Anna Funder: All That I Am (2011) Literature and War Readalong May 2013

All That I AM

It’s not easy to write about this book and what is even worse – this is the very first time I almost forgot to write the review of one of my readalong titles. The book is not bad as such, I didn’t suffer while reading it or want to abandon it or anything like that. It just never reached me, if you know what I mean. It was like listening to the radio while talking to someone at the same time. You hear some individual words which briefly get your attention but overall it’s just background noise. This has certainly nothing to do with the topic as such but was entirely due to its execution. I was wondering before starting the novel why people called this “faction”. Now I know.

All That I Am tells the true story of four friends. Ruth Becker, her cousin Dora Fabian, the playwright Ernst Toller and Ruth’s husband Hans Wesemann. At a time when hardly anyone noticed, they knew that Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 was a very bad thing. Being part of the communist and socialist movement, they were not only in opposition to the National Socialist party but in grave danger from the beginning.

The chapters alternate between the point of view of Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller. They are both told in the present, just before their deaths, at different points in time. Ruth is living in Australia when she is looking back on her life, while Toller stays in the US in 1939 and tells Dora’s story from his point of view. Although they were both important, and, in Toller’s case, even more famous than Dora, their stories focus on Dora who was the center of their respective lives, their best friend and lover.

After a small act of rebellion – Ruth hangs a red flag out of the window, after Hitler comes to power – the four friends have to fear for their lives. People are being arrested and executed if they openly criticise the regime.

The four decide to leave for London and continue their work there. They fight in order to raise awareness of what is happening in Germany and still hope that Hitler will be overthrown.

At first they might have felt like they had escaped but Hitler’s agents were everywhere and even people living abroad were executed. They hear daily about people they know being killed. They must also fear that there is a traitor among them.

I’m not going to reveal more as the book works best, I think, when you don’t know too much in advance. That way it’s at least to some extent surprising. There are a few dramatic events and unexpected developments.

While I didn’t know these particular stories, wasn’t familiar with the four people, I knew enough about German history, so that this particular slice of it, had nothing new to offer. What was new were the stories of the four friends but the way this was told was not very interesting. It’s true, the book picks up speed in the second part but still, it read like Funder had tried to fill facts with life but didn’t really succeed. All we got was a half filled balloon hovering half a meter above the ground. It never managed to fly high up in the sky.

The best parts were the few moments telling Toller’s and Ruth’s final days.

Those who have read Stasiland, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book on Eastern Germany, were all very enthusiastic, which makes me think it would have been better if she had opted for the same approach here. Only, the facts are kind of meagre and maybe she thought turning something you could have told in 50 non-fiction pages would work better if turned into a full-length novel.

As for the topic – Yes, there were people who were aware as soon as 1933 that things were going wrong in Germany. Toller and his friends were not the only ones. There was a large number of writers and artists, communists and socialists who left Germany as early as that. What the book doesn’t explore is the fact that if  the communists and socialists would have been able to overthrow Hitler and his party, Germany might not have been much better off.

Sure, it’s an interesting story, sad and dramatic but told in a lifeless manner and very dry. It certainly didn’t work for me. Luckily it worked for others.

Other reviews

Lindsey (Little REader Library)

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Tony’s Reading List

The review is also a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge.


All That I Am was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Winter in Wartime by Dutch writer Jan Terlouw. Discussion starts on Friday 28 June, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

39 thoughts on “Anna Funder: All That I Am (2011) Literature and War Readalong May 2013

  1. It would be funny if you forgot to post your review. That is something I would do. Too bad this one didn’t quite work out since it sounded so promising. Unfortunately the library only has the movie of the next one. I wonder how much the ebook is and if it is on Kindle. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • I finished it over a week ago and since I wasn’t too impressed I’d forgotten it already. 🙂 It was too much like a history lesson.
      I saw the movie of Winter in Wartime. The reviw is on my blog. It’s not one of the best resistance movies but very watchable.

  2. Interesting review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book as much as you had hoped to. I found your comment on the author turning a 50-page nonfiction work into a full-length novel quite interesting. Nice to know that there were surprises revealed in the second part of the book which some readers might like. I also found your thoughts on what might have happened if Hitler had not come to power but the communists and socialists had, quite fascinating. It is difficult to hypothesize on that, but looking at what happened in other countries, I think things wouldn’t have been too good. I think it will be one of the great ‘What If’ questions in history. Thanks for this interesting review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. The book poses some interesting questions but it doesn’t look into them. Anna Funder met Ruth Becker in Australia and that’s why she wrote the book. Meetig someone like that who was this close to importnat historical events must be quite something. For some reason it just really didn’t do it for me. AS I said 50 pages of nonfiction would hev been the thing. 🙂

  3. Good to read your thoughts on this book Caroline. It will be interesting to read the thoughts of other readers too. I know that some readers I recommended it too loved it, and others were very disappointed, so it seems like that kind of book, provoking very mixed reactions. It’s very kind of you to link to my review, thank you.

    • You’re welcome. It was interesting to read your thoughts. Tony saw it much more like I did. I was wondering whether they will translate this into German or not. Thye translated Stasiland but this one not yet.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      That was something I didn’t know that people were also killed in the UK and in so many other places.
      It took a lot of courage to oppose the regime in Germany.

  4. I liked Stasiland but your review of this only confirms my disinterest. The “half-filled balloon” is itself a slightly mournful and pathetic image!

    It’s relatively rare that writers can pull off the same quality in novels and non-fiction: even Geoff Dyer’s novels get fairly well slated. Joan Didion is one who has done both I suppose.

    • I didn’t know Joan Didion wrote fiction. Good to know, thanks. As for Geoff Dyer, I loved his short stories But Beutiful. Haev you read that? Opinions on All That I Am are divided. Tony felt a bit like I did but Lindsey and Lizzy loved it….
      The half-filled ballon was a bit harsh but that’s exactly how it felt.

  5. I’m happy that we pretty much agree on this one. It was a real slog for the first half and I was just reading to get through it. I did enjoy her writing, but of course you know I did not like the format. Not much on bells and whistles. The nonlinear structure took away the suspense of Ruth and Toller’s fates and sealed Dora’s. Other points:

    1. Dora was awesome.
    2. The characters are vivid and varied.
    3. Depressing because what did they really accomplish?
    4. I feel the balloon lifted off the ground with the scene where the faux Scotland Yard agents are handled by Dora. But that was p. 271. The book was interesting after that.
    5. I knew nothing about these people (we Americans don’t care) so it was very informative and forced me to read up on them. That is a good thing.
    6. Best lines:
    – “We were all subsumed into an aphrodisiac atmosphere of self-sacrifice”.
    – Toller: “I should have told Dora in Ascona. But sometimes conversation leads away from things in spite of you, like an untrained horse.”
    – Our love was like a carpenter’s spirit level, each of us holding an end up so hard, fighting to keep that trembling bubble in sight.”
    – “… we underestimated the liberation from self-hood. The Nazis offered the lure of mindless belonging and purpose.”

    “What the book doesn’t explore is the fact that if the communists and socialists would have been able to overthrow Hitler and his party, Germany might not have been much better off.” OMG That is a hard position to take. While you can certainly argue that the economy and the upper and middle classes would have been worse off in the short run, there’s that little thing called WWII to consider. Not to mention the Holocaust. In the long run, it is extremely difficult to argue that rule by Communists and/or socialists would have been worse than the Nazis. I know I have said some provocative things in our communications, but I don’t know if I have topped you on this one.

    • Ok, seen that way, maybe the statement on the communists was harsh but Stalin’s Gulag’s were horrible too. Sure, put like that, indeed, Jewish people might have been better off, I totally agree and looking at t like that, maybe, indded it wouldn not have been that bad but I said “Germany might not have been better off”. For Germany as a country I think it would have been worse. For Europe as a whole as well. I do not want to imagine what Europe would look like if we had had a communist Germany…
      I’m glad we agree for once. It was a history lesson, very interesting to read and learn about these people but not done like a “real” novel. Faction sums it up.
      Dora was an amazing charcater an, yes the others were vivid too. But that’s hardly the writer’s achievement.

      • I prefer “faction” to that metafiction crap that Tim O’Brien used in “The Things They Carried”. I did not find the book to be any different than your typical historical fiction other than the nonlinear, dueling first person accounts.

        As far as the “what if” discussion – stop digging, your hole is already deep. A communist Germany would have been a mess, like the Weimar Republic. But who would have been the Stalin-like dictator? They are not that common. I can envision no scenario where any country,especially Germany, would have been worse off if Hitler would have been overthrown. No Hitler – no WWII – no atomic bombs – no Cold War – no Middle East mess

        • I think “faction” refers to the fact that it’s quite dry…
          I did automatically assume that a communist Germany would have been taken over by Russia. It would not just have been a mess. It would have been far worse. I’m not going to elaborate on that because it’s purely speculative. Nobody knows. I just thought she glossed over a lot.

  6. Strange how a good story, a true story doesn’t necessarily make a decent fiction tale.

    On the commie issue… how limp would French resistance have been without them?

    • Ah… yes, the FRench resistance. True as well. Sure, as a resistance to National Socialist Germany they were invaluable but if they had been able to implement everything they wanted to… Not so sure.
      It’s an interesting story but it wasn’t enough for a full-length novel. Others saw it diferently though.

