‘All that I am’— a question of identity

5 Mar

I’ve just read Anna Funder’s superb novel All That I Am, a brilliant exploration of identity through time and relationship.

The novel involves characters from the period of Hitler’s rise to power, but two of them tell their stories in the present tense as well. (It is based on true stories of real people, some known to the author.) Ruth is now a very elderly and frail woman, in contemporary Australia, who remembers so much of what happened and what she did, and wonders if she, let alone anyone else, can actually grasp ‘all that she is’. Another, Toller, seeks to re-write his own already-published autobiography, this time including much more truthfully the relationships between this small group of mostly Jewish political activists. Most of their fellows, incidentally, did not survive till the time of the war itself.
This is a very insightful exploration of the social construction of identity, through very powerful and evocative narrative.

There are two specific and almost incidental paragraphs I would like to quote.
First, the character Toller at one point makes an observation about Ruth. At an especially poignant moment in the story, Toller notes: ‘But as she sat there trying to gather herself I felt her humility, her gentle watchfulness. She was a woman with no pretensions of any kind—to beauty or talent—no claim on public attention. This freed her, I believe, to have a true sense of another person. Which is a rare thing.’ (p.318)
This is a great insight: The humility of ‘no pretensions’ and no claim on public attention enables a person genuinely to be free, especially free for others, to see them and hear them and to love them. That’s something to aspire to!
Much later in history, Ruth is reflecting upon her new home, Australia:

After the war I came to this sunstruck place. It is a glorious country, which aspires to no kind of glory. Its people aim for something both more basic and more difficult: decency. I couldn’t see it at first, but now it is all around me, quiet and fundamental. It is in the hydrotherapy angel and the smiling Melinkoff, in Trudy Stephenson my pupil and the scrap-haired woman holding the traffic at bay, in the nurses and the baby doctor. It is, I would hazard a guess, in Bev. (p.340)

All these are characters in Ruth’s everyday life, from hydrotherapy to home helper Bev: people who do not wholly see who she is, but who help her to know that she is still alive and has some meaning in her life yet.
The idea of ‘decency’, expressing again a humility—no aspiration to ‘glory’, is again the challenge to a morality that is authentic, everyday, and utterly democratic. And, like Ruth according to Toller, unselfconscious. In a sense, you can’t achieve this, or even claim it, it’s more a by-produce of relationship. It’s about, being together what we cannot be apart—all that we are.

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