12 January 2014
First half of Part 1
There are two narrators throughout, taking turns to remember an extraordinary period in German history: the years immediately following WW1, when the political future was anything but mapped out. I call them narrators, but Funder uses that technique in which we’re with them as they go about the business of remembering. Ruth is living in Australia in the present day, wrestling with the daily indignities that come from being nearly 100 years old between reminiscences about her involvement with leftist activists in the early 1920s; and we’re with the real-life Ernst Toller as he attempts to put his memoirs into better shape in exile in New York in 1939. So there’s scope for plenty of musing on the nature of memory, on the impossibility of doing justice to the bravery of the men and women who fought beside both of them, and on the all-round difficulties of trying to construct a history. In particular, he wants to make sure he pieces together a proper version of one particular woman, Dora Fabian: ‘it’s just that I do not wish to write Dora into a poor version of herself,’ he says, following a 150-word paragraph in which the complexities of that idea are dealt with far more fully, but remain unspoken.
This constant preoccupation with historical veracity and the vagaries of memory isn’t terribly new in literary fiction. I often wonder when modern novels first became so chronologically hyperactive – and, for that matter, when multiple narrators became de rigeur…. But the period being remembered is fascinating and little is mentioned these days about the existence of an active Socialist resistance to fascism in Germany at the time. As Toller explains to his current amanuensis, the rise of the Nazis has blotted out for succeeding generations the richness of what came before. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Ruth is only in her late teens in 1923, when things really kick off. But Dora is her cousin, eight years her senior and the most inspiring speaker for the Independent Socialists. At the point where I’ve just left off reading, in both narratives, these three and two other activists, Hans and Berthold, have become what Ruth remembers as a ‘five-pointed constellation’ at the centre of the revolutionary movement. Toller’s reputation as the party’s key writer has been consolidated by the poems and, especially, the four plays that he has written in secret and smuggled out of the prison where he was serving a five-year sentence on a trumped-up charge. There had been revolution in the air even before the end of the War, brutally suppressed. Many had been shot, and Toller is lucky to have been in hiding until something like the rule of law came back into action. Now he is feted as he tries to be an ordinary member of the audience at one of his own plays.
And in amongst the political activism is sex. There’s a liberated, intimate feel to the relationships between all these people, and Ruth wonders whether Dora and Hans had been lovers. (We know from a short prologue that it will be Ruth who will be sharing Hans’s bed soon enough.) Soon Dora is married to the womanising Berthold, but we know from Toller’s narrative that she will be getting together with him, Toller, before too long. I suppose we knew from the cover picture or the paperback that this was always going to be about love in adversity….
Second half of Part 1
This novel is based on real people and real events, and what is most engaging about it are the insights into a previously unknown world. Ernst Toller was the only one I recognised, but Hans Wesemann, Dora Fabian and the other members of the little band all have biographies you can google. Only one surname has been changed, that of Ruth, and perhaps it will become clear why that is. Maybe the real Ruth isn’t really living in Australia. Maybe she isn’t living at all….
Unfortunately, this isn’t really working for me as a novel. Funder is wonderful at the paragraph level, vividly describing the enjoyment of a meal – there’s a lot of eating in the sensual and hyper-sensory universe all her characters inhabit – or the discovery that a flat has been trashed, or the way borrowed clothes don’t quite fit, but… but what? The novel is made up of neat set-piece moments which, for me, don’t fit together into anything like a satisfying narrative.
It might help if I believed in or cared about any of the characters, regardless of whether they are based on real people. Funder has decided that she needs to give each of them a set of memorable characteristics so, for instance, Toller is the tortured, manic depressive genius and fearless fighter for what is right. Hans, from a poor background, has turned himself into the hedonistic connoisseur of the best that all the bars and restaurants of Berlin can offer… which doesn’t stop him from being another fearless fighter, through his newspaper satires, of all the Nazi humbug he can uncover. If he can’t uncover it he’s happy to make it up. Dora’s hedonism (a word that one or other of the narrators uses to describe her) is more overtly sexual, and she is up for a bout of full-on sex with Toller as soon as she arrives at his hotel following her harrowing escape from Germany. She is also up for fighting fearlessly, through her provocative speeches and daring escapades under the noses of the Nazis.
And there’s Ruth, not at all a major player, and a handful of minor characters, mainly real people like the ever-resourceful Mathilde Wurm… but you get the picture. It’s all very audacious and gung-ho, but I couldn’t help thinking that years of running an opposition party in such a fraught environment would have been at least as much about unglamorous legwork and endless meetings in secret as about high-profile speeches, heroic stand-offs and fulfilling sex.
