Australian politics, society & culture

Free Agent

Anna Funder finds her feet in Brooklyn

Anna Funder © Marco Del Grande/Fairfax Syndication
Anna Funder © Marco Del Grande/Fairfax Syndication

Peter Conrad

Medium length read4000 words
 
Cover: December 2012 – January 2013
December 2012 - January 2013
Mining literature
Malcolm Knox
Charlotte Wood
JC Kannemeyer’s ‘JM Coetzee: A Life in Writing’
Alexandra Coghlan
Jacques Audiard’s ‘Rust and Bone’
Luke Davies
Obama’s next challenge
Peter Conrad
Forty years since ‘It’s Time’
Michael Gurr
Julia Gillard’s hard-nosed director of communications
Nick Bryant
How the Franklin was saved
Bob Brown
A Bidjara man in Oxford
Jo Lennan
Solar eclipse in Queensland
Ashley Hay
A blueprint for the Asian Century?
Hugh White

Anna Funder made her name playing Alice in a totalitarian Wonderland. With the wide-eyed innocence and stubborn wilfulness of Lewis Carroll’s heroine, she set out in Stasiland, published in 2004, to explore the psychological wreckage of the German Democratic Republic after the breaching of the Berlin Wall. What she discovered was a dystopia where the head-chopping Queen of Hearts administered the law and kept people in prison to protect them from the corrupting influence of freedom.

Seven years later, in her novel All That I Am, she went on to conjure up a succession of small, remote worlds – Berlin under Hitler, London during the years of appeasement, New York early in its career as a new global capital – before homing to Sydney, which one of her narrators describes as a sunstruck, prelapsarian place that happily lacks a history and is immune to the political commotions of the northern hemisphere. The geographical range of her second book provoked some grumbles when it won the 2012 Miles Franklin prize: the reviewer in the Australian sniffed that it was fashionably “transnational”, implying that Australian writers ought to stay tethered to their native ground.

By then Funder, who says she is “not big on nationalism of any kind”, had already resumed her travels. She is living now in a country where the protocols are as bizarre as those of the GDR, the folkways quainter than in any of the defunct societies she re-created in her novel – the United States. This past February she moved from Sydney to Brooklyn, across the river from Manhattan. With her husband, architect Craig Allchin, and their three young children – Imogen, Polly and Max, who are ten, eight and three – she is installed in the upper half of a house in a brownstone terrace in Park Slope, near the artificial idyll of Prospect Park. From here she surveys an uneventful suburb that to her, with her novelistic eye for oddity, is intriguingly alien.

Travel makes anthropologists of us all: it alerts us to the variability of the human species and the quirky habits and beliefs that hold societies together. Writers usually rely on metaphors to defamiliarise reality; Funder needs no outlandish similes, since everything she encounters is already estranged. In the US Funder occasionally has the sensation of being in a sitcom, with wisecracking dialogue and intermittent outbursts of bottled hilarity. “I’m deciphering the place as best I can,” she said when I visited her. “I’m having to decode all the behaviours and gestures – for instance, here everyone smiles at you in the street; in Australia they don’t do that. I thought I knew this culture from the books and music and films, so I didn’t expect it to be so foreign. I’m more at home in Berlin, despite the difference in language. I feel a bit lost here – maybe not a bad thing for a writer. Lorrie Moore has a great phrase in one of her short stories: a character says it takes vast amounts of hope and of despair to live in New York City, sitting side by side as in a Third World country of the heart. Everyone is officially hopeful, but some are desperate, like the toothless black Vietnam veteran who’s always begging opposite the school my daughters attend. Extremes like that are something they haven’t had to face before.”

