Discussion notes for All That I Am by Anna Funder.
Based on the stories of real people and events, Anna Funder’s All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places. Take a look at our reading group questions and notes and make your next book club discussion one to remember.
All That I Am is the story of a group of German pacifists forced to flee the country when Hitler comes to power. Based on real people, the novel is narrated in two voices: the revolutionary playwright and poet Ernst Toller, and a teacher called Ruth Becker. Toller’s sections are told from exile in New York in 1939, just after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Ruth’s from her adopted home of Sydney in 2011. From their opposite ends of that worldwide conflict – he from at the very start of it and she on the eve of a new kind of war – both are pulled back to their relationship with the extraordinary Dora Fabian, who was Toller’s lover and Ruth’s cousin.
Toller had been a solider in World War I, an experience that radicalised him. In 1919 he found himself at the helm of the Munich revolution and then, after its failure, in prison. While incarcerated he wrote the poems and plays that were to ensure his role as the spokesman for the anti-war movement, through which, on his release, he came to meet Dora.
Theirs is a union as inevitable as it is doomed. Dora is passionate, dynamic, fiercely intelligent, sexually liberated, a woman ahead of her time. Not for her the ties of monogamy or marriage – not even to someone as brilliant and charismatic as Ernst Toller. But Toller, prey to depression, is not as emotionally independent as she is and he needs a constant partner. He takes up with a young actress, Christiane, though it’s Dora he really wants. She remains his confidant, workmate and muse.
Ruth meanwhile has married the journalist Hans Wesemann, well-known for his pieces lampooning Hitler and Goebbels. With other members of their political party, Ruth and Hans combine anti-war protests and meetings with nights of mojito cocktails and Berlin cabarets – until the night of the infamous burning of the Reichstag, after which they are all, along with hundreds of others, on Hitler’s wanted list. The group of four escape separately to London, where Toller is later joined by Christiane.
Dora has little choice but to move into the Bloomsbury flat where Ruth and Hans live. While the two women, who grew up more like sisters than cousins, are as close as ever, Dora’s relationship with Hans has long been fractious. Nonetheless the three of them manage to continue their work of opposing Hitler. Together with other ex-pat Germans, they attempt to alert the world to what is happening in their homeland, but Britain, keen to avoid another war, has a policy of appeasement with Germany. This puts the activists in a bind: they are refugees in Britain and their visas prohibit political activity of any sort. To flout this is to risk deportation and certain imprisonment, or worse. Moreover the tentacles of the Gestapo have already stretched to London.
Working underground, the refugees operate in a grey world of surveillance, mistrust and outright fear, breeding grounds for a siege mentality that wears on the heart and frays the nerves. For Dora, fluent in English, it’s relatively easy to adapt to life in London, but Hans finds it much harder to reinvent himself in a language foreign to him. Resentment flourishes, suspicions deepen. Anxiety spills over into desperation, with terrible consequences. It is Ruth who is left to make sense of it all, everything she saw and everything she did not allow herself to see. Both she and Toller must weigh the cost of their commitment to act, their ineffectual determination to prevent the horrors of the Nazis’ war, the one thing they could all see coming.
So dramatic is the story of All That I Am that it reads like a thriller, but it is also a novel of ideas. It explores the origins of political tyranny, the nature of its seductive power, what motivates resistance to it. It examines the qualities of courage and compassion, the limitations of love, the treachery of self-deception masquerading as belief, the murky border between intent and action, theory and practice. And the paradoxical mix of fragility and strength that can sometimes be the make-up of great people.
About the Author
Anna Funder is the author of the international bestseller Stasiland, which won the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize and was published in twenty countries and translated into sixteen languages. She is the recipient of numerous other awards, and is a former DAAD and Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. Anna Funder grew up in Melbourne and Paris and now lives in Sydney with her husband and family.
Reading Group Questions
- All That I Am deals with a part of history that has slipped into obscurity for many of us. Does the novel suggest that we’ve failed to learn the lessons of this history?
- The author has invented a plot using elements which are real, but it points to different causes for certain events, particularly those in the room in Bloomsbury, from which the real-life inquest drew another conclusion. To what extent to you think that Funder has written All That I Am as a kind of detective work? Can it be argued that the work of a novelist and a detective are similar, both having to imagine the motivations of others
- Consider the ways in which the novel addresses the act of seeing – of looking, engaging, perceiving, misapprehending, ignoring, intuiting, interpreting...
- Anna Funder has said of her characters that sometimes people have so much courage they don’t know how to save themselves. What relevance does the novel’s insights into courage and cowardice have for the contemporary world?
- To what degree do you think the characters in All That I Am are ordinary people doing extraordinary things? Is your reading of the novel affected by knowing that some of the characters are based on real people?
- One of the ideas this novel implicitly returns to is responsibility – both in the sense of the ability to respond in a given situation as well the sense of liability. How responsible – in both senses – is Ruth? Do you think she’s too hard on herself?
- With reference to Toller, Dora asks Ruth, ‘Do you think if you love someone there are parts of them you should pretend are not there?’ How does the novel deal with the way in which loving someone can blind you to the reality of them?
- When Ruth is given painkillers after her accident, her sense of what she knows and what she believes she knows becomes increasingly fluid. How does this merging of her realities play out in the novel?
- Towards the end of All That I Am, Ruth comments, ‘Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any.’ Do you agree?
- A reviewer in The Spectator wrote: ‘Funder has not merely told the story of these forgotten people … It is not just a book about German political exiles in London. It is a novel about confronting grievous loss, and the horror of realising, as history closes over you, that you will never be understood. It is a magnificent irony that, by rescuing those brave people with such consummate artistry, Funder has enabled them to reach into the future after all.’ Do you agree that this is ‘a magnificent irony’? Why?