The other thing I’m not convinced by is the double narrative, which seems more of a gimmick as it goes on. Toller’s is the more interestingly told, partly because as he feeds his story to the reader bit by bit, he has come to the decision that he must return to Europe. (This is 1939, remember, so it’s a tricky one.) He’s also a more interesting character, despite Funder making him a fairly stereotypical tortured writer – and therefore, in this world, irresistible to women, as his amanuensis Clara demonstrates. He is the one who talks about the impossibility of remembering adequately, of the conditionality of memory. Whereas…
…Ruth, who is never really central to the action despite calling herself one of the big five in the constellation, is less convincing. Her chapters, increasingly, consist of the occasional paragraph concerning her aged self in present-day Australia punctuating what is otherwise entirely conventional novelistic writing. We get long passages describing, for instance, Dora’s attempts to save Toller’s writings, the horror of her arrest and her defiant conduct in custody. One of the best set pieces is her rising terror as she realises that she is not going to escape arrest – owing, through a bizarre irony, to Toller’s insistence on always having the windows of his writing room barred. Fine. But there is no way on earth that Ruth could be telling it like this. As her chapters mesh ever more neatly with the chronology of Toller’s memories, the whole twin-narrator project seems like an irrelevance. But I’ll shut up about it now.
The main thing in this section is that, in amongst the heroics and the sexual pairings-off, the good guys are wrong-footed by the speed of events. Their surprise at Hitler’s willingness to tear up the constitution is understandable and, in Funder’s presentation of it, their realisation of the need to escape comes almost too late. In particular, Dora’s self-sacrificial concern for the Toller archives nearly costs her her life. But not quite: she has enough knowledge of what scraps of law remain (learned from her uncle, a lawyer who has now gone over to the Dark Side) to know that she can only be held for five days. She is able to escape following her release before the amendment named after her – ‘the Fabian amendment – can be drafted.
At the end of Part 1 it’s 1933 and Hitler is in power. Dora and Toller are together in a hotel beside a Swiss lake; Ruth and Hans, if I remember rightly, are in England, and… they are conscious that they are a long way from the action. We know from Toller’s chapters, set in 1939, that he is on his way back to Europe, so I guess a new thread will open up in Part 2. It will have to run parallel to the strands dealing with what happened to Dora, Hans and the others in 1933 and beyond.
First half of Part 2
Same, except a few more months in 1933 have elapsed. As before, some highly engaging history has to compete for attention with the lives of people I’m not massively interested in. But I don’t want to repeat myself, so perhaps I should concentrate on what’s new in these chapters.
The main focus is on the community of leftist exiles in London, the ‘Emigrandazza’ as some wit calls them. The key event in this first half is the counter-trial staged by them, organised mainly by Dora, to turn international opinion against the Hitler government. It takes place over four days just before the show-trial in Berlin of those allegedly responsible for the Reichstag fire, and there are presentations from British speakers like Stafford Cripps and key German witnesses, Toller himself and many others. Dora has spent days and weeks, in between her other work of finding key sources of information from Germany, gaining permission from the British authorities for these people to speak. In the counter-trial the case against the supposed arsonists is thrown out and, for a few hours in the little bubble of their world, it all seems to have been worthwhile…
…but, that very night, they receive news that Helmut, a trade union member of their group, is to have his right to residency terminated. Suddenly ‘the victory was over’ and the security of every one of them is in doubt. The last that is heard of him, following his extradition some time later, is that he is suffering from cholera and cleaning latrines in a concentration camp. The trial in Berlin goes ahead, and the counter-trial has a limited effect: whereas the hapless Marinus van der Lubbe is executed four others are not as, for a short time, the Nazis feel the gaze of the world on them. But the main thrust is all in the other direction by now. The regime has been making up new laws as it goes along, rescinding citizenship from those who have exiled themselves and impounding any assets they might have. Money, never easy to come by, is drying up altogether. Execution teams have been sent to pursue some of the exiles outside of Germany – there’s the high-profile murder of Lessing in Czechoslovakia – and, whatever international opinion might or might not be, the little band of leftists is seems increasingly vulnerable. After the news of Helmut they try their best not to be overtaken by fear. ‘Whoever has conquered fear has conquered death,’ Toller quotes from one of his more torrid pieces, but finds himself having to clarify his own meaning when Dora gives him one of her looks.
What’s interesting, and what a novelist can hint at more easily than a historian, is that sense of how nobody at the time knew how things would go from here. To those involved, it was inconceivable that Hitler would be able to get away with what he was doing. International opinion, to say nothing of the German people themselves, would not allow such things to go on. Even after news of the international hit-squads and the choking-off of funds for any foreign-based opposition, they still occasionally dare to think of returning to Germany soon, so that this exile will seem no more than an interlude.
