Archive for April, 2012


all that i am could be seen as yet another book about WW2 and the Nazis but its actually about the inter-war period, and lots more besides – sydney, old age, masculinity, self identity, love and what is it that is important about our lives – to name a few

the small number of bookgroupers present were very positive about the book, some, me included, very positive.

Its billed as a novel, because it is written in the first person in the voice of two characters. toller is a famous german poet and activist amending his autobiography in a hotel room in new york on the eve of WW2. while ruth is an elderly former photographer and teacher in bondi looking back on her life as a refugee and activist in germany and london between the wars, and on her life as an old lady in bondi in the 90s. However, both these characters are real people and the events described actually took place.

This fact that the events are real is important because the plot includes a number twists where characters do things that seem inexplicable, and if it were fiction the reader would not find it believable. Knowing these events really occurred forces the reader to consider why.

The events follow the life of dora. she was a real life pioneering feminist, socialist and anti-nazi activist. She is also ruth’s slightly older cousin and best friend, and toller’s editor and the love of his life. The book is largely the two of them retelling the same events in dora’s life and death from their respective viewpoints.

the question of why we do what we do, in particular why he does what he does, is the one that pre-occupies toller. As the book commences toller is the man that every, slightly bookish, teenage boy wants to be. He is a war hero from WW1, a poet, a successful playwrite that dates actresses, a progressive political activist, great speech maker and prisoner of conscience. That is some resume, but as the book progresses it turns out toller is as dysfunctional as all men, and probably much worse.

the character of toller is very revealing of the contradictions within men, particularly our attitudes to the women we love and to the idea of our worth and our legacy. for example, on love, and therefore dora he says

so much of love is a curiosity, a search inside the other for some little piece of self, emerging from the bear cave of them with your birthday candle and a filament of ore: the same as i am made of p93
when you are in love with someone you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. you cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. p150

on the woman he stupidly left dora for he says “her standards of decent treatment from a man were way to low to protect her from me”.

on the question of what should we do with our lives, he struggles with whether he should continue to write, keep at politics, or give up on life. in end he can no longer do politics, although he thinks he should, and he says to the poet auden “its a strange pathology dont you think to want to be something other than what you are” Auden replies “all that we are not stares back at all that we are”

The revealing, but at times annoying self absorption and introspection of the depressive writer and politician, toller, contrasts sharply with the self effacing, but insightful, observations of the photographer, ruth.

ruth has numerous great lines throughout the book, about modern sydney, about the english, the other characters in the book and by extension about all of us.

on dora (p285)

Everyone thought her so independent as to have no needs, or at least none that they single handedly could meet. This is the curse of the capable, it leaves them prone to pockets of aloneness

on retrospection and the end of life, and what ifs (p283)

We don’t understand one another, we may not ever give each other just what we need. All that remains is kindness.

my favourite is what she says about the looks on peoples faces as she, now a frail old lady, but also many other things beside, refugee, activist, photographer, teacher, wife, walks down the street (p138) “I am a woman on her way to eat cake.” in the context it felt like reading the declaration of independence, or liberty fraternity equality…. and cake.


April 6, 2012 at 6:46 am Leave a comment


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