other editions although with different perspectives on the scene and different textual annotations. Others carry different designs. One ebook version, for instance, has an image of two people on a park bench, the woman slumped in distress, the man appearing to comfort her. Another depicts a street scene in 1933 Berlin with a red flag flying from a balcony while the Italian edition contains a profile image of a flapper, with someone’s hands lighting her cigarette superimposed on an image of the Nazi Eagle. One other contains the title, author and genre juxtaposed with the image of a zigzag red ribbon that evokes, though it doesn’t replicate, a swastika, the symbol described by Marxist historian Edith Thomas as ‘a huge spider glutted with blood’.


The back cover of my edition offers a fainter close-up of the posters and continues the red and black theme in the print. Heading the blurb is an admonition from The Spectator to read this ‘wonder’, followed by the opening sentences of the novel in red, then three sentences pointing to the two main characters, Ruth and Ernst in 2001 and 1939, their shared life in 1930s Germany, and the notions of forgotten history and settling past accounts. The red font of the next paragraph introduces the idea of the historical truths underpinning the story, its key themes (bravery and betrayal, risks and sacrifices and hidden heroisms) with a climactic peroration asserting the novel’s qualities as ‘gripping, compassionate, inspiring’ and an endorsement from international best selling author Colum McCann.


The front end-paper continues the Reichstag image overlaid with excerpts from international reviews of Stasiland, while the back presents a colour photograph of Anna Funder, identified as a prize-winning author, set against an image of prison bars, a motif that resonates with the Berlin Wall subject of Funder’s first book and is further amplified in the title of Toller’s 1918 work, Look Through the Bars. In that poem he writes from his prison cell:


Through the bars of my cage


I see the children playing.


Crammed into narrow cells,


prison years ... torture years ...




your sons will


not play with children


for many years. 


There is some truth to the adage, you can’t tell a book by its cover although a book’s design does signal a particular reading position. I had picked up this book (having previously read Stasiland) soon after its release. What attracted me to it? The historical situation, the character Ernst Toller, the problematics of fiction ‘based on historical facts, and the possibility of a contemporary epistolary novel. How did the design situate me to read it? As political thriller, historical fiction, by a familiar non-fiction prize-winning author, about the corrupt world of Nazi ascendancy, and the haunting presence of memories, and silence. A must-read.


My reading is, of course, subjective, informed not only by how the book presented itself to me but also by my personal experiences of books, reading and life. As Wolfgang Iser suggests in The Act of Reading, my response cannot be anything else. Whilst some may read this novel in similar ways to me others may well come at it from other slants and therefore see it in other shades.


So, positioned thus to read this work I ask myself these three questions:


What issues in the novel resonate for me?


What issues does the novel’s genre raise for me?


How do I account for its position as the novel du jour?


Issues in the novel that resonate for me


Let me preface my comments on the issues I see in the novel by saying I think it is thematically multilayered, intricately plotted and elegantly written: issues echo and reverberate throughout and characters and incidents are interwoven in a delicate pattern of motifs. Entwined in that patterning are, as the back-cover blurb suggests, threads of bravery and betrayal, injustice and tyranny, heroism and cowardice, trust and treachery, resistance to authoritarian powers, the limits of endurance, women’s emancipation from the shackles of the home, the perverse persistence of the past in the present, the shadowy ambiguities of humanity, the difficulties of maintaining a moral compass in a murky world and so on. I responded to all these ideas and from this rich tapestry I want to tease out three threads that particularly move me.


Firstly, for me the novel poses questions about the power and the ‘deceit’ of language and the nature of writing. The FedEx package that arrives for Ruth introduces this notion: it contains a copy of Ernst Toller’s 1934 autobiography, I Was a German, with inserted pages which, for the now-aged Ruth, reveal perspectives on her long-deceased cousin Dora and the events of their connected pasts. This package, a catalyst propelling Ruth back into memories of that past invites me to think about where the writer is in the writing. Ruth comes to understand that both she and Dora fell in love with the Hans and the Ernst they first encountered in (or perhaps more truly constructed from) their writings and that these constructions differ from the real persons they later come to know. The novel seems to be asserting that the real writer is a person different from, perhaps smaller than, the writer in the work – the implied author as Wolfgang Iser terms it.


