Stephanie Dowrick reviews Anna Funder’s All that I Am

(This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 2011)

What kind of people dare to dream of a better world than the one in which they find themselves? Ruth – one of this immensely fine novel’s two narrators – names empathic imagination and the actions that arise from it as critical: “Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any… We risked our lives to help our fellows…imagine.” But Ruth’s “fellows”, in pre-1939 Germany and in London, did not sufficiently “imagine”. And, largely, did not act or react compassionately. Ruth continues: “It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?”

Doing nothing, acting courageously, advancing evil: each is thoroughly rehearsed in All that I Am, a novel that dares to look at the moral choices that create all that we are. Funder may be a first-time novelist but she’s already a sophisticated, psychologically subtle writer, more than capable of recreating a critical period in recent European history, and of doing it in so that the choices faced by her characters may usefully rattle those of us living in far cosier circumstances.

The catalyst for this novel was Funder’s friendship with a German Jewish post-war emigrant, Ruth Blatt. Fictionalised, she becomes Ruth Becker. Along with “Ernst Toller”, another character based on a real person, Ruth – “a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting” – unfolds what it meant to be leftist, Jewish and idealistic in the horror years leading to war. In the novel, an aged Ruth looks back from her home in Bondi. The fictional Ernst looks back only from 1939. Each tells a story that vastly enriches the other’s and never more so than when they recall the shimmering Dora Fabian, again a “real” person now unforgettable also for Funder’s readers.

The earliest pre-war years that Funder describes were already frightening, yet plausibly electrifying. “We were all of us subsumed into an aphrodisiac atmosphere of self-sacrifice… It felt like being at the centre of the world.” Germany was, after all, and despite the humiliation of its recent defeat, “the most advanced country in Europe”. Upper-class Jewish families of Germany believed they were safe. Ruth remembers: “We were Germany’s Enlightenment Jews, secular, educated, and more Prussian than the Prussians.”

Funder is brilliant when it comes to ways in which identity is forged. And just as adroit at showing its fragility. Many intellectuals and leftists as well as Jews refused to believe that all traces of democracy and decency could be lost.  (Or that suffering from brutality they could be perceived so brutally.) Yet the Reichstag fire of 1933   – falsely claimed to have been lit by communists – gave Hitler “reason” to dismantle whatever laws might have kept dissenters safe.  Fifty-five thousand Germans went into exile; “the mass of Jews came later”.  The suffering of those left to protest in Germany was dreadful. In the earliest camps, “Ninety-five per cent [were] from the political opposition.” Refugees like Ernst, Dora and Ruth, endured a different hell. The British government would not heed their warnings or adequately protect them. “Here [in London], by the magic of exile, whole categories of my identity were obliterated.”

By 1939, the English had to stir. And Dora was already dead. Remembering her, Ernst Toller dictates a truer version of his memoir to his beautiful young secretary, Clara. As they work in a hotel room in New York, Clara’s brother, Paul, circles the oceans in a ship filled with Jews seeking a place to land.

This is not a novel about “perfect” people. Ruth and Dora make fatal judgements when it comes to men. It is not even quite a perfect novel. The shorter contemporary sections inevitably lack the urgencies of the past. But so what?  All that I Am is, unquestionably, about people and issues that matter. It is provocative, imaginative, sometimes fierce and always humane. I loved it.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick lived in Berlin as a young woman and is the recent author of In the Company of Rilke, a study of the work and life of visionary poet Rainer Maria Rilke. This book is on Stephanie Dowrick’s on-line “recommended list“.