What do Anna Funder and Amarcord have in common?
Leipzig! It’s funny isn’t it how some person, place, idea (or whatever) that you hadn’t come across in who knows how long suddenly makes its presence felt more than once in a short amount of time. This is what happened to me this week when I attended, on Sunday, a conversation at the National Library of Australia with Miles Franklin award-winning author, Anna Funder, and then two nights later a Musica Viva concert by all-male a cappella group, Amarcord. For those of you who know these people, the Leipzig connection is pretty obvious, but for those who don’t, I’ll explain. Anna Funder’s first book was the non-fiction work Stasiland which explores the impact of the Stasi on those affected by it. And Amarcord was founded in Leipzig from members of the St Thomas’ Boys Choir (which was established in 1212!).
The connection, though, is a little more complex than a purely physical one. In talking about Leipzig and her book promotion tour there, Funder commented on the paradox of being in the building* in Leipzig that the Stasi operated from and that had also been used by some of the world’s greatest musicians such as Bach (who is buried in St Thomas’ Church) and Mendelssohn. Amarcord, during the concert, talked of Leipzig’s musical heritage – of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Bach – but in the programme they also referred to the time under the Stasi:
Living in East Germany required conditioning. You needed to know whom you could trust. I really had to be careful what I said to whom. And then we had the privilege of a choir that was an island of relative freedom of speech and thought. That of course attracted children from families who needed that freedom of speech. Even as a child I felt that atmosphere strongly. In the choir, I could breathe again. (Daniel Knauft, bass)
I won’t say much more about Amarcord except that the concert was magnificent. The program, themed “The Singing Club – Four Centuries of Song”, comprised music mostly from the Renaissance and Romantic eras, but concluded with a small selection of folk songs from around the world, including Korea and Ghana. It was a beautifully varied program, each of the singers addressed us during the performance to explain the pieces being sung, and the singing was glorious. I love performers that are serious about their music, but don’t take themselves too seriously. That was Amarcord, and if they come again, I’ll be lining up at the door.
But now to Anna Funder. She was a very thoughtful considered interviewee, which is not surprising I guess from someone who took 5-6 years to write her last novel, All that I am. She talked, for example, about how Stasiland had started as a novel but that she’d decided “it didn’t seem right” to use other people’s lives for a fictional purpose. She also talked about the challenge of believability. In All that I am she said she modified the facts because in fiction authors ask readers to jump into a world they create, but she felt there were things about the “real” story behind All that I am that are “unbelievable”, that no-one would believe in a novel! As one who doesn’t find it too hard to suspend disbelief, I was intrigued by the care she takes to make sure her fiction is believable – and she is probably sensible to do so!
While her main concerns, she said, are social justice and what it means to be human, her aim in writing fiction is not “to make an argument” but “to make a beautiful piece of work, a literary artefact”. Every nation, she said, has something in their history that is “disenchanting” (don’t we Aussies know it) but the function of literature is to “enchant us”. I must say I was enchanted by the way she juggled these two conceptual balls, by her clear fundamental commitment to her art and to her moral-ethical world view.
Louise Maher, the host of the conversation, asked her about awards and prizes, and referred to Funder’s letter to Premier Campbell Newman regarding his cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in which she described his action as “a step towards the unscrutinised exercise of power”. She told us that given the book she’d just written – about a totalitarian state – she had to write what she did. Funder clearly supports prizes – and has won a goodly many. She sees them as a “signpost to quality” and said that while they don’t make writing easier, they improve the likelihood of having your next work published.
I did enjoy my little forays into Leipzig this week – and the places they took me.
* Probably the “Round Corner” house, though I don’t recollect her actually naming the building.