While for Dora, language and writing are political tools, (as indeed writing is for Wolf when he pens her supposed suicide note) Toller’s death’s-door written confession has been motivated by his need for honesty about the past, his need to write Dora into the record of his life at the moment when he is about to end that life. Both Ernst and Hans (Ruth’s former husband) have been compelled by a need to write, to shape the raw material of their lives into albeit different written forms. Initially for Ernst his plays bestow on him the power of a dictator to shape the ideal world, The Other Germany, while for Hans writing allows him to exercise his wit, engage actively in political discourse, and establish a persona and identity. In London, when Hans is no longer able to do this, his sense of self crumbles leading to his deceitful use of language and thereafter his betrayal of those closest to him, as we see in the incident at the Embassy: when Hans emerges from one door and Dora from another he asserts, dishonestly, that he has been attempting to get a visa for Bertie although we later learn that he has been collecting his instructions from the Gestapo to lead Bertie to his captors. Hans’s postcard to Ruth after his Nazi complicity contains his dishonest message, ‘BJ in good spirits’, he writes in ‘his perfect hand’.


For me, a significant strand of this language thread is speaking and silence. Dora clearly from her youth has been prepared to speak and speak out loudly about inequality, injustice and persecution. Her pamphleting in the Krupp factory, the Reichstag Fire Trial, her confrontation in the flat with the Gestapo masquerading as officers from the Alien Registration Division, and her capacity to shift registers as well as shift languages all illustrate this. Thus the silences that surround the inquest into her death and that of Mathilde in the locked room are all the more tragically poignant.


These silences also emanate from the British at the top who suspected, probably knew, that the German Embassy and Wolf were bearing false witness, as we see with the lack of critical questioning of the provenance of the supposed suicide note and the reluctance to explore other explanations for the locked room deaths. The forced silencing is the major irritant for Ernst who, although present when the door is smashed down by P C Hall, is not called as a witness at the sham inquest into the women’s deaths and moreover, is instructed not to speak in the court. The active silencing of Ruth by the coroner as she attempts to give evidence, particularly his admonitions that anything ‘political’ will not be allowed in his court, is for me the most sinister example of the suppression of truth: it points to the complicity of the British in the rise of the Nazi menace, a complicity that echoes for me beyond the novel, in Chamberlain’s appeasement policies even before his signing of the 1938 Munich agreement, and in the French Police’s collaboration with the Gestapo after the occupation.


This complicit silence is only partially ameliorated for me by Churchill’s speech to the British Parliament, as I recall a comment that the British Parliament was, at this time, filled with applauding appeasers. As Hitler’s hate campaign gathers momentum in Europe no nation speaks out against it; the Czechs are silent about the kidnapping of Bertie, Roosevelt is silent about the Jewish refugees on the SS St Louis; and of course, Ernst himself is silent in his published autobiography about the role that Dora plays in his life and in the resistance. For me this is a novel warning about the dangers of silence and silencing.


More significantly, the silences do not necessarily result from blindness to the situation, so the second thread I want to tease out revolves around motifs of blindness and sight. Here again Dora, in one sense the tragic heroine of the story, is the one with almost 20/20 vision. She sees not only what is happening in Germany but also the reality of the British class codes which so unsettle Ruth and Hans. When her Uncle Erwin releases her temporarily from detention in Berlin she perceives that she must rescue Ernst’s writings but cannot safely return to her flat; she apprehends Hans’s lie in the German Embassy in London (and indeed utters a falsehood herself – a white lie to cover her own subversive activity); and she understands the need to gain protection for herself and Mathilde by having the Swiss investigator reside in their flat. Despite her hope for a better world, Dora knows there are no limits to the demonic spiral, that the law is nothing more than ‘a fig leaf over power’. Her clarity in all these areas makes her blindness to her own imminent murder all the more tragic: she comprehends that it might come but doesn’t see it approaching in the person of Wolf in whom she has placed her trust.


On the other hand, Ruth’s trust in her husband and her blindness to his duplicity and eventual betrayal of their friends is perhaps a kind of protection for her as she does not become his prime target. Hans, a Gentile who has married the daughter of Haskalah Jews has a different kind of insight – not that of the Enlightenment – but a more devious self-serving vision with himself at the centre. We are prepared for this from the first moment by the Brazilian lime pestle and we can see what Ruth herself is blinded to, as she listens to the mob chanting for the Chancellor and hangs out the red flag – that Hans’s prime concerns, despite his espoused political ideology, are essentially egocentric and hedonistic. Even when he sweet talks his way into the prison where Toller is incarcerated, offering him a freedom that Toller rejects, Hans’s response is more about himself than the issue of political imprisonment of dissenters. It is not surprising that his invisibility in London becomes such an irritant for him it propels him into murky moral depths. In the final analysis, his egocentrism means that he lacks the moral strength to refuse the Faustian bargain and falls in with the evil regime on the brink of triumph casting aside the ideals of his past.


