Tuesday, 8 November 2011

All That I Am by Anna Funder

All That I Am is one of the most impressive, frightening studies of the approach and aftermath of war that I’ve ever read. It is about precursors and consequences, clues and fallout, foreboding and legacy, assembled with the single-minded intelligence of a detective sifting through other people’s lies, regrets, self-justifications, denials, hidden heroism and memory.

The book is, as Anna Funder says in her afterword, an act of imagining and recreating the skin, sinew and muscle that once connected the bones of real events. It features a wide cast of refreshingly intelligent and articulate people from the German playwright Ernst Toller to Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and W H Auden – men honoured by history for their creative gifts, pioneering discoveries, genius for self-expression, depth, political engagement and principles. It covers Hitler’s emergence as a leader in the long aftermath of World War I, focusing on the six years of his increasing suppression of intellectual, critical, political and democratic activities before the outbreak of World War II. We observe the ruthlessness with which he implemented new law after new law, steadily breaking all conventions of justice, equality, democratic protection and freedom, in a stunningly audacious campaign of Nazi double-think. Funder’s genius – so obvious in her award winning non-fiction book Stasiland – is for uncovering vital, devastating truths about power and the ease with which those who want it get it, by lies and force.

Many things are known about Hitler and the Holocaust but that ridiculous, terrifying man did not come out of nowhere. All That I Am is the riveting story of the pre-events, the violent crushing of opposition and the sabotage and betrayal of the resistance. Its hero is not any of the Great Men I’ve namedropped above but two real women, Ruth and Dora, political activists who were instrumental in fighting Hitler every step of the way, assisting refugees leaving Germany, trying to preserve the intellectual and political life of the soon-to-be-disenfranchised and writing frantically from America, London and elsewhere in Europe to convince the rest of the world that Hitler was a threat. It is a novel about great unseen acts of heroism and resistance and a tribute to the impressive personalities of ‘ordinary’ women and men who did not see themselves in a heroic light and whose political beliefs went against the notion of individual heroism.

The novel presents us with a completely new method of looking at events. The only way to depict a shattered world is through a shattered story. The people, the locations and the times are disparate. Friends are separated; the present and memories of the past contrast sharply; methods of depiction splinter and fail, leaving gaps, contradictions and overlaps; there are different takes on the same events.

Ruth is a survivor – and, in real life, a friend of Funder’s – living out an ignominious but witty old age in present-day Sydney, satirising her own physical failings with the confidence of a woman who has earned her sarcasm. She is a former activist who has travelled the world and served time in Hitler’s prisons, but is patronised and treated as a child – or simply ignored – by the people around her. She is treated as though she is a stupid, useless female with no story. In truth she has been an active participant at the heart of world events. One day she receives an old edition of Ernst Toller’s (real) autobiography, I Was A German, found in storage in the New York hotel he lived in briefly as an exiled intellectual in 1939, using a young émigré, Clara, as a secretary. The edition is full of interpolated sheets of paper, Toller’s own act of restitution, dictated to Clara. The extra pages tell a (true) story from the early 1930s that Toller had omitted out of ego and guilt – that of Dora, his lover, comrade and secretary (and also Ruth’s cousin), who was caught and imprisoned by Hitler’s police in her attempts to smuggle Toller’s papers out of the country.

By the time Ruth receives the package Toller is long dead, Dora is also dead, most of the friends are dead and history has seen what Hitler did. As Ruth reads Toller’s telling of Dora’s story she reflects on her own friendship with Dora during the same period. Ruth tells the story herself in parallel, bringing their international circle of friends, comrades and colleagues back to life. Together, skilfully, perfectly, Funder assembles a portrait of an entire society of richness, culture, bravery and fervent political participation, which has been written out of history or overshadowed by what came next. Toller is an author writing with apparent honesty, although we realise just how much he has left out and just how enormous his ego is. Ruth is herself a gifted photographer – her first camera was given to her by Dora – who works for hours to frame, take and develop a shot. Both art forms are created not just by the addition of words of visuals but by subtraction, editing, erasing, the deliberate and precise construction of images or narrative. Both creators are fallible; as Ruth says, “it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.”

Throughout, Funder excavates the negative spaces of the stories, dramas and pain that happened before, between, around, and the anguish of those whose considerable power had been defused through forcible exile. She makes stunning and tragic revelations about the intensity of anti-Semitism and racism in England and of the Nazi German presence in London, something I had not known about. She writes movingly about the cultural, linguistic, intellectual and social devastation of all displaced people, whether they are refugees, objectors, exiles, asylum seekers, migrants or prisoners. What she has to say will resonate far beyond those touched by the specific  consequences of Nazism.

One observes with growing alarm the negative transformation of German society in its steady and (for Hitler, deliberate, concerted and systematic) plunge into hellish destruction. The novel begins with a disturbing mixture of  tragedy and hope. Dora and Ruth are “completely German” secular Jews, wealthy, clever, stylish, successful, highly cultured, from homes which are not just good but lavish. It is a depiction of existence before subjugation. The ending of World War 1 creates a brief desire for a pacifist revolution and a far longer legacy of damage to its mentally and physically wounded former soldiers, many of whom are German Jews. There are half-gruesome, half-amusing scenes amongst the horribly injured inmates of an army sanatorium. Funder’s excellently crisp descriptions of fighting and carnage have a shocking immediacy, as do her revelations about German’s secret war hospitals for those so wounded that they would be unfit for civilian life and unsuitable for public visibility lest they lower morale and “frighten women on trams.”

