Q&A with Anna Funder, author of All That I Am
Jo Case interviews Australian writer Anna Funder, of Stasiland fame, about her first foray into fiction, All That I Am.
The idea of choosing not to witness – and the moral responsibilities that carries – is central to the book. There are characters who don’t see things they don’t want to know about those closest to them. And on a national level, Britain seems to wilfully choose not to know what is happening under Hitler’s regime in Berlin, with what we know will be catastrophic later consequences. How important was this idea for you?
I think we all can have staggering areas of blindness, most of which come from some kind of need – to live in a world where our partner is what we want, where we are ourselves who we want to be. Where our government is humane and wise. That these things are not necessarily the case is natural enough. But the desire to live a life governed by fictions and the consequent blindnesses they require is very interesting to me. My characters are hugely idealistic – they think the previous generation’s faith in God and country was ridiculous and disastrous, they think they can see through the world, and they have wonderful ideals about what is possible. These beliefs are a kind of high-level intoxicant, but sometimes circumstances can just stretch you too thin, you might find you just don’t have the inner resources to see what’s right in front of you, and then to deal with it. (I find this all the time – it’s a kind of psychological short-sheeting that pulls you up!)
These ideas run through the book – they seemed to me a powerful lever to examine what it is to be human. Of course although Ruth has areas of blindness, Dora and Toller might be said to see too much. In some ways maybe blindness is protective. As for the political situation, I was writing this as children seeking refuge here were being locked up indefinitely in prison camps in our suburbs. Politically it seems to be possible not to ‘see’ ships of refugee Jews, or of refugee Hazarias as people as deserving of a decent life on the planet as ourselves.
You drew on the real lives of your central characters, particularly one of the two narrators, Ruth. But you also mixed fact with fiction: the character of Ruth’s husband was not her husband, and her cousin Dora was a friend. To what extent did you invent and how much did you keep true to real events? And did you feel any obligation to keep certain things accurate as historical truths?
The entire emotional story – the two couples, the loves, every breath, every intimate scene – was invented. That is the crux of the book. But the background historical action that my characters are living through, and reacting to – the First World War, the German Revolution of 1919, the rise of Hitler and their exile in London – including a great deal of the detail, is true. Dora Fabian, Ernst Toller, Ruth Blatt, Hans and Bertie all did the things I have them doing. The death of the women in the locked room in Bloomsbury, the betrayal by Hans of his friend Bertie, and the subsequent whitewash of an inquest are all pretty literally true. I made Ruth and Dora cousins instead of friends because to explain a female friendship would have required a whole other, or whole different book, and I wanted to have some scenes from their family homes so we knew where they’d come from. Ruth’s real husband betrayed her to the Nazis, Hans Weseman’s real wife was a well-to-do Jewish woman. I married them off to each other to condense the narrative. I would never do the kind of violence to history that mistakes the Nazis (or the Stasi) for the heroes – in that sense it’s important to get your moral compass straight, even in a murky world. At a plot level too, All That I Am is necessarily fiction: no one knows what happened in that locked room. And though on a good day I have the outrageous hubris to think I have solved the real mystery as well as anyone can, that wasn’t my real purpose with the book. The purpose was to make these people live, and to allow the rest of us to feel a little what those high-stakes lives were like.
Having written such a successful first (non-fiction) book in Stasiland, which was had worldwide acclaim, does that affect the experience of writing your first novel at all – in ways positive or negative?
My husband, who is usually ridiculously supportive, says I had ‘second album syndrome.’ I don’t think that’s true. This was a hard book to write, because I knitted in an invented emotional narrative into the historical truth. It was a hard book to write because it is the tip of a huge iceberg of other knowledge and experience, as most novels are. You are bringing to the page each day bits of yourself, the sort of free-flying kaleidescope of everything you’ve ever seen and known in order to render reality. There’s only so much of that you can do each day! I would say that the positive thing about Stasiland’s life, was that it meant that publishers would read this one when it came along and accept or reject on that basis.
The women in this book operate largely in the backrooms of history – they are the secretaries, the editors, the anonymous organisers. The main male characters, Toller and Hans, are in the public eye and thrive off public recognition for what they do. On the other hand, activist Dora, who performs acts of great courage, doesn’t seek or crave recognition at all. What did you think of this divide? Was it deliberate? And did you see your novel as rescuing characters like Dora from anonymity in any way?
