Ruth Becker has always looked up to Dora Fabian. When 18-year-old Ruth moves to Berlin in the 1920s, she soon becomes swept up in her cousin Dora’s left-wing politics, particularly her campaign to release Ernst Toller, one of the imprisoned leaders of the failed Bavarian Soviet Republic. Germany has been devastated by both the Great War and the reparations imposed on it in the Treaty of Versailles. Nationalist sentiment is running high. Anna Funder’s new novel, All That I Am, tells the story of Ruth, Dora and Ernst, along with their comrades Hans Wesemann (later Ruth’s husband) and Berthold Jacob. The group campaigns and agitates against the secret rearmament of Germany, the rise and election of Hitler and the dangers of fascism.
The threads of the novel are pulled together by Ruth, now living out her days in Sydney, Australia. She has unexpectedly received a manuscript of Toller’s memoirs, dictated before he took his own life in exile in New York. The elderly Ruth reads the memoirs and reflects rather ponderously on the nature of memory and truth, in between transmitting to the reader the details of the political resistance and the intertwined lives of the five characters.
The Sydney sections are largely unnecessary, and feel unsuccessful in the context of the otherwise vivid and fascinating blend of social and political history. Although Funder is deft at plotting within each of the stories, the writing doesn’t seem to settle down until shortly before Dora, Hans and Ruth are exiled in London, as if Funder were anxious to reach this point and get on with her real story.
All That I Am is Anna Funder’s debut novel. Her first book, the non-fiction Stasiland, was groundbreaking in both form and content. It was the first book to reveal the true horrors perpetrated by the Stasi. Is it Funder’s early commitment to truth-telling, followed by a novel that mixes real events and real people with invented plot and characters, that has so upset the critics?
Many reviewers have asked how we know what is true in the novel, what is made up and what is based in fact. Yet novelists fictionalize real situations all the time without such objections. Perhaps Funder’s ethics prevented her from writing this story as non-fiction because only one of its characters (the woman on whom Ruth is based) was alive to give her account, whereas Stasiland was built from extensive interviews with East Germans. Perhaps a historian simply wanted to write a historical novel.
Stasiland demonstrated Funder’s clear and elegant writing style along with her passion for, and detailed knowledge of, her subject. Occasionally in this new novel, she veers toward the non-fictional or the overly authorial, with comments such as, “As it turned out, we underestimated the liberation from selfhood the Nazis offered, the lure of mindless belonging and purpose.” Now and again, her eagerness to include a particularly interesting snippet from her research gets the better of her writerly instincts, but more often the historical facts are conveyed smoothly and seamlessly through the natural flow of the characters’ lives.
The characters come first: At the beginning of their political activities, the friends are more or less ordinary activists, albeit well-known. The danger that their campaigning puts them in increases only gradually, as the political changes in the lead-up to the Third Reich transform them from free-speaking opponents to dangerous dissidents who must be silenced.
Although in Funder’s rendering both Wesemann and Toller have an eye to posterity rather more often than does them credit, over all the novel’s focus on lives and relationships, rather than the time frame of an event, makes the characters seem more real and somehow less conscious of their own heroism than other fictionalized resistance fighters. Despite some structural problems, this intelligent and well-written novel tells how Nazi power shattered individual lives in ways both mundane and horrific.
Anna Funder Q&A
What made you decide to fictionalize all the research you did for this book, especially after the excellent critical reception of Stasiland?