Meanwhile, we have Funder’s presentation of these people as characters in a novel, and that twin-track narrative. I’m not sure I need to say much about the characters. Toller, inexplicably, seems to need the woman Christiane in addition to Dora, an unwelcome fact that sends Dora to stay with Hans and Ruth. (I’m not sure that Funder ever seeks to account for this little idiosyncrasy in the great man. Maybe it’s all you can expect from a tortured genius… that and the need for others, again women, to sort out his life for him. She, Funder, does occasionally raise the question of the mythologisation of this man – she has him and Dora commenting on it – but it hasn’t been resolved yet.) Dora is the tireless dynamo of the organisation, as before, while Ruth – can I be bothered with this? – gets by with her photography. Hans, meanwhile, feels endlessly frustrated that nothing he is good at is of any use to him in London. He feels so useless after the counter-trial he weeps.
The twin-track narrative. We get much more about the trials of ageing in Ruth’s, and Funder seems to want to add a new strand, the memory-skewing characteristics of the drugs Ruth is on in hospital following her latest accident, a slip on the kerb that has broken her hip. Is it really necessary? Now Ruth’s dreams are more vivid and real than her waking hours and, just once, her memory is demonstrably unreliable as she drifts in and out of a dream. Fine. Meanwhile Toller, despite having the irrepressible Clara pack his suitcase for him, is still in New York in 1939. He hasn’t added anything to what he said in Part 1 about the unreliability of memory. Maybe there’s a limit to what he can say. (As if.)
Second half of Part 2
By the end of this there’s not much left – Part 3 is only a third of the length of either of the other two – and I’m wondering what might remain that hasn’t already been covered. One by one the dissident émigrés scattered across Europe have been picked off, and in London the only members of Ruth’s original constellation remaining are the ones narrating this. Ruth, of course, has survived so far – although she has at her fingertips, literally, the opportunity to give herself a lethal dose of the pain-numbing drug. And what about Toller? We know he’s still alive in 1939 but, if we haven’t googled his details while reading this, what will be his fate after that? I guess that’s what Part 3 will have to tidy up for us.
‘With all the excitement of a thriller’ gushes one reviewer, quoted on the back cover of the paperback. Nope. Terrible things happen that ought to be gut-wrenching, including the betrayal of all they stand for by one of the happy band, and… nothing much. It doesn’t help that the betrayal is signalled half-a-dozen pages in advance as part of Ruth’s account of her own denial of what she’s just realised about Hans. Because Hans, charming, satirical Hans, is working for the Nazis, and his supposed plan to get a passport forged for Bertie so he can get out of Strasbourg is actually a trap.
I suppose this would be ok if it is presumed that the reader knows these people’s biographies in advance. This would also add another harrowing layer of dramatic irony to those scenes like the one in which Ruth re-lives a particular moment of triumph through the ‘fish-eye lens’ of memory. She sees herself, Hans and Dora in their little flat, viewed from above following a particular coup as information supplied by Edwin Thomas, that uncle of Dora’s in Berlin, forms the basis of questions in the House. (We know that Thomas is feeling unbearably sullied by the ham-fisted re-writing of laws he is being forced to do because Ruth, in her drug-induced state, is able to imagine it for us as though she had been there as he wrote the first letter to his niece. Later she tells the juvenile-looking doctor that no, she doesn’t hallucinate. But how would she know?)
There’s another moment when a character’s dogged insistence on a particular point only makes sense if we know in advance why he’s making it. Toller has been speaking to Dora about his own depressions, and realises that it is simply not in her makeup even to understand the concept of suicide, never mind contemplate it: ‘I do not believe she ever had that particular sickness, the one that robs you of all will and purpose. I do not believe it.’ Eh? It’s only 70 pages later that this makes sense. Dora and the capable, no-nonsense Mathilde Wurm who is sharing the flat are discovered dead following what looks like a suicide pact. Part 2 ends with Ruth’s agony over ‘my brave girl, my wild, dead love.’
What would be interesting, if it wasn’t dull, is the emergence of Ruth as the unreliable narrator. Early on I was describing her as ‘not at all a major player’ despite her insistence on being one of a five-star constellation. As she looks back in old age she lets us, or lets herself, into the secret guilt she has been living with for 70 years. She could have stopped Hans betraying Bertie because, despite her denial of the truth, she recognises that a little verbal faux pas has betrayed his links with Nazis working in the German Embassy. It’s another of those moments that might have been gut-wrenching, but isn’t because you’d have to care about Ruth for it to work. And, of course, the death of Dora has revealed to her the true nature of her sexuality… so?
