‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

Do you go through reading phases where you seek out books based in a particular place or period of time? I’ve had a few phases over the years, one of which was stories about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Most of this reading was done in my teens (prompted by The Diary of Anne Frank) but had a brief resurgence when I read The Reader and The Book Thief two books that would become all-time favourites. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up All That I Am by Anna Funder.

All That I Am is inspired by fact –interviews, memoirs and autobiographies detailing the lives of a group of (mostly) Jewish Germans who resisted Hitler in the 1930s.

“At that early stage, they still loved the war more than they hated the Jews.”

The group’s central figures were Ruth Blatt, her cousin Dora Fabian and the playwright Ernst Toller. All That I Am is written from the perspective of these characters although I found the voice of Dora the most compelling.

There have been dozens of reviews of All That I Am debating the factual versus fictional aspects of the story. I suspect that Funder struggled with this balance when writing the book simply because dry historical fact, included for authenticity sake rather than serving to provide depth or emotion to the story, is interspersed with some finely crafted sentences –

“At the end of our lives it is our loves we remember most, because they are what shaped us.”

“We have grown to be who we are around them, as around a stake.”

“I hold up my hands. I know every word they have written, gun they held, caress they’ve given.”

I guess when it comes down to it, basic historical facts are quite boring – he did this then, that country went to war when this happened, she was arrested on this date and so forth.

I won’t join the fact versus fiction debate simply because I don’t really care – there were many aspects of All That I Am that I found compelling. First and foremost, it was interesting to read a story about Nazi Germany told from a perspective other than that of the Holocaust victim/ survivor. Whilst you don’t know the fate of all the characters when you begin, you do know that Ruth survives to an old age as the story is told partly by her looking back on events. By having Ruth reminisce, the reader feels a sense of victory from the outset – she survived! She outwitted the Nazis!

I also liked Ruth and Dora’s vastly different approaches to love, played out against the backdrop of their resistance meetings and activities. The ‘character’ of Hans, Ruth’s husband, is particularly intriguing but I won’t say much for fear of giving away the story.

“I don’t know how much freedom the heart can bear. The heart, too, likes containment.”

“The trick of dancing is that it allows extreme physical closeness, of touch and breath, at the same time as it is possible to have an entire conversation without eye contact. This is why it is so popular for risky, initial intimacies. For questions.”

“I did not want to share survival with him.”

As I said, there were a few sections where my attention flagged but overall there were enough twists and turns to make the majority of the book gripping.

Read All That I Am with a champagne cocktail – that may seem a poor match with the subject of the book however the story includes an interesting element of the world of theatre, plays and decadent ‘underground’ clubs.

4/5 – treat this the way the character of Madeline in The Marriage Plot approaches Anna Karenina – “… you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure.”

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9 responses

  1. I think you got confused about the book. Dora does not survive – you mean Ruth. Ruth is the one looking back. Hans is not Dora’s husband he’s Ruth’s. A thoroughly good read.

  2. Thanks Gels! I did get my Ruths and Doras mixed up there somewhere in the middle! Fixed 🙂

    Have you read Funder’s first book, Stasiland? I haven’t yet but I will be interested to compare Funder’s fictional and non-fictional writing styles.

    • I have read Stasiland, but it was quite a while ago, and that’s why I was interested to read All That I Am. I don’t think there’s much difference in her style. Both are very readable, concentrating on the emotions and motivations of the characters. She retells someone else’s factual stories in both. My main criticism of All That I Am is that I felt that the voices of Toller and Ruth were very similar. I often found myself halfway through a Ruth chapter thinking it was Toller speaking. That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it. Stasiland also.

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