Tuesday 18 October 2011

'a vessel of memory'

All That I Am
by Anna Funder

Following on from her acclaimed non-fiction debut, Stasiland, Funder's first novel has its roots firmly in fact, fictionalising the lives of real people, a group who provided resistance to the rise of Hitler's Nazi party in Germany, including Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian and Funder's own friend Ruth Blatt. Blatt spent the latter part of her life in Sydney, Australia where Funder lived and it is from here that she narrates her tale nearing the end of her life. There is something wonderfully genuine about the descriptions of Blatt in old age, a mixture of belligerence, that causes her for example to make the most of her full name, Dr Ruth Becker ('Ten years ago I decided I didn't like being treated like an old woman, so I resumed full and fierce use of the honorific'), and fragility ('I lift the fork carefully from plate to mouth, a distance which has increased with age and is now full of treacherous possibility'). She is set on the course of remembrance by the arrival of a copy of Ernst Toller's 'shamefully self-aggrandising' autobiography, I Was A German, with sheets of amendments thrust between its pages, these giving life to the one person he had excised from this official account, his lover Dora Fabian.

In his presence, and hers, I am returned to my core self. All my wry defences, my hard-won caustic shell, are as nothing. I was once so open to the world it hurts.

And so Ruth becomes 'a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting', there is something almost hallucinatory about the way in which her failing body and mind drag up these memories from the past in an attempt to piece together one more time what happened to her circle of friends in 1930's Europe.

'...occasionally, as on the edge of sleep, an obscure memory pops up, like a slide in a carousel. My friends and the other people slip off it and into the room, they breathe and fidget and open their mouths.'

Ruth isn't our only narrator however. Her sections alternate with those titled 'Toller' where we are holed up with the playwright in the Mayflower Hotel, New York in 1939, the time and place of his suicide. Before taking his life he is, with the help of a woman named Clara, making the revisions to 'the deceit of words' that Ruth will read several decades later.There are hints at the black depression from which he is suffering when he remembers his wife for example.

When I think of Christiane I feel the blackness coming; my nostrils fill with a stink which is not human but is not sulphur. It is burnt flesh, as in the trenches. I look to the bathroom and this time I catch the last dirty feathers scraping back under the door, dropping filth in their wake.
His worry that those black wings will 'foul this city' keep him confined to his room until he has finished his work. After that he knows that he will have to stop them.

With these alternating perspectives we learn of the group of friends who inhabited the left wing of German politics as Hitler's National Socialists slowly assumed total power. Blatt and her husband, journalist Hans Wesemann, Toller, Fabian and others provide eloquent opposition with the written word until the thuggishness of the Nazi's proves that action speaks louder than words. The Reichstag fire forces them towards exile in London from where they attempt to continue their acts of resistance, using all their available contacts to draw information out from behind the facade of propaganda, even staging their own trial in London to run alongside the show-trial in Germany that found the communist Van der Lubbe guilty and executed him. The threat of violence is ever present, the Gestapo managing to extend their fearful grasp to London itself, and with fears of betrayal also rearing their head the pressures brought to bear on this group of friends and lovers, who had always hoped to live their lives with an open heart and to extend that freedom to each other, reach a feverish pitch.

So with all of this fascinating factual material (there is intrigue, espionage, betrayal, murder, all the ingredients of a political thriller) why has Funder decided to fictionalise her account rather than follow the success of her non-fiction with another factual account. I'm not sure to be honest. Maybe I was looking out for it but there are the odd moments when the research is rather baldly presented and often when it isn't necessary. We can all surely understand hyper-inflation without Ruth explaining that she 'knew hyperinflation was caused by the government simply printing more currency to pay off its war debt, but it was still a shock to see the money worthless in front of me, dipping and tugging at the air.' This isn't always the case however and there are several moments where a well-chosen nugget has the power of documentary evidence to really hit home. We might feel that we already get the violence and cruelty of Hitler's police but sometimes you need a specific example.

When they found eight communists hiding in a cellar in Mitte they simply boarded it up. People walking to work heard their calls from the vent at pavement level but no one dared help. It took two weeks for all the cries to stop.

By focusing on this group of friends, comrades and lovers Funder shows how fear and the instinct towards survival combine to battle against principles and loyalty. The question we often ask about that period of history is how the German people could have allowed and even supported the Nazi project over that decade of systematic killing. Books like Alone In Berlin and Half Blood Blues have provided some interesting angles from which to view Germany from the inside and whilst I might quibble as to whether All That I Am finally succeeds as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction, it does make clear the volatility of regime that could change its mind in an instant. With that kind of an enemy, as it proved, it is almost safer to keep them as an enemy rather than to try and bring them in closer.

It is a mystery to me that people can believe they are being made safer when events clearly show that it is no safer to be a friend than an enemy, and that you might be switched from one column to the other on a whim.


Unknown 18 October 2011 at 10:35  

I've just finished this myself, and I was actually in two minds as to whether I was liking it half-way through. I think the last hundred pages or so vindicated the book as a whole, but in comparison to Elliot Perlman's 'The Street Sweeper' (which I also read recently) it's a little fluffy at times. Like you, I'm not sure this wouldn't have been better as non-fiction, enetrtaining as it was...

Unknown 18 October 2011 at 10:39  

I did like it though (that comment now seems a little harsh!).

P.S. I like my cover (with a picture of the Reichstag under the title) better than this one ;)

William Rycroft 20 October 2011 at 09:29  

Not harsh at all Tony, we like an honest opinion here! Interesting you mention The Street Sweeper as I was just looking at that in the latest Faber catalogue. Would you recommend it?

Unknown 21 October 2011 at 11:57  

Definitely! In fact, in my forthcoming post, I will mention that one of the problems I had with 'All That I Am' is that I recently read 'The Street Sweeper', and that rather showed Funder's book up with its historical focus and ambition.

Unknown 28 October 2011 at 08:27  

Just posted my review of this (not quite as in depth as yours):


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