The third thread I want to unwind is the issue of what Marilyn Lake calls the ‘perverse persistence of the past in the present’ and particularly the site of that persistent presence, memory and the role that imagination plays in remembering. The trajectory of the narrative depends upon the device of a past document arriving in the present – the FedEx package. From one oblique angle, this plays with the notion of history and memory: the package purports to be a document about the past that has lain for years in a basement (a kind of archive) although unlike similar archival discoveries it is not a primary source but rather Ernst’s recalled memories on his own death-bed of his past in another place and another time.


These pages are, from the historian’s perspective, not necessarily a reliable account of the events, but rather a memoir – of interest, of value – but of problematic reliability in terms of historical accuracy. Memory, as Ruth herself says is ‘skittish’, but it is, as Anna Funder shows, a fragile and fractured repository of the past. Once released, as Ernst himself discovers, it does not so much bring back to life that past, those people who are gone, as emphasise the emptiness of the present. As Ernst confesses:


The act of remembering Dora did bring her back. But, as it turns out, it was better to live with the idea that I would get to her one day. Now that I have summoned her up and written her down she is more dead than before.


For me, this is a novel about the obsession of remembering and forgetting. ‘Lest we forget’ – we intone on Anzac day each year. But what do we remember? Gallipoli was not lived experience for any of us – we were not witnesses in Primo Levi’s terms. And yet we purport to remember.


Ernst’s memories of Dora, like Ruth’s own memories of her, are and can only ever be partial. The rest of her past must be created from imagination – not in that Romantic sense of the inspiring Muse descending from Olympus – but rather the notion of conjuring images of something or someone no longer there. Ruth comes to understand this in the end: ‘It is not that people lack imagination. It is that they stop using it’. It seems to me the tapestry of tales from Anna Funder’s imaginings can stimulate our own imaginations.


Issues raised for me by the novel’s genre?


All That I Am is an extensively researched fictional work based on real people, real situations, real events. However, it is not history but fiction: in its hybridity lies one of the issues that has been intensively debated in recent times – the permeability of the borders between fiction and history. Historians, at least since Hayden White in pointing to similarities in the writing of history and fiction, express concern that when the boundaries between these two disciplines leak, truth evaporates. This fiction is underpinned by historical facts, not only those concerned with such incidents as the burning of the Reichstag and the Night of the Long Knives, but also events in the lives and work of the real people who provided the sources for the characters.


In her section entitled ‘Sources’ Anna Funder begins with a version of the novel’s opening sentence: ‘When Hitler came to power on 30January 1933 my friend Ruth …’ and goes on to disclose not only the primary and secondary sources she consulted in her research but also, admirably, documents how she has appropriated and transformed these sources to create her fictional narrative – everything we would expect from a writer’s exegesis. By making clear her reworkings of these historical facts, identifying for instance the change to the relationship between Dora and Ruth who were in reality friends not cousins, and her inventions such as the names and love stories, Anna Funder is seeking to establish both the authority of the historical and the legitimacy of the fictional. She justifies her re-imaginings and inventions by saying that in fiction there are no ‘true characters’ because they are always already creations of the author, that even the actions that are not factual, could be true, and that imagining the life of others is an act of compassion. I find myself almost convinced by her justifications.


And yet I also find myself asking do her imaginative reconstruction, her fictional invention, her juggling with historical truths matter? This question has occasioned considerable debate amongst scholars and fiction writers in recent years, precipitated in part by such works as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Helen Darville-Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper and aired in historians work such as Inga Clendinnen’s Who Owns History? and Anne Curthoys and John Docker’s Is History Fiction? At the core of this debate is the question of claims to truth. Both historians and fiction writers pillage the past, as Anna Funder has done, but their modes of working and their truth claims differ. Much of the acrimonious debate surrounding Kate Grenville’s novel (fuelled in part by the history wars raging at the time) arose from the claims she made to the truthfulness of her account, and the superiority of her truth to that of historians. Her novel, unlike Anna Funder’s does not include information about ‘sources’ and moreover, its front and back end papers are emblazoned with historical maps that suggest factuality. After the furore erupted over her claims Kate Grenville published a further book, Searching for the Secret River, attempting to justify her research and writing, which for some further damned her original claims to the ‘emotional truth’ of her story because of its memoirist form.


