— This essay originally appeared on Liticism
* Spoiler alert: this is not intended as a straight review and I do refer to key plot points in this analysis.
In the context of the Miles Franklin and its criteria of presenting ‘Australian life in any of its phases’ Funder’s work seems, initially, difficult to advocate. Though the ‘now’ of the novel is the primary protagonist Ruth’s home in present-day Sydney, and Funder often writes the harbourside landscape of the city beautifully – ‘Out the window a rosella feasts from a flame tree, sneakers hang-dance on an electric wire. Behind them the earth folds into hills that slope down to kiss that harbour, lazy and alive’ – any moments of ‘nowness’ are almost always a narrative intrusion, as surprising and alarming to us as they are to Ruth, jolting us up out of her reveries and into the present with the often coarse language of Bev, Ruth’s caregiver: ‘You got any more rubber gloves? These’ve got holes in,’ she interjects mundanely at one point, ending Ruth’s recollections. Ruth describes herself as ‘a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting,’ but her memory is the reality of the novel – far more real than her over-varnished Bondi Junction home with Bev bustling about inside it, or the white hospital ward with its interchangeable nurses.
Sun-drenched, sparkly Sydney is the light to the gloom of the Nazi era the novel depicts, and thus the bright present works to counter the inky shades of darkness that mark Ruth’s remembrances in much of the novel. Funder’s observations are adept, and there are many incisive comments on Australian life, especially her description of a particular type of middle-class suburban dweller:
People say babies look alike, or the very old, all grey and sexless and sunken-skinned. But for me it is the middle-aged women of the eastern suburbs who are so hard to distinguish. They are all neatly, crisply put together, stout-bodied under striped shirts with their collars up, the hair streaked and smoothed to the exact same substance.
Ruth’s attitude, though usually superior, is sharp and often comic. She has lived here long enough to be biting but still affectionate about a country so utterly removed from the persecution and horrors she has known.
And yet, for all the amusing outsider perspectives on Sydney, one simply wants to press that morphine button so Ruth can slip back into her recollections, and the work can return to its real story – pre-World War II and the fate of the ‘five-pointed constellation,’ Toller, Dora, Hans, Bertie and Ruth.
This is a sprawling narrative – set across three continents and several decades. It depicts the decadent time in pre-war Germany, before the swastika became an international symbol of horror, before the now-familiar images of hollow, skeletal beings hoarded onto carriages in grainy footage of black and white. It is the time of the Nazis’ rise, when Hitler was attacking middle-class writers and social activists, the ‘Emigrandezza’ as one exile jokingly terms them: educated political opponents of the Nazi regime, of which the novel’s alternate narrators – Ruth and Toller – are a part. ‘The greatest asset the Nazi agents have,’ Dora, the tragic heroine of the novel says at one point, ‘is that no one, either police nor one’s friends, will believe that anyone can do the things here that we have proof they do.’ Funder here writes of the time when very few believed, and those who tried to issue warnings were persecuted, jailed or exiled.
Hans is, for me, one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Each of the characters are wounded in their own way by the invisibility that comes with exile. Where once Toller ‘couldn’t take two steps without wading into autograph hunters,’ in London and then New York he becomes inconsequential. ‘Here, by the magic of exile,’ Ruth notes, ‘whole categories of my identity were obliterated,’ she is no longer recognised as German, bourgeois and Jewish. Though all the leads struggle to navigate the strange and subtle intricacies of British society, London, Ruth writes, was harder for Hans than for her:
He found reading the newspaper difficult, and he found the fact that his name did not appear in it worse. Hans brought the same honed eye to the British that he had trained on the Germans, but here he had no outlet to tell what we saw. Slowly, he lost his sense of public self, and with it his private one evaporated.
Hans, like the other four exiles, is forced into what Ruth describes as ‘an existence he felt unworthy of him.’ Unable to work, unable to express their fears, to alert the British government to what was really occurring at home in Germany, they each yearn for their old identities, customs, language. Hans, a traitor, succumbs to that siren call, but instead of destroying himself, he destroys his closest friends.
Indeed, Ruth’s relationship to Hans is in many ways mirrored by Hans’s relationship to his homeland. She says she feels disgusted at herself for still sometimes wanting him in her dreams, that she had ‘not been able to shake the power over me I ceded to him at eighteen, and get myself back, complete.’ Germany and the memory of ‘home’ clearly had too great a hold over Hans.
One of the narrative threads is the turning away of the SS St Louis from its safe docking in Cuba straight back to Germany, where approximately 250 people were killed as a result of returning to Germany in the midst of the Holocaust. Toller consoles his secretary Clara, whose brother is aboard the vessel, by saying; ‘they’re hardly going to turn away a whole ship of people, now, are they?’ Of course, they did, and this ‘turn the boats back’ mantra has troubling parallels with Australian political life now.
Funder’s title, All That I Am, is almost certainly taken from a famous W. H. Auden quote: ‘All that we are not stares back at all that we are.’ Auden himself makes a brief cameo in the novel, uttering the line while visiting Toller in a hotel room in New York. At the close of the book Ruth herself reworks the phrase in one of her own reflections: ‘it is the hardest thing, to work out one’s weight and heft in the world, to whittle down all that I am and give it a value.’ These fleeting lines are the only references to the title in the work, and yet it hums in the background of all that happens in the novel. Identity and exile – how we are shaped and made by our memories and experiences, is where the power of Funder’s work lies. Upon hearing that Hitler was stripping exiles of their qualifications, cancelling passports and blocking access to bank accounts, Ruth muses, ‘What happens to you if you are declared by the powers that be to no longer exist, but persist in doing so?’ This, essentially, is their experience of exile – continuing to live though made nonexistent by decree. It is both tragic and beautiful, characterised by a troubling sense of yearning for a home that no longer exists. It is this experience of dislocation and removal, the emigrant experience, rather than the occasional references to affluent Sydney, that makes this novel worthy of the prize.