Book extract: All That I Am

TOLLER
Nanjing Night Net

Two quick knocks at the door – Clara and I maintain formalities because formalities are required between a man and a woman who work alone in a hotel room, as between a doctor and a patient in the most personal procedure. Our formalities transform this place of rumpled dreams – the sod-green curtains, the breakfast tray uncleared, the bed I hastily made – into a place of work.’Good morning.’ An open smile on her red-painted lips, lips that look suddenly intimate. It is the smile of a young woman whose flame is undiminished by racial exile; who has possibly been loved this morning.’Good morning, Clara.’Today she wears an apricot faux-silk shirt with lavish sleeves and three-button cuffs – a cheap copy of luxury that lasts but a season and may just be the essence of democracy. ‘Peachy’, as they’d say here in America, although in English I can’t tell poetry from a pun. She brings with her morning air, new-minted for this day, the 16th of May 1939.Clara looks around the room, assessing the damage of the night. She knows I do not sleep. Her gaze comes to rest on me, in the armchair. I’m fiddling with a tasselled cord. Its green and goldthreads catch the light.’I’ll do it,’ she says, springing forward. She takes the cord and ties back the drapes.But the cord is not from the drapes. It is from my wife Christiane’s dressing gown. When she left me, six weeks ago, I took it as a keepsake. Or an act of sabotage.’No mail?’Clara collects it each day from the postbox on her way in.’No,’ she says, her face averted at the window. She takes a deep breath, turns, and walks purposefully to the table. Then she rummages in her bag, still standing, for her steno pad. ‘Shall we finish the letter to Mrs Roosevelt?’ she asks.’Not now. Maybe later.’Today I have other plans. I reach over and pick up my autobiography from the table. My American publisher wants to bring it out in English. He thinks that after the success of my plays in Britain, and my American lecture tour, it should sell. He is trying, God love him, to help me, since I gave away all my money to the starving children of Spain.I don’t need money any more, but I do need to set the record straight. As sure as I sit here today, Hitler will soon have his war. (Not that anyone in this country seems to care – his openingsalvo, the invasion of Czechoslovakia just weeks ago, has slid down to page thirteen in the New York Times.) But what people don’t realise is that his war has been on against us for years.There have been casualties already. Someone needs to write their names.Clara is staring out the window at Central Park, waiting for me to gather my thoughts. While her back is still turned I ask, ‘Have you read I Was a German?”No. No, I haven’t.’ She swivels, placing a stray curl of dark hair behind her ear.’Good. Good, good.’She laughs – Clara has a PhD from Frankfurt and a fine mind and can afford lavish self-deprecation. ‘It’s not good!”No, it is.’She tilts her face to me, the freckles strewn across it as random and perfect as a constellation.’Because I’m going to be making some changes.’She waits.’It’s incomplete.”I should hope so.”No. Not updates. Someone I left out.’My memoir is subtly, shamefully self-aggrandising. I put myself at the centre of everything; I never admitted any doubts or fear.(I was cunning, though, telling of isolated childhood cruelties and adult rashness, to give the illusion – not least to myself – of full disclosure.) I left my love out, and now she is nowhere. I want to see whether, at this late stage of the game, honesty is possible for me.When I open the book in my lap its pages stand up like a fan, held tight to a midpoint. The National Socialists took my diaries – probably burnt them on their pyres as well. I must work from memory.The girl sits down at the table, side-on to me. Clara Bergdorf has been working with me for five weeks. She is a rare soul, with whom silences of whole minutes are calm. The time is neither empty, nor full of anticipatory pressure. It expands. It makes room for things to return, to fill my empty heart.I light a cigar and leave it smoking in the ashtray. ‘We’ll start with the introduction. Add this dedication at the end.’ I clear mythroat. ‘I call to mind a woman, to whose courageous act I owe the saving of these manuscripts.’ I breathe deeply and look out at the sky, today a soft, undecided colour.’When in January, 1933, the Dictator of Braunau was given power against the German People, Dora Fabian, whose life has ended —’And then I break off. Clara thinks I am paralysed by grief, but it is not so. I simply do not know how to describe that ending. In the park the wind toys with the trees, shifting leaves and branchesa fraction every which way – as if the music has stopped but they cannot, for the sheer life of them, keep absolutely still. Clara risks a glance in my direction. She is relieved to see I am not weeping.(I have form in that department.)’Sorry.’ I turn back to her. ‘Where was I?” “Dora Fabian,” ‘ she reads back, ‘ “whose life has ended.” ”Thank you.’ I look out again and find my word. ‘Sorrowfully,’ I say, which is the plainest truth there is. ‘Whose life has ended sorrowfully in exile, went to my flat and brought away to safety two trunk-loads of manuscripts.’Clara doesn’t look up. Her hand moves steadily across the page, coming to rest only moments after I stop speaking.’The police got to know of what she had done and sent her to prison. She said that the papers had been destroyed. After she was released from prison she fled from Germany, and, shortly beforeher death, she got the papers out of Germany with the assistance of a disillusioned Nazi. Full stop.’Clara puts down her pencil.That is all? I close my eyes.Dora’s editorial trace is all over my book: the sharp focus, thehumour. At the end of our lives it is our loves we remember most, because they are what shaped us. We have grown to be who we are around them, as around a stake.And when the stake is gone? ‘All right, then?’ Clara asks softly after a few minutes. She thinks I’ve drifted off, taken advantage of her sweet presence and gone to sleep. She touches the edges of the pad in front of her.’Yes, yes.’ I sit up properly again.I will tell it all. I will bring Dora back, and I will make her live in this room.RUTH