The way power- and violence-hungry governments lie to their people to justify war is one of the main themes of novel, and is just as relevant now as then (Hi, Tony Blair, if you’re reading this). Hitler rises with a powerful conviction that Germany’s loss in WW1 is a humiliation which must be avenged, first by making it strong, pure and infallible from the inside. For all his outward bombast and his easily caricatured manner, he is a far from hot-heated politician. He begins with ragged demonstrations by callow Swastika-wearing youths but in the six short years covered by the novel he has developed multiple vicarious/proxy bodies of brutality – the SA, the SS, the Gestapo. Ruth, Dora and their friends go from being on the inside – prized as Berlin intellectuals, smug, secretive and sexy – to being on the outside, in fear of their lives.

If you were reading this in a speculative fiction novel, the coming dystopia would be so clichéd as to be unbelievable. But it was all real. Dora finds “a list of thirty-three people Berlin is making stateless by decree. Because of political opposition or…for having ‘violated the duty of loyalty to the realm and the people, as well as damaging German interests’…They’re taking everything – houses, flats, cars – stripping people of their qualifications, impounding their bank accounts, cancelling passports. They are making us legally cease to exist.” Well before the Holocaust Hitler’s goons set up, follow, hunt down, drive out or kill all dissidents, journalists, political critics, challenging political parties, intellectuals and other opponents: “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.”

At the same time, Dora and Ruth and their comrades discover that youth soldier training camps have sprung up all over the country, that production of weaponry and air and road transportation vehicles has begun in regional factories and that the development of electricity and wirelesses for all homes has been mobilised to enable the Nazi propaganda campaign (the radio should be renamed a “Hitler Hearer”, one character quips).  Hitler introduces laws which suspend all prior notions of justice, democratic process and political engagement and – to put very simplistically – imprisons or kills anyone who is not for him. The Holocaust grows out of this fervent act of mass ridding: “thousands of anti-Hitler activists were being held in ‘protective custody in makeshift SA barracks – empty factories, a water tower… even a disused brewery. Soon there was not enough room. That was when they set about building the concentration camps.”

All That I Am is a fully-formed novel as well as a devastating depiction of real events. Its artistry can be found in the unity and cohesion of all of its images. Every phrase or observation is related to the linked themes of ageing, memory and narratives of the past; of survivors’ guilt hidden or revealed; of covert political activity and covert emotional dynamics; the revelation and withholding of political and personal truths; breakages in narrative, distinctive narrative forms and interrupted narratives like rebels’ coded messages, censored reports and lists of the condemned. This is not fine writing for fineness’s sake but a way of striking allusions against each other to reinforce the whole. Seemingly innocuous comments – like the ageing Ruth observing that a hospital gown is designed to “remind one of the fragility of human dignity, to ensure obedience to instruction, and as a guarantee against last-minute flight” – are devastating in the context of the wider narrative. The young Ruth discovers her talent for photography – “The camera’s shutter was a lever at the side of the box. It made a long, soft, metal sound, the sound of capture and theft” – which is exactly what is to happen.

The novel is also a work of gendered justice for which I am grateful. Ruth and Dora’s milieu had many women participants who were just as gifted, just as fearless and worked just as hard as their male comrades. The women were instrumental in assisting people of both sexes and all classes trying to flee Germany, and of alerting the wider world to Hitler’s threat. They were, additionally, prominent spokeswomen in the fight against the oppression of women before and during Hitler’s time. However, despite what they say, they suffered themselves from this oppression during their own lifetimes and have suffered from the erasure of women from history in the many decades since.

Toller and the others are Names, great men, great artists. As Toller ruefully says in the novel, Auden leaves lunch to write a poem that will still be read in two hundred years’ time (hey, but not by me). Thomas Mann and Einstein show up to speak for Toller’s release from prison. The men are in a boys’ club supported by the world and by history. They know each other and help each other; and history knows and has helped them. It ignores the women. Despite the women’s deluded proclamations of equality (and the men’s patronising ones), they are voluntary subordinates – Dora is Toller’s little assistant, safeguarding his genius while he marries someone else. His guilt, when it comes, is too late and too self-indulgent to prompt anything but contempt. Ruth is the girlfriend of (real) star journalist Hans Wesemann and sees herself, with typical self-abasement, as “an anchor for his high-flying.” 

Funder exposes these contradictions with sly satire and the fineness of a true artist. The men’s torments are funnelled into masterful works of art, heroic reputations, connections, cultural power, international fame and worship, which they are given by everyone and take full advantage of even when in the depths of existential pain. Toller, dictating in New York in 1939, writes sleazily and objectifyingly about his new secretary Clara, and just as sleazily and self-justifyingly about the old secretary, Dora. Ruth writes about Dora with a very different emphasis – she has human respect and understanding for her energy and intelligence. This is what makes All That I Am a work of art and not merely a factual fiction: its flawless differentiation of voice and viewpoint, its subtle calibrations of psychology and subtle revelation of people’s individuality, nobility and hypocrisy. The women are left with no name or legacy or reputation for genius or heroism while the men – Toller, Spender, Isherwood, Einstein, Auden, Mann – have everything gifted to them for free by history. On this point I thought of how much has changed since Hitler’s terrible triumphs (as he saw them) ….and yet, how little has changed, that it has taken until 2011 for just two or three of the heroines of the 1930s to be shown proper respect, given credit and a place in official history.

Funder’s book is  an impeccable act of cultural restitution, a beautifully written novel, a strong countermove against the neglect that official history has perpetrated against her heroines and a true horror story about the incremental development of fascism, dictatorship, autocracy and genocide.

All That I Am is published by Penguin.