I’ve been thinking about this question of whether the source of an idea influences (or constrains) the form that it eventually takes, especially in relation to fiction that’s based on real events or real characters.
I was thinking about this because I’ve just finished reading Anna Funder’s novel All That I Am, which has been garnering very positive reviews and some major awards, and is currently on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award and is a hot tip to win (“See?” you can hear them saying already, “we do give it to women! So there!”). As with her previous book, the very successful non-fiction Stasiland, a book about East Germany, she has found a very interesting subject: the plight of left-wing Germans in exile, trying to fight the rise of Hitler and the movement towards war, and living in fear of harassment, arrest and assassination. There is something fascinating and terrifying about the situation of people who find themselves outside the rule of law, outside the normal safe rules that the rest of us live by, surrounded by this terrible sense of threat, while all around them, the world goes about its business as if nothing is happening. (There are many people in the world today living in exactly this situation, of course, and we still go about our business as if nothing is happening, because where we live, nothing is.)
Funder tells the story of Dora, a young woman activist, and tells her story from two viewpoints: Ruth, who has known Dora from childhood, and Ernst Toller, a playwright and revolutionary in exile, who was one of Dora’s lovers. The narrative has an elegiac tone, because both these people are looking back at Dora and reflecting on her life, and both journeys of memorialising are prompted by books.
We see Ernst Toller working on a memoir which will write Dora back into life. We see Ruth, in advanced age and living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, remembering Dora because Toller’s book has suddenly appeared on her doorstep.
So at once, both sets of stories and memories are mediated by writing, and this has the effect of setting the narrative at one remove. From the very beginning of the story her fate is already sealed, not just because we, the readers, know how the Hitler business turned out, but because both memorialists already know that she is dead. In a narrative that is ostensibly about bringing someone back to life, it seems rather unnecessarily framed by her death.
Toller, Ruth and Dora are all real people, and Ruth was a woman the author knew personally. (She, too, has now died, so this book stands perhaps as a memorial to another remarkable woman, although the character is self-deprecating about her own contribution to history.) And while the book is well written, with plenty of well-researched detail, and I felt Funder had a real feeling for the milieu these people lived in, there was something about the very bookish structure she’s chosen, and the way she keeps her main character at several removes, which suggests her way of thinking about this world and these characters is constrained by what she’s read.
There are many ways to tell a story, of course. Showing a character through the perspective of others, while never giving us direct access to their thoughts, is a perfectly legitimate way to show a character. Fitzgerald does it, to give just one example, in The Great Gatsby. But this technique is often used as a way of getting some distance on a character so that you can explore their contradictions. The mood here, from both perspectives, is largely elegiac; both of them loved and admired her in an unambiguous way, because she was brave and daring and beautiful, and then the Nazis killed her.
It’s unfair to criticise a writer for not writing the book you want them to write, but sometimes when writers let you know about the source for something they’ve written, you immediately see why they wanted to write it, and wish they’d just written that. (I felt the same thing about Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: it’s based on a Russian fairytale which she reproduces at the back of the book, and the tale has all the weirdness and wildness and crazy energy that folk tales have, in just a few dazzling pages. Ivey’s novel, which also has an interesting milieu, and a strong sense of place, captures some of the longing, but drains the energy out of it – or at least it did for the first 150 pages, which is as far as I got before deciding I’d got the general idea.) One of Funder’s sources, scrupulously documented at the back of the book, is a thesis (?) which tells the story of Dora’s strange death by poisoning. As soon as I read about this document I thought, now that’s where the story is. A death, an inquest, as the way into a fascinating milieu rife with activism, fear, treachery and betrayal. Fabulous! It’s the kind of non-fiction work popularised by English author Kate Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace) which hangs an exploration of a moment in social history on the framework of a sensational court case. (The same format could work just as well as fiction.) Now, I haven’t read that thesis, so maybe that book has already been written. And to be honest, to take that approach would simply do the same thing I’m complaining about from another angle: instead of having one set of characters looking back on Dora via documents, you’d have a different set of characters, prompted by a court case, looking back on Dora. But at least the business of a court case gives you something that’s at stake: will the perpetrators be revealed and punished?
Funder’s novel is more literary – Orpheus trying to bring back Eurydice – and more diffuse, using the techniques of memory to build up a picture out of moments and elements. And while there is a narrative – the two narrations move forward more or less chronologically, telling us of the events that lead to Dora’s death – the end is never really in doubt. It is a novel that tries to evoke what it was like for that group of people to live through those times.
And I suppose this is where my frustration with the novel comes in. By removing Dora into the past, we never get to really feel her frustrations, her doubts, her hopes, her experience of living through this moment. We see her doing things, and she tells us things, and we observe things, but we don’t really get it as it’s lived. It’s all filtered by people who already know the outcome. The multiple viewpoints allow us to see a lot of people and touch on a lot things, but I wished for a narrative with a bit more focus. It could have been the story of Dora and her work and its tragic end, complicated with her relationships with Toller and Wolf and others; or it could have been the story of Ruth and Hans and her gradual, terrible discovery of his betrayal. As it’s written, the novel does tell both these stories, but the narrative arrangement never really makes it work as a story. Ruth is a fascinating character, and her journey of discovery is a terrible one; if the young Ruth was telling this story as it was happening to her, as she was discovering it (her own story twinned with Dora’s), it would have been far more dynamic and a much more gripping read. A more conventional novel, perhaps. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I know, I know, that’s not the book Anna Funder chose to write, and I don’t think it’s because she can’t. She writes beautifully. She just made different choices about how to tell this story. They’re not necessarily the wrong ones either – I enjoyed this book, and engaged with it, and found it fascinating, and learnt some things, and also wished I had her knack for uncovering amazing stories.
Which brings me back to my original question: is there something about finding great stories in historical sources that makes it difficult to break away from the form you found them in? That is, if you find your characters with your historian’s hat on, is it harder to make them your own? When you’re inventing them from the ground up there is complete ownership, whereas if they really lived and really existed – and especially if you actually knew them – is it harder to freely invent where you need to?