Have you ever wanted a book to be better than it actually is, stayed with it, even as it turned into a bit of a slog, promised yourself that any moment it was going to become the novel you always knew it could be, but then, at the end, surrendered to a resigned “oh well”?
There were all sorts of reasons I willed Anna Funder’s All That I Am to be as spectacular as her 2003 non-fiction debut Stasiland. That story – about a group of German leftist writers and politicians who have their moment of exhilarated power in Munich after the first world war when a red(dish) revolution seemed possible and who watch in appalled disbelief as the Nazis come to power – seemed tailor-made for Funder’s skill at weaving history and imagination into a single, seamlessly credible narrative. Her decision in this novel to follow their resistance into the appeasement-leaning Britain of the 1930s seemed to offer a fresh angle on a familiar story: a double-alienation, both from the ruins of the Fatherland and from the chilly wariness of their British asylum. Two overlapping memory threads – that of a Jewish wife of a pugnacious anti-Nazi journalist, now on her last legs in Sydney, and of the socialist politician-turned playwright Ernst Toller, dictating his memoirs in New York – seemed perfectly devised for the track of loyalties and betrayals that runs through the story.
Still with me? Good, because you won’t be for very long. Ruth, the sweetly drawn elderly survivor, is prompted to recollect by the appearance of an autobiography that the playwright Toller wrote while doing his own remembering in the late 1930s. And what they are both recalling, in their own, not necessarily meshed-together ways, are events that move from childhood right through to the shadowy exile of the early 1930s in London.
Funder’s knottily knitted time line snags the narrative at every turn. The “Ruth in Sydney” passages read beautifully, with a kind of eccentric exuberance, but they seem to belong to a different book altogether, while the view from Toller’s New York eyrie seldom goes beyond a low-key erotic dance he does with an amanuensis. The charisma that made him a revolutionary leader, a prisoner-hero and a star playwright, we have to take on trust. The London chapters occasionally have the lamplit flicker of a 1930s Hitchcock noir but aside from the sweaty suspicions of late-night pamphleteering and the attentions of the poorly disguised Gestapo these scenes never get beyond clichés of golden-hearted, soup-making charladies and frosty coroners.
What went wrong? The ball and chain of history can hobble the gait of the imagination, if the novelist isn’t ruthless about knowing when to cut it loose. There was a real Ruth whom Funder got to know in Sydney, and to whom she dedicates the book. In fact, Ruth Blatt’s actual story is a lot more astounding than the one Funder narrates: after a bitter denouement in London she ended up back in Germany, where she somehow survived solitary confinement in the Reich’s prisons, made her way at the beginning of the war to the free port asylum of Shanghai, only to be incarcerated by the Japanese, before finally making it to Australia. Funder does do a speedy drive-by version in a very few pages towards the end of her novel but so cursorily that you wish you could have stepped into the shoes of her editor and wondered out loud why Ruth’s odyssey was not somehow made into a more expansive epic of pain and endurance.
Perhaps Funder would reply: “Because I didn’t want the wide world as my map: I wanted claustrophobia – a kind of airless, dim, reverse bildungsroman of multiple disenchantments.” This we certainly get. And also because the central protagonist of the story is not Ruth but her cousin, Dora Fabian, muse to Toller, feminist, socialist, dauntless agitator and organiser. Amid the thinly sketched cast that populate most of the book, the sharply drawn Dora – magnetic in her physical and political indifference to convention; tight-wound in a slight frame; haunted, defiant and drug-needy – is the character that gives the book what driving energy it has. But like Ruth, Toller and others, Funder’s Dora is a real historical person and there are points where the research somehow clots the blood flow of the plot rather than transfusing it with vitality.
Though they never quite give the plot the momentum it needs, there are passages of authentic Anna Funder brilliance that take in, as if through a wide-angle lens, a perfectly observed scene of the human comedy. At the Isherwood-esque Berlin TicTacToe club in 1933, the customers are “vulnerable and chittering” insects, their “movements staccato in the fractured light. The females had small bobbed heads, bodies sheathed in short silk or translucent dresses, beaded and open-backed and showing glimmering curves and points under skin.”
And sometimes Funder offers a perception of such poetic force and truth, you know better books are going to come along from her hand. “To be with Dora,” Toller writes, of their modus operandi, “was to be relieved of the burden of myself. This is the trick to creative work: it requires a slip-state of being, not unlike love. A state in which you are most yourself and most alive and yet least sure of your own boundaries and therefore open to everything and everyone outside of you.”
Fall in love again, Anna.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor
All That I Am, by Anna Funder, Viking, RRP£16.99, 384 pages