I don’t think it does any violence to our sense of how women and men behave to notice that women operate often in quieter, or less celebrated ways than men do. I liked Dora for her incredible articulacy and passion, but also for the fact that she didn’t crave the limelight for herself. Hans and Toller, whilst they are admired and acclaimed are also quite brittle in their neediness for attention – it distracts them, and to some extent is a factor in their respective downfalls.
Observations on national character – the character of place – run through this book. America offers the prospect of ‘something freshly imagined’, German culture is characterised by ‘brutal authoritarianism … terrible subservience’, Britain is a culture of subtext and a place where ‘they had internalised the standards of decency’. What significance do you think these observations have to the way events played out over the period you wrote about?
These are the observations of my characters – people who find themselves pariahs in their own country, then refugees in London and America. If you’ve ever been foreign living somewhere, you often fall into having to use a kind of shorthand to get the hang of the place, to keep your hopes up (as Toller is trying to about America) or, as Ruth and Hans and Dora do in England, to understand British ‘indirection’ or ‘understatement.’ I’ve also noticed that people who grew up in the first part of the twentieth century were – for good or ill – very taken with cultural generalisations in a way that we find a little odd today. So my characters, who are of that time and place, use them too.
Ruth reflects, at the end of the book: ‘Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any.’ What significance does this observation have? Do you think stories have a role to play in inviting people to imagine the lives of others and empathise with them?
I think they are the most powerful means we have. We will not find out about consciousness through mathematicians and philosophers, though they are hard at it and will no doubt illuminate it incredibly. It’s always stories that we take into ourselves and that can then become part of our own experience. There seems to me still something magical and powerful about the act of reading, how it can expand your inner universe.
Although we know how larger historical events will play out, most readers won’t know the fate in store for individual characters. In a sense, All That I Am reads like a literary thriller, and looking back at it, it’s obvious you’ve cleverly seeded vital clues as to how events will unfold. Were you mindful of keeping the reader in suspense?
Yes, I hope it’s a thriller. What I really didn’t want was to have the dead women in the opening, and then some kind of pas-de-deux between a detective figure and the reader, like in every primetime forensic cop show on TV. In that model the ‘victim’ (usually a young naked woman on a slab pulled out at a morgue) is utterly irrelevant. The ‘action’ is all in the tension between the cop and the killer, who try to outwit each other. But my ‘victim’ is also my hero, and I wanted her to live. So technically, this was a hard thing to do. That’s why I have two narrators tell what they know, which satisfied me aesthetically anyway – because no one knows the whole truth of just about anything.
The idea of intellectual seduction and intimacy is richly embedded in the book. Both Dora and Ruth fell in love with Toller and Hans respectively through their work before they’d ever met them. Toller reflects of his close collaboration with Dora, also his lover: ‘It is an intimate relationship when someone is inside your work. They can see you better than you can.’ What attracted you to this as a theme?
I think that how someone else thinks – how insightful they are, how funny – is hugely attractive. In writing one can be much funnier and more insightful (tragically) than in real life. Richard Ford said a wonderful thing about this – he said he felt that even people well-disposed to his work were slightly disappointed when they met him. He said that this is because his work is his best effort, and he himself is not his best effort. I think that writing of all different kinds can be very revealing, can contain an honesty and a beauty that you can’t necessarily see if you’re just chatting in a bar or a coffee shop or whatever. So in this way Ruth and Dora fall in love with their men by reading them. But maybe the best selves of these men were in their writing – the reality, as the women find, is much more complex. This is another way our ideals, or blindnesses can trip us up.
Toller talks about the idea of ‘the Other Germany’, meaning the progressive Germany of between the wars – and wonders if it “might survive the madness” through the world’s reporting of his speeches. Do you think that in writing this novel, you might be helping to preserve, or rediscover, this ‘Other Germany’? Do you think it is largely forgotten now?
I have Toller predict this in the book: the horror of what followed wiped out what had gone before, and the memory of him along with it. But there were people who tried to stop it, and who paid the highest price. Those people, and others like them in every country where there’s a dictatorship and people resisting it (Syria or Egypt or the Sudan or China, the list is long) are our primary guarantees of freedom. The wonderful novelist Marilyinne Robinson puts it this way: ‘A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. A democracy relies on its exercise. I think we would be wise to learn to cherish it in one another.’ We should make sure we remember and celebrate them, so next time around more of us might either have the courage to exercise it, or at least to support those who can.