The move coincided with an American promotional campaign for Funder’s two books, and it also suited her husband. “He’s wanted to live here since he was ten; he was always obsessed by the Empire State Building,” she laughed, perhaps reflecting on the male infatuation with erector-set monuments. “His speciality is the design of cities, so it’s a natural place for him – though he’s been back to Australia seven times since we arrived. He loves Prospect Park, and he likes to say that the landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux rehearsed when they laid out Central Park in Manhattan so they could get it exactly right over here. My motivation was to give the children the experience of another world that I had in the 1970s, when my parents took us to San Francisco for a couple of years and then to Paris. The aim is to show them that there are other ways of living.”

In Stasiland Funder calls communism “the 20th century’s experiment on human nature” – a scientific effort to correct our incorrigible individuality. Uprooting her family, she is conducting a more benign experiment. She may be recapitulating the decision of her own mother, a psychologist, to send the six-year-old Anna off to school in Paris without warning her that everyone else would be speaking French. “No, it wasn’t traumatic; you learn very quickly at that age. And once I became bilingual, my experience of the world became so much richer. I want my children to have the same sense of possibility – to know about the onion-skin layers involved in being alive.” America is to be their exercise in onion-peeling.

Funder’s reminiscence of the first day at school in Paris reminded me of something that she makes one of her narrators, Ernst Toller, say in All That I Am. Toller – a German dramatist who got out of Nazi Germany but committed suicide in New York in 1939 – talks about being “relieved of the burden of my self”, and says that creative work, like love, places you in a state where you are “least sure of your own boundaries, and therefore open to everything and everyone outside of you”. Funder sentenced herself to the same fearful freedom in 1997 when she moved to Berlin, intending to write a book even though she had no idea what it would be about. “I come from a very high-powered family, which is a blessing, but before I could find what I had to say I needed to get far away from home. So I left my job as an international lawyer in Canberra, and I left my boyfriend – who’s now my husband: yes, I came back to him; he’s very patient – and somehow, almost by accident, I stumbled across the four main characters of Stasiland, which gave me my topic and my voice as a writer.”

In that book, Funder’s awareness of the moral and physical torments suffered by those who resisted the GDR regime makes her feel “vaguely guilty about my relative luck in life”. That explains her need to escape from the lucky country, where, as her heroine Ruth Becker comments in All That I Am, “everything is always, already forgiven”. Ruth is a captive of the Nazis who has fled in the other direction and found safety in Sydney; Funder prefers to look at Australia obliquely, through émigré eyes, and in Stasiland she speculates about how fantastical a place her homeland seemed to people in the Communist bloc, who saw it as a last resort in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.

Distance had other benefits for Funder: the bleakness of the northern European weather shocked her into poetic sensitivity. In Stasiland she wittily likens the Berlin winter sun to “a small light in a freezer”, and in All That I Am she describes the grubby sky above London as a “greyish-yellow night-blanket”. There’s also a certain homesickness in her language, evident in her extraterritorial use of the Aussie vernacular – a Stasi prison has a “mongrel” smell, and one of her confidantes talks about bikers who “hoon” down the street in Thüringen – and in her brisk abridgement of the gap between the hemispheres. Returning to her Berlin apartment, she hears her landlady rummaging inside and instinctively thinks, “Possums in the roof”.

Funder went back to Australia to marry, have children and write her book. Then in 2005, while working in the attic of her Sydney house, she received a message from her German publisher warning that an ‘Insiderkomitee’ of the disbanded Stasi, incensed by her description of its continuing efforts to terrorise people who might have unmasked former agents, had obtained an injunction against her. “I got an email to say that a group of ex-Stasi were suing me, for what I’d written about their nefarious activities against former civil-rights activists after the Wall came down – cutting brake leads, detaining their children after school and so on. I thought, wow, they are really aspiring to global control over what’s said and written about them. I went downstairs to make a cup of tea, turned on the tap, and no water came out. Then I got the willies. It was as if they had already closed in, and I had a few minutes of genuine East German paranoia. It turned out to be only a burst water main in Glebe.’

