Postal Reading group
March 2023
Notes on the book All that I am by Anna Funder

There has been a lot of interest recently in books set during the Second World War, all offering varying degrees of reality from true accounts through to complete fiction. Perhaps because the period was largely ignored in history lessons at school, I have read a lot of these recent releases. I therefore started All that I am by Anna Funder with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed.

All that I am would seem to come somewhere near the truthful end of the spectrum I referred to above, as it is based on a true story, but the author has, by her own admission, had to reconstruct it from fragments: “My story is reconstructed from fossil fragments, much as you might draw skin ... over an assembly of dinosaur bones”. Basically, this book tells the story of Dora Fabian, one of a group of German dissidents (for dissidents read socialists) who are forced to flee when Hitler comes to power, and take up residence in London. However, life in exile is not easy and offers no guarantee of safety, especially when one of the group becomes a traitor and the reach of the Gestapo extends even onto British soil.

Despite being centered on Dora, the book is narrated alternately by Ernst Toller and Ruth Blatt. Although I was generally impressed with the book, I found that having two narrators did interrupt the flow, and the split time format seeing Ruth suffering from dementia in Australia in the present gave the book something of a disjointed feel. This is my main criticism of the book, and its still not entirely clear why the story needs two narrators, or indeed why Dora couldn't have been given the opportunity of narrating her own story, at least right up until the point that she is poisoned by the Gestapo with a sleeping draught. That, however, whould have been a completely different book.

I also encountered some difficulty distinguishing between the two characters narrating the story, Ruth and Ernst, as their voices seem remarkably similar; it is certainly necessary to pay close attention to the chapter headings so that you know who is speaking. Perhaps because the book is really about Dora, it was difficult to connect with some of the characters, especially the narrators. Again, until Dora is introduced, almost 100 pages into the story, there is little connection between the two.

The overall style of the book is significantly different to many of the other Second World War books which I have read, and relies less on action packed natrrative. Although this is not a criticism, it is accurate to suggest that the plot is fairly weak and slow to develop. In all fairness to the author, however, she does have to cover a significant amount of the ‘backstory’ leading up to Hitler siezing power and the ascent of the Third Reich. As a slightly fictionalised biography of Dora Fabian, this was not going to be an action packed thriller, but it does mark this book out as offering a different perspective on the war. To be fair, Dora has more than her fair share of close scrapes with the Gestapo, but instead of daring escapes, or a remarkable facility with firearms, she demonstrates an admirable composure which even results in a new law being named after her: the Fabian ammendment.

While reading the book, I was struck by how hard life must have been for German refugees, even once they arrived in what they must have hoped would have been the relative safety of England. Unable to work or participate in any political activity, their position must have been precarious. While perhaps not actively hostile, many were indifferent to the plight of the refugees, and the inquest following the deaths of Dora and Mathilde seemed to be more about finding a convenient resolution than it was about discovering the truth. While I find it difficult to understand Hans’ actions in betraying his close associates, he did seem to be particularly badly affected by the move to London and had a difficulty integrating. Did he act out of fear that he would be implicated if Dora’s political activities were discovered, from a misplaced loyalty to Germany, or pure self interest? We'll probably never know, but in a twist of ‘justice’ he seems to have finished his life as a tortured soul, and success proved illusive.

This book has also been meticulously researched, and, if there were more source material available then it would probably have made a fine biography of Dora Fabian, even if that might have made for a smaller potential readership. Presumably, the idea for this book might have come to the author while she was researching her previous book, Stasiland. Similarly, some of her literary references, even just in the quotes at the start of each section, would mean this could also be a contender for literary fiction. Reading this has made me interested to read some of Auden’s poetry. While I am not aware of Ernst Toller, his situation, and indeed political views, put me in mind of the rather better known German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

The overall effect is of a well written and researched book, and an interesting story, but which was slightly spoilt by the weak plot and slow development. This is only a minor criticism, however, and there remains much to admire in the book: it brings Dora’s story to a wider audience and offers a refreshing prespective on the Second World War. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the period, and suggest that Stasiland might also be worth a read.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler