‘Books like this come along once very ten years.’ Ben Ball, publisher
Last night at gleebooks Penguin publisher Ben Ball launched Anna Funder’s new book and first novel All that I Am. Based on a true story, it’s about three very early anti-Hitler activists, Ruth Blatt (1906-2001, whom Anna knew), Dora Fabian and playwright Ernst Toller. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the three fled from Berlin to London to continue their resistance work.
This is a previously unknown story. Anna says: ‘I think that if you’re a bit steeped in German language and literature and history, like me, when you come across things that you didn’t know at all, that you think you should have known, you think god, I really should have known that. And then you go and have a look at it.’ This novel is the result of her five-year, labyrinthine ‘look at it’.
Ben Ball began by taking us back ten years, to London, where he was working in publishing and received a manuscript called Stasiland. He sat down to read it one Sunday afternoon and didn’t stop until he’d finished it at 2am the next morning. At the publishing meeting the next day he raved so much about this manuscript by a new writer called Anna Funder that his boss said, ‘Well what are you doing here? Go out and buy it!’ Which Ben immediately attempted to do. But it ended up going to another publisher. Ben had to walk around the block several times to recover.
He then wrote to Anna’s agent, expressing his extreme interest in her next book, whatever it might be, even if it were a novel.
Ben said that when the manuscript of Anna’s next book, All that I Am, arrived at Penguin in Melbourne many years later, it spread like wildfire through the office. People were gripped. And, according to Ben, it’s continuing to spread like wildfire.
It’s easy to be dazzled by the heat something like this generates, Ben said, before drawing our attention to the novel’s technical triumphs, to Anna’s mastery of four timeframes and three narrative voices, and her skilful weaving of fact and fiction. Ben loves the novel’s historical truths, the beauty and wisdom of its observations, and Anna’s ‘towering intellect and formidable moral insight’. This is high praise – Ben is, after all, her publisher – but it won’t sound unfounded to anyone who’s read Stasiland.
When Anna took the floor, she spoke about growing up in a scientific household – her mother was a social scientist, her father an endocrinologist – and said that as a child she felt as though if you had an emotion, you were best off if you could justify it in the most scientifically rigorous fashion, with a double-blind peer-reviewed study. Which made us all laugh. But she thinks this is why she’s spent her life studying and tracking the minuscule movements of the human heart and trying to articulate them. As she did in Stasiland and now in All that I Am.
Anna said she believes all good writing comes from love – how true – and in her novel she wanted to explore the lives of Ruth Blatt and Dora Fabian, and what it would be like to be so courageous. She cautiously added that All that I Am unexpectedly contains another love story – a love song to Sydney – but that she grew up in Melbourne, where the love of Sydney is ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. Which also made us (Sydneysiders) laugh. When Anna first moved to Sydney she lived in Rose Bay, overlooking the harbour, and found it so beautiful, like a fantasy, that she wanted her novel to contrast prewar London and Berlin and the dazzling beauty of the new world, Sydney. Anna concluded by reading a Rose Bay scene from her novel and I was deeply moved.
I haven’t yet read All that I Am. It’s sitting on my desk and I look forward to reading it very much – and to writing about it here.