Quitting her balmy comfort zone has been unexpectedly dislocating for Funder herself. “Last year when we were deciding where to go, I said I wanted to be near a large body of water. As Australians we’re so conditioned by living at the edge of the country; whenever I was blocked in my work, I’d go and look at the sea, which I can’t do here.”

She could, I suggested, go to Coney Island, the derelict beach resort at the southern end of Brooklyn, where Russian retirees zigzag along the boardwalk in their electrified wheelchairs. She hooted incredulously. “Yes, I’ve tried that. We went as a family on the July 4th weekend, and couldn’t see the sand for the mass of humanity – Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Caribbeans, all with incredible bodies and incredible hair, all in various stages of undress. I felt under-tattooed. On another occasion I took my daughters there to go on the roller-coasters. I’m such a physical coward, the most I can manage is to mount a wooden horse on the very sedate merry-go-round in Prospect Park. But Imogen and Polly went on all the rides at Coney Island. I watched: I don’t like the idea of having my entire genetic contribution to the planet spun round in a centrifuge very high up in the air, while down below the rickety contraption is being run by some dubious lackadaisical characters. I thought, ‘Well, the girls can work out their own limits.’”

Over the summer, the family escaped the suffocating heat of the city to a house in the Hudson River Valley. “It was so strange, letting the kids play in the long grass without having to worry about snakes. And instead of mosquitoes there were fireflies. It was all insanely pretty, just as in all those TV shows, from Gilligan’s Island to Desperate Housewives – it was as beautiful as that. Of course in some ways it’s a sclerotic society. We can’t pay our rent online and had to learn all over again how to write cheques, which we haven’t done in Australia for years.”

Like Australia, the US is a society of immigrants – but its earliest arrivals were pilgrims not convicts, and membership of American society has always been a privilege, to be earnt and then righteously boasted about, not, as in nonchalant Australia, a piece of luck that can be taken for granted like sunshine. Funder has been observing the initiation rites with amusement. “The first day I took my daughters to school, I got a sense of how children are taught to be American. It was all quite relaxed, then suddenly everyone turned in the same direction like the robots in The Stepford Wives to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, all their little hands on their hearts. Imogen whispered to me, ‘Mum, I don’t know it!’ I told her to mumble, which is how I got through saying all those compulsory Hail Marys at my school.”

Americans nickname their fetishised flag ‘Old Glory’ because it reminds them of their country’s agenda. There’s a sceptical footnote to this fervour in All That I Am when Ruth, having escaped from the Nazis, gratefully praises Australia as “a glorious country, which aspires to no kind of glory. Its people aim for something both more basic and more difficult: decency.” That critique of imperial over-achievement applies to the US as well as to Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. On Funder’s bookshelves, along with family photographs, literary prizes and multiple copies of her books in foreign editions, I noticed a small plastic version of the Stars and Stripes – a souvenir of that excursion to Coney Island on the national birthday? It was there, I assumed, as a joke or a provocation, like the small red flag that Ruth hangs out of her window in Berlin to register her contempt for Hitler.

Soon after learning the pledge, Imogen had to fill in a questionnaire asking about her origins and when the family had arrived in the country: her answer was “Last week”. At the bottom of the page was printed “WELCOME TO AMERICA”, like a personal greeting from the Statue of Liberty. “Later,” Funder told me, “the class was taken to the museum at Ellis Island, where the huddled masses used to be processed. Each child had to choose an immigrant and research that person’s history – really, it was just like what I did with the people in my books – and then dress up as that character to appear in a school play. They were directed by a Broadway pro, who had them performing a number from Ragtime, that musical about African-Americans and Eastern Europeans in the ethnic slums at the start of the 20 th century. It was so strange to watch my daughter up there singing ‘I love to be in America and I’m gonna be a success’, or something like that. Drama is very important at school; it’s almost part of the training in civics. This a culture of performance and self-presentation; you’re expected to project personality all the time, whereas in Anglo-Australian society you’re taught to hide your light. They have this amazing rhetoric about realising yourself and going for your dream, which is all repeated with absolute seriousness. I noticed a book in an airport the other day, by some white-toothed Martian-looking preacher from the South, which was all about how your unhappiness is your own fault and that it’s in your power to get yourself to heaven. That’s not the way I think.”