The doorbell is ringing.I ignore it. Without opening my eyes, I can tell it’s morning.Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring . . .Verdammtes bell. Fuh-ken bell, as they say here. The thing has aged along with me and it sticks. I move my bad leg with the other one over the side of the bed, and slide my feet, gnarled as malleeroots, into the sheepskin shoes – one built up, the other plastic-soled.I leave my wig on the dresser.Ring ring . . .I open the door. The van speeds off – I can just make out, in purple writing on its side, ‘The World on Time’. It’s seven o’clock in the morning! A tad early, if you ask me.A FedEx package on the mat. I stoop to get it with my stiff leg sticking out – I am a bald giraffe in an unreliable dressing gown and I feel sorry for any passers-by who might see me, mangy-minged and inglorious. This gives me a wicked thrill, till I imagine they might include children, whom I have, in general, no desire to horrify.

I move into the front room, my favourite room. It smells of furniture wax – Bev must have done it while I was out yesterday.She uses the wax – along with her Vicks VapoRub and her copper bracelets – as part of an arsenal against decay and time, suffocating the world with a layer of polyvinyls to make it shiny and preserve it forever like the plastic food in Japanese restaurant windows. She sprays the glass-fronted bookcases, the wooden arms of the chairs, even – I have witnessed this – the leaves of the rubber plant. One day I will sit too long and she will spray me as well, preserving me for all time as an exhibit: ‘European Refugee from Mid-Twentieth Century’. Not that I need preserving. Unkraut vergeht nicht, my mother used to say: you can’t kill a weed.The other side of the package reads ‘Columbia University New York, Department of Germanic Languages’. Here in Sydney, the events of the world wash up later as story, smoothed and blurred as fragments of glass on the sand. And now?

Dear Dr Becker,We refer to previous correspondence in this matter. As you are aware, the Mayflower Hotel is to be demolished at the end of 2001. The building is being emptied in preparation for this.

Um Gottes willen! How would I be aware? Sitting here in Bondi? And what ‘previous correspondence’? Then again, it might have slipped my mind.

The enclosed documents, belonging to Mr Ernst Toller, were found in a safe in the basement. The material consists of a first edition of Mr Toller’s autobiography, I Was a German, together with sheets of typed amendments to it. A handwritten note with the words ‘For Ruth Wesemann’ was found on top of them. The German Restitutions Authority has confirmed that you were formerly known as Ruth Wesemann.Should you so decide, the Butler Library of our university would be honoured to house this material for future generations. We already hold first editions of all Toller’s plays, and his correspondence from his time in the United States. We have taken the liberty of making copies for safekeeping.If I or any member of the university faculty can be of assistance to you, we would welcome the opportunity.

Yours sincerely,Mary E. CunniliffeBrooke Russell Astor Director for Special Collections

Toller!His book is brittle as old skin, or a pile of leaves. The spine is broken, sprung loose from the cloth cover because of the sheets of paper thrust between its pages. Something from him to me: it canonly be about her.I reach to put it for a moment on the coffee table but my hands are shaking and some of the papers fall out onto the glass, then slip off to the floor. Inside me a sharpness – my hand moves to check the patch over my heart.In his presence, and hers, I am returned to my core self. All my wry defences, my hard-won caustic shell, are as nothing. I was once so open to the world it hurts. The room blurs.When I pick the book up again, it falls open at the first, typed insertion:

I call to mind a woman, to whose courageous act I owe the saving of these manuscripts. When in January, 1933, the Dictator of Braunau was given power against the German People, Dora Fabian, whose life has ended sorrowfully in exile, went to my flat and brought away to safety two trunk-loads of manuscripts. The police got to know of what she had done and sent her to prison. She said that the papers had been destroyed. After she was released from prison she fled from Germany, and, shortly before her death, she got the papers out of Germany with the assistance of a disillusioned Nazi.

Ernst TollerNew York, May 1939

Toller was always a master of compression.I pull a rug over my knees. I’d like to crawl back inside the night, perhaps to dream of her. But one can control dreams less than anything in life, which is to say, not at all.

Extract from All That I Am by Anna Funder, published by Hamish Hamilton, 2011, now available from www.penguin南京夜网.au   

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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