Anything else? The Toller strand limps along with him saying little about heroism and the nature of memory that he hasn’t said before… and there’s a continuation of a strand begun earlier in Part 2. Clara’s brother (I think) is on the St Louis, the refugee ship that is trying to land in the USA. But Roosevelt is silent, even Cuba is leaned on not to accept them and the ship is being sent back to Europe once and for all. Toller comforts Clara with the pretence that the captain will dock in some neutral country, ‘in Antwerp or Lisbon or somewhere’. But we’re to see it as another betrayal: ‘She wipes her eyes while I nod, pants on fire.’ Ho-hum.
Part 3 – to the end
I’ve had a misgiving about this novel right from the start: beware of titles containing ‘I’. The constant presence of the first person singular pronoun turns a tale of co-operative, collective, mutually supportive activity into a hymn to the individual. Funder’s characters are all archetypes of the ‘Me’ generation she is writing in, something I was also getting from what I called (describing Part 1) the ‘sensual and hyper-sensory universe’ they inhabit. In the first two chapters of Part 3 Toller and Ruth describe the inquest into Dora and Mathilde’s deaths. It’s a shameful cover-up, but the pusillanimity of the British, instead of being central, hovers in the background, because Funder’s real interest is the individual grief suffered by each of her narrators. ‘Not true!’ shrieks Toller at one point. ‘It came out of me like a cry of pain.’ Later, after his ejection from the court, it’s Ruth’s turn. She’ll tell them the truth, oh yes. ‘…I would do it.’ And her resolve is indicated by the thirteen ‘I’s that appear in the rest of the paragraph. Then: ‘But this isn’t about me.’ As if. Who else would it be about? The first word she uses after her failure is – guess. ‘I tried.’
I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Throughout Part 3 the main focus is their personal loss. These are the two people in the world, Toller finally realises, for whom Dora meant everything. But unfortunately Dora herself gets lost in the noise of their grief. The inquest has been a charade, as we knew it would be. Funder has been signalling it for such a long time now that it becomes a chore to read the twenty pages it takes for her to describe it. Fast-forward another 30-odd pages and you get two real suicides: Toller’s, in the apartment in Manhattan he’s never left, and Ruth’s in her own bed as the full extent of her self-blame is revealed to us. Ok, she’s on ‘palliative care’ now, and maybe she’s just slipped away… but Funder has her neat conclusion as the black moths that have got in lie dead on the floor.
Before this we get the tying up of loose ends. Funder made her reputation as a historian before turning her hand to novel-writing, and we witness the historian’s craving for completeness. There are the sad histories of Bertie, not executed but sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, of Hans, glimpsed by Ruth boarding a ship to South America, and of what happens to the minor players during and after the War. Funder insists on far more detailed accounts than are strictly necessary now that the crucial business of the novel is over. Bertie, released according to the letter of the law at the end of his sentence, is eventually kidnapped in Portugal and dies, starved to death, in a concentration camp. Hans lives a squalid little life, and Ruth can only hope that an unconfirmed report of his death in about 1960 is true. We find out about Edwin Thomas, and Jaeger, the man in the German embassy in London and… it really doesn’t matter.
We also get an explanation, by a writer surely revealing her discomfort as a novelist, of that technique I was complaining of from the start. In Ruth’s narrative we get what I called conventional novelistic writing detailing other characters’ experiences that she did not witness, and that ‘there is no way on earth that Ruth could be telling it like this.’ Funder has Toller explain it in Part 3, when he turns his attention to Ruth more than he ever has before. Somehow he knows – and he only knows it because Funder needs him to – that she has a particular gift. ‘The one thing she always had… was the ability to imagine herself into another’s skin.’ Ah. So, in Ruth’s next chapter, it’s ok for her to give us a now familiar level of novelistic detail concerning Edwin Thomas’s thought processes or the last months of Bertie’s life – or, a cinematic set piece, the arrival of the murder squad and their painstakingly planned faking of Dora and Mathilde’s suicide. Hmm.
And that’s almost it. We find out about Ruth’s eventual capture and imprisonment, and… and more details than we need about the rest of her life. We get Toller’s final moments, in a similar stream-of-consciousness style to Ruth’s present-tense musings in Australia. He feels he has told Dora’s story to the best of his ability, but now he is haunted by palpably solid images of her. More worryingly, as Clara goes out to get rye bread for a change, he is assailed by that familiar beast trying to get to him. It has wings, and a beak, and he blesses the cord that he always carries with him for just such a contingency. Ruth tells us that Clara, who is the one to find him hanging from the bathroom door, will always associate a sticking door with that moment of discovery. And, in that neat way Funder likes, Ruth’s body is also found, by the carer who seems to love the eccentric old crow. Funder has to resort to a third-person narrative for this event, but that’s ok. It’s all ok.