The ‘past is a magic pudding belonging to anyone who wants to cut themselves a slice’ suggests Inga Clendinnen. Anna Funder has certainly cut herself a large slice of this pudding and served it up with a piquant sauce. So, does it matter that she appropriates, re-assigns and invents historical ‘facts’ in her novel? It matters, I would suggest, only if everything in that novel is read as factual and therefore taken to be a true account of history. Kate Grenville initially tended to encourage this perception of her novel. Anna Funder, on the other hand, has asserted that she ‘would never do the kind of violence to history that mistakes the Nazis (or the Stasis) for the heroes’. Moreover, she says:


When I look at how proper historians work, I realise I was only really reading for what I wanted. You’re like this bowerbird and you read around it, and you think, Oh that makes sense – I can do something with that.


I tend to think her detailed honest disclosure of sources should obviate criticisms of her work such as those levelled against Kate Grenville’s novel.


However, I suspect the retention of some ‘true’ names and the connection that the book design encourages with her first non-fiction work might help shape a reading of the work as if it were all historically factual. Some on-line reviewers and at least one commentator at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival appear to have read the entire work as historically factual. David Marr even suggests that Ruth’s story could have been more effectively told, like Stasiland, in a non-fiction form. Perhaps the proliferation in recent years of historical writings on this period, as for instance, David Faber’s Munich, Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter, and Christopher Waters’ Australia and Appeasement alongside other historical fiction based on real people such as Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Campbell Berry Trilogy, or Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series, help to muddy the waters. I do , however, make a distinction between this kind of historical fiction that takes real people and historical fiction where characters and events are invented, as for instance Diane Armstrong’s Empire Day or Kevin Brophy’s Berlin Crossing.


I am also reminded of Theodor Adorno’s dictum ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno suggests that attempts to bring to consciousness this catastrophe of history through poetic licence and the freedom of invention must inevitably descend into idle chatter. Others argue that it is not possible to understand or to write about something that is so far beyond lived experience and living memory. While the title All That I Am has uncanny resonances with Ernst Toller’s I Was a German and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, unlike these, it was not written out of a personal psychological need derived from lived experience or a moral imperative to witness the events to the world. Does this place it in the category of Holocaust porn? The answer may well depend upon the reader’s angle of observation. From my perspective, this work transcends Adorno’s idle chatter and does more with its story and its language than fetishistic titillation.


It is not only the complex narrative structuring that depends on the trope of the package that unravels the past, a climactic locked room mystery, and dual narrators in different time zones that mark out this novel but also its finely honed literary style. Funder establishes Ruth in a preface recalling the night Hitler came to power before introducing the two confessional narrators and the unfolding sequential narrative with its non-linear leaps. Initially I find the narrator shifts a little disorienting although this abates as I become immersed in the complexities of the unfolding narrative, the challenge of the issues and the evocative and reflective language. The moment of revelation of the locked room is a key example of the power of her language:


The moments of greatest intensity in my life have taken on automatic qualities, as if soundless underwater. One thing leads to another and you break down a door, sit on a chair, drink tea, scald your mouth, freeze your heart. Then a powder to sleep – desperate for oblivion, but sad too, at each night that takes her further away from you – you going into an unshared future. The soul who had gone leaves your own lonelier and small, shrunken inside a body that is now a shell for loss.


This is Ruth, remembering the moment of discovery of the murder of her cousin, Dora, all those years ago. The narrative voice shifts seamlessly from the present moment of reflection on the significance of such life-shattering moments to the actual moment. This is neatly signalled in the gear shift from first person (‘my life’) to a distancing second person (‘your heart’) as if she is in that moment unable to take in the magnitude of this discovery.


Given the power of that writing, more problematic for me is the depiction of Ernst’s and Ruth’s deaths. Killing off first person narrators is always a problem – you can see my manuscript assessor’s hat on here – how to end the story if the narrator is dead. Perhaps because I knew of the real Toller’s suicide by hanging in the Mayflower Hotel in New York in 1939, and because we are prepared for his decision in the lead up to it, I wonder whether it is necessary to depict it, while the introduction of a third person narrator (focalised from Bev’s perspective) to narrate Ruth’s death feels even more awkward for me. I puzzle over what this brief coda like conclusion adds to the story: it seems clear that Ruth is about to die on the previous page from her confessional address to the reader - ‘It’s time for me to sleep’ she says, ‘My tongue is dry as a lizard’s. I think I’ll just stay here.’ Like Toller’s death, we have been prepared by her downhill physical trajectory over the course of the narrative which sets up the expectation that she is at the end of her days. It seems to me that these are two moments in which silence might actually have been more poignant.