  7. What a shame. It is so disappointing to read a less-than-stellar book by an author you’ve enjoyed previously.
    I knew it was dangerous to oppose the regime, but did not know about the executions outside Germany. No wonder people were so terrified.

    • That was very interesting. It was far more courageous to oppose the Nazis’ this early than I thought but unfortunately a fact like that doesn’t magically turn writing into a stellar novel. It’s too bad. But there really is a divide. People either love it or it leaves them cold.

  8. Pingback: All That I Am – Anna Funder | Lizzy's Literary Life

    • It just didn’t touch me at all.
      I can understand that need of staying away from WWII. I need a break from WWII historical fiction. I still like the books written during or just after WWII.
      I’ve never read a book written in English focussing on Germans like this and at times it felt weird.

    • I’d say you didn’t but not everyone agrees. It gets a bit better towards the end and if you’re still curious about some details – Lizzy’s reviews contains many spoilers. 🙂

  9. Sounds like a very interesting premise, so it’s a shame that the telling was lifeless. I think there’s a danger with ‘faction’ of falling between two stools – not being as informative as non-fiction, and not being as entertaining as fiction. Not always, of course, but sounds as if it might have happened here. I liked the radio analogy too – I’ve had reading experiences like that!

    • It’s an odd feeling when a book just doesn’t reach you, right?
      I guess she fell between two stools. Since she seesm to be really good at non-fiction, she should have chosen to stick to that here as well.
      People were divided here. Mayn love it and it got prizes. I could be wrong but I’m not sure this would be for you.

  10. Too bad this one fell a little flat. It sounds like the author tried to employ some new storytelling techniques that just didn’t capture your imagination as a reader. When it’s done well, it can be captivating, but this attempt must have not worked in the execution of the writing. It’s best to focus on interesting characters.

    I was recently discussing this topic with another book group in relation to the novel Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson which starts in 1910 and ends during WWII. The author uses a very interesting storytelling technique that some readers are having a difficult time relating to, but the book has gotten good reviews overall.

    • I think Funder chose the wrong people to tell the story. She put Dora in the center by having her story told through Ruth and Toller. i think it wouzld have been so much more engaging if she’d chosen Ruth and Dora’s point of view.
      The story is tragic, that for sure but that is history. It takes more to bring facts to life.
      I’ve only heard such good things about Atkinson but I could imagine that it’s also an approach which wouldn’t work for everyone. I’m going to read it soon, I hope.

  11. Sorry it didn’t work for you…fortunately you still remember to share the review 😉

    What surpriaed me is that this book is written by an Australian, I thought a German wrote it. Could that be the reason that it feels lifeless?

    • Novia, I was thinking that as well. For me it felt weird to read about a book from a German perspective in English. I know that’ silly. After all men write from female perspectives and vice versa and that works too. 🙂

  12. Well, fascinating as ever to read your review and all the comments. This was one of your books I was thinking I might read, but other commitments pushed it off the list, and now I’m thinking that was just as well. I’m wondering if I’ve ever read a ‘faction’ book that didn’t have that odd, stilted quality. Maybe the flights of imagination an author creates are the best, most vivid parts of writing, and being confined to historical fact becomes limiting and constraining. Non-fiction writers know they have to come at the material differently to make it interesting in the first place.

    • I agree with you. What seems to be a bit sad is that Funder knows how to write gripping non-fiction and unfortunately opted for a fiction approach in this case.
      I’m not too sure that you would have liked this.

    • Don’t worry. I’ll be interested how you will like it. It’s not a bad book it just didn’t touch me much. With the exception of one thing but that was pure fact, not fiction.

  13. Normally when I’ve not finished a book I shy away from reading a review of it, but I have to admit I have read yours with interest. I am only about a third of the way into the novel and have set it aside temporarily in favor of a few others that are a little more compelling going at the moment. I like it–am enjoying it, but honestly it is a little dry starting out. I will stick with it–it sounds like it begins moving at a much brisker pace soon. I’m not sure what it is about it that is making it such a slow going read for me–the politics (which is pretty much what the book is about) are not all that engaging maybe–a bit unfair since I’ve not read enough probably, but now I will look at the rest of the story with new eyes. Now this is the second book I’ve struggled with–still want to finish the Bowen and will pick this one back up again–will take it to work with me tomorrow…. It won awards, too, didn’t it?

    • Finances and politics – two topics which could easily replace a sleeping pil if i was ever in need of one. That’s certainly a part of the problem in this book. I just didn’t find this political angle too interesting. I know the book has been praised for the human aspects, the psychology… I guess I need a bit more than just what’s rendered here to call a novel psychological. I feel that was lacking. I still think, it wasn’t enough material for a novel.
      The pace is quicker and the drama begins in the 2nd part but it is still sooo dry. I really can’t blame you for not finishing.

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