Funder’s younger daughter has had her own, more dispiriting experience of what it means to be a latter-day newcomer to America – with, by way of compensation, a lesson in how Americans go about rendering drab reality more upbeat and transforming life into art. “I went to Iceland in September to talk about my books, and I took Polly with me as a birthday treat. When she came back, the teacher encouraged her to write about the holiday. We’d been horseriding on the lava fields and gone swimming in hot pools, both of us covered with silica in this utterly blackened environment, but what Polly wrote about was the hour-and-a-half queue in immigration at Kennedy Airport at midnight when we returned, with everyone shuffling along exhausted, waiting to be fingerprinted and readmitted to the land of the free. Her teacher annotated the piece with some incredibly sophisticated editorial suggestions about varying the verbs – not ‘My mother said to stay awake’ but ‘My mother coaxed me to stay awake’ – or adding detail so she could envision the place and make the moment count. And she’s only eight!”

Max, as yet too young to be undergoing Americanisation, now returned home with his minder, a little fractious after a walk in the park. “Did you fly your kite?” asked his mother, cuddling him. Funder’s most recent publicity jaunt – there have been 12 in the past year – was to a literary festival in Ubud, and she brought him back one of those fish-faced, floppy-tailed Balinese kites that are sent aloft to intercede with the gods to ensure a rich harvest. He thought about it, realised he hadn’t done so, and began to wail inconsolably, adding some obbligato screams. Kite flying was rescheduled for the next day, and Max, appeased, was ushered out of the room.

He is not yet required to recite any oaths of allegiance, but Funder did catch the supervisor at his preschool administering some premature moral discipline. Max had been, as Americans say, ‘acting out’: tantrums are classified, like everything else, as histrionic exhibitions. The woman in charge fixed him with a disapproving glare, and he slid to the floor, crumpling as if zapped by some lethal ray. “Look,” she said to Funder in triumph, “now he’s feeling remorse.” Funder soon made other arrangements for her son’s day care.

With Max consoled and quietened, we strolled down the hill for lunch on an affluent avenue that until recently was gang turf. On the way I began to see Funder’s street as she does, as a hyper-real and almost hallucinatory spectacle. The tots romping in a exclusive kindergarten’s playground while a folk guitarist ambled about strumming his instrument and – barely audible over their shrieks – attempted to serenade them: in America, even a school recess requires a musical soundtrack. Pumpkins with jagged grimaces leered on the steps of the brownstones, ready for Halloween; a skeleton swaddled in green and yellow cobwebs dangled outside a front door. Funder did some decoding for me when we passed an old woman pushing a supermarket trolley along the sidewalk, accompanied by a younger man. “Wait till they cross over,” she whispered, “and look at his jacket.” I did, and saw that its back announced PARK SLOPE FOOD CO-OP. This is the high-minded organic establishment that Sacha Baron Cohen renames the Free Earth Collective in his latest film, The Dictator. Playing a disgraced Arab despot, he gets himself hired by the Collective, and romances its female manager, whom he describes as “a lesbian hobbit”, “a hairy-titted yeti” and “a midget in a chemo wig”. The co-op is run like a kibbutz, and you’re only permitted to shop there if you sign on to work part-time stocking shelves or guarding the bicycles and dogs of the other customers. Funder’s husband is keen to join, but she – “I’m not a belonger” – has so far exercised her veto. “That fellow,” she explained as we watched the old lady and her companion recede, “is a volunteer. He’s walking her home so he can bring the empty trolley back. You see, they think of everything: it’s all so perfect!” She suppressed a shudder: who’d want to live in paradise?