How I account for its position as the novel du jour


After many weeks on top of the best seller list All That I Am is now down to fourth place. There are obviously marketing reasons for any novel maintaining its best-seller status for so long. For some time now the publishing industry has been tightly controlled by marketing, yet the success of this novel is not, I would suggest, simply a marketing contrivance. It is more interesting to me that this book remains the book du jour at a time when the publishing industry is undergoing the most immense upheaval since Guttenberg, libraries are throwing out books, multiple e-world vanity publishing platforms are facilitating the flourishing of unedited and uncurated web-based fiction (everyone is an author now – think Fifty Shades of Grey), and the riotous jungle of social media sites is substituting for book reviewing.


Released in both print and ebook form the best seller status of All That I Am places it firmly in the popular fiction category – not the commercial airport variety but the popular literary kind. Nicole Moore suggests that what popular fiction does best is ‘coalesce a distant illusory world … while exploring the dilemmas of its own moment’. While she is primarily referring to what we might think of as pulp fiction the notion is applicable to those more literary books on the best seller list. This novel is certainly about events in another time and another place, yet the issues raised by the fictionalised events and characters in this novel seem to me to resonate with contemporary issues not only in Australia but throughout our present not-untroubled world. Nugget Coombs once opined that contemporary western culture comprised ‘life without reverence for the past, love for the present, or hope for the future’. This novel, it seems to me, addresses the need to rethink, to reassess our present in the light of our past and our hopes for the future – not just the next election or the next focus-group poll.


While reading this novel again, I find myself thinking more about refugees arriving on our shores to be locked in desert detention centres; the Opposition Leader’s determination to tow the boats out to sea; wars being fought in the name of freedom and democracy; limitations on free speech legislated for during the War on Terror; imprisonment without charge of political detainees such as David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Muhamed Haneef; the silencing of Hicks after his release from Guantanamo; the attempts to terminate Julian Assange’s Wikileaks exposures; the silencing of dissent through restrictions on the funding of NGO and Australia Council grants; the suppression of our past frontier history in the Northern Territory intervention; the Orwellian deceit of language practised by the media and by politicians; dominant ideologies that belittle, denigrate and deny the legitimacy of scientific evidence or other world views, and so on.


While I am reflecting on my responses I collect my mail: the current issue of the ASA journal, Australian Author, one of the few journals still published in hard copy arrives. It is entitled: Whither Free Speech? Robert Pullan in an article called ‘Conditions Apply’ documents some of the ways free speech has been silenced in our society since the eighteenth century and Jeremy Fisher in another article called ‘Wrestling with a dilemma’ notes that under current Office of Film and Literature guidelines, ‘a novelist with a plot involving, say, terrorist activity in Sydney’ could have that novel ‘suppressed because it promotes terrorism’. This is not Germany in 1933 but Australia in 2012. I am reminded of the adage: it is not whose army wins but whose story.


French Resistance fighter, Adelaïde Hautval wrote that it is ‘hard for the normal human mind to recognise the unthinkable’. This is for me a novel about recognising the unthinkable. Narrative, that ‘primary act of mind’ as Barbara Hardy termed it, invites us to recognise what we have not been able to imagine for ourselves. Steve Ross, in writing about film, argues that documentary paradoxically affirms our world view while fiction challenges us to reassess it. The achievement of this novel seems to me the invitation to engage with these unthinkable issues that Anna Funder has imagined and to reassess our world view, or as Anna Funder suggests, expand our ‘inner universe’. It also suggests something more: Ruth herself poses the question ‘once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?’ a question that echoes for me the French Resistance fighter Boris Vildé comment ‘to resist … must be to act’ and the headline of Ross Gittins’s op-ed piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (21 March 3012): ‘Human cost of inaction incalculable’.


Even if those (mostly women) buying and reading Anna Funder’s novel are not making the same explicit connections, perhaps they sense the work’s relevance to the Zeitgeist. Toni Johnson-Woods reminds us a successful book is always ‘of its time, its place and its audience’: I see this book as very much of our time, our place, our audience. It is a story that can expand our own inner universe, a story that urges us to rethink what we know; a story that invites us to see, to remember, to speak, to act and not to be silenced.