Collecting the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, the debut novel from award-winning non-fiction writer Anna Funder is an absorbing read but which is, at times, deeply frustrating.
Based on true events and (mostly) real characters, All That I Am is the story of German resistance to the rise of Nazism, focusing on a group of well-heeled individuals centred round left-wing expressionist playwright Ernst Toller. Recently released from prison for his part in the 1919 Bavarian revolution, Toller represented, to the group, a more hopeful future away from the disastrous aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic and subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
With its split timeframe – modern day Sydney and 1939 New York – we are presented with a reflective narrative and two perspectives of the same series of events.
Toller himself, holed up in a New York hotel prior to the declaration of war in 1939 and prior to his suicide, provides us with the wider political context. But the more intimate detail of life in Germany and pre-war London as refugees comes from centenarian Dr Ruth Fabian. At her home in Bondi, it is she who has recently received the last writings of Toller, which have come to light as the result of the demolition of the Mayflower Hotel in New York.
Alternating chapter by chapter between Toller and Fabian, we hear of events as the playwright dictates to his young American secretary that elicit a different, more personal response from Ruth a few pages later.
More than 70 years on, Ruth is forced to remember, to remember a time when she lost her family, her friends, her husband but also lost hope and all understanding: the rise of fascism in Germany and all its potential threats were ignored both at home and, inexplicably, by the rest of the world.
But this is not agit-prop political dogma, nor is it a historical tome. Ruth Fabian and Ernst Toller may be the narrators as Anna Funder explores memory, perception and the reconstruction of the past, but central to the novel is Dora Fabian.
Beloved older cousin of Ruth, political activist and part-time lover of Toller, Dora’s idealism and determination to change, challenge and harangue is the driving force of All That I Am. (It is no co-incidence that the novel bears the title from a quote of Abraham Lincoln, a president associated with human rights and freedom from slavery).
Whether it be smuggling Toller’s manuscripts out of his Berlin flat under the noses of the Gestapo or providing information to British parliamentarians and journalists about Hitler’s re-armament of the German army; organising political rallies or furthering the rights of German refugees in London, Dora was generally at the centre of events.
But for every political discourse, there are many complementary non-political observations from Ruth. Descriptions of wild, extravagant Berlin nightclubs in the 1920s, dour attic rooms in London, painterly pictures describing active trade unionists, pompous academics, suspicious neighbours, dangerous politicians, depressed refugees.
Life has changed for the band of friends as they are forced to flee from a life of luxury and privilege into exile, forbidden to involve themselves in politics (something they ignore) and fearful of covert Nazi reprisals.
The friends and various associates, both German and English, struggle to increase the awareness of the terrible threat of Hitler and Nazism. And, based as the novel is on true events and real events, we know they ultimately failed – or were simply ignored.
And it is because so much of All That I Am is based on true events that there is little in terms of suspense and which, strangely, lacks an emotional intensity that would be expected of such a story.
It is in part due to the split narration and the two characters telling the story. Ruth Fabian remembers Dora. It is Dora who needs to be remembered. Toller, on the other hand, writing much closer to the action in time (1939), also reminisces about the importance of Dora. But ultimately, in spite of the fact he kills himself in the hotel, the pompous playwright cannot let go of his central role in the unfolding of wider events.
Anna Funder lovingly crafts her novel and beautifully develops the narrative. Yet suspense is jettisoned at the expense of authenticity and, in its clinical, clear writing of the story very well told, something is lost.
That something is an extra level of emotion. Described by The Evening Standard in London as “… an absorbing study of exile, courage and memory”, it is just that – a study. And whilst it’s thoroughly enjoyable, just occasionally I was looking for a little more.