American life places you on set, in the glare of the lights, and expects you to be ready for your close-up. Hence, I suspect, the smiling in the street that disconcerts Funder. At one point in our conversation, talking about television news and the State Department’s solemn sense of responsibility for the rest of the world, she said, “To be in America is to be closer to the microphone.” It was a typically incisive, aphoristic remark (and in passing it explains why American speech so often sounds as though it’s coming through a public-address system). But this volubility goes against Funder’s Australian instincts. “My publisher asked me to do a Jewish Book Council tour, and I had to audition by making a two-minute speech. I was coached for it – in fact, coached to within an inch of my life – by a woman who reminded me of Sister Sheila giving me debating lessons at school. She said, ‘First of all, your accent is so cute.’ I think she meant that it made me sound intelligent. Then, after listening to me talk about the heroism of the people in All That I Am, she said, ‘You know, Anna, what I need is for you to emote more.’ Once again, it’s the performing thing! Maybe I’m just not that good at it, but I felt like saying, ‘Where I come from, we don’t emote.’”

Despite Funder’s success and her enjoyment of it, there are mysteries beneath her brilliant surface. Why was she so attracted to the darkness of East Germany? What made her so anxious to vicariously experience the pain of her friends in Berlin or the martyrs of conscience whose lives she reconstructed in her novel? During her brief legal career she was concerned with human rights, but there’s more to it than that. “I felt such a fraud as a lawyer,” she admitted. “In Melbourne when I was doing my articles, I’d see all my colleagues in the firm fully inhabiting their lives – and I’d be in my cubicle taking notes for a book.” She was, she joked, conducting espionage, “like a Stasi agent”. This is a recurring qualm: in a Sydney Morning Herald interview last year she reproached herself for having her mind on her writing when she was helping her children or listening to their music practice: “It’s like betraying everybody with this secret life.” In Stasiland she explained the dedication of the agents by referring to “the psychology of the mistress”, who possesses contraband information denied to the duped wife. Looking at things from another angle, Funder is inclined to see herself pretending to be a dutiful wife and mother while itching to be back with the demon lover she has locked in her study.

In All That I Am, Ruth finds a kind of religious altruism in the vocation of the novelist: “Imagining the life of another is an act of compassion as holy as any.” But that reverential phrase also rather creepily alludes to The Lives of Others, the German film in which Ulrich Mühe played a guilt-stricken Stasi agent. Elsewhere in Funder’s novel, Toller worries that art is tempted, “like fire, to use people as fuel”. Is the imagining always compassionate and holy? Funder’s doubts about her own activity are made explicit in Stasiland, where she attempts to understand the motives of spies who spent decades eavesdropping on the banal household activities of ordinary families. “What sort of people are they,” she asks, “who want all this knowledge for themselves?” My answer would be that they are novelists – like Funder herself – professional snoops and voyeurs, most of them unimpeded by her ethical misgivings.

She startled me, when we were comparing childhoods, by declaring that “all writing derives from some kind of wound”. Where, in that case, are Funder’s scars? She may or may not have been prepared to show them to me, but she was interrupted by a text message from her daughter Imogen, just out of school. “Mum, where are you?” it succinctly asked. Funder, like a secret agent adopting an alias, resumed the domestic identity that would be her disguise for the rest of the day. She is unsure, she told me as we parted outside the restaurant where we’d eaten, about returning to Australia. The eventual decision will have less to do with her career or her husband’s than with how Americanised her daughters are when they finish middle school – though Imogen is already asking whether, if they do go back, she will have trouble regaining her Australian accent. “It also depends,” said Funder, tensing herself to hold her own against the strutting, sashaying, jiving, jazzing and vogueing parade of Americana along the avenue, “on whether I can manage to decode this world without first uncoding myself.”

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad is a writer, academic and regular contributor to the Observer. His books include Verdi and/or Wagner, The Art of the City and Modern Times, Modern Places.
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