Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, by Francine Prose
October 1, 2009
By JANET MASLIN
The Book, the Life, the Afterlife
By Francine Prose
322 pages. Harper. $24.99.
When Francine Prose taught Anne Frank’s diary to a class at Bard College two years ago, one of her students reported getting funny looks from students not in the class. “They acted as if he were assuming some sort of ironic-regressive pose that involved carrying around a children’s classic, the equivalent of using his grade school lunch box as an attaché case,” Ms. Prose reports in her new book about Anne (as this book refers to her). Her dogged and impassioned scholarship will dispel many such misimpressions about this subject.
Ms. Prose uses her formidable powers of discernment to write incisively about many facets of the Anne Frank phenomenon, from the life itself to the various ways in which it has been willfully distorted. And although Ms. Prose jokes she could hear friends opening magazines as she expounded on Anne Frank over the telephone, she turns her thoughts into a lively and illuminating disquisition.
If there is a central point about Anne here, it is that she was a precociously self-aware writer rather than a spontaneous, ingenuous diarist. It takes a real writer, Ms. Prose points out, to hide the mechanics of her work and make it sound as if she is simply talking to her readers. Similarly, it takes a gifted explicator to make it sound as if she is presenting her arguments conversationally rather than creating elaborate, research-heavy diatribes to back them up.
Ms. Prose’s “Anne Frank” has no frills or illusions. It surely does not pretend to be the definitive work on this subject. Instead, it draws upon and synthesizes some of the keenest observations made about Anne by writers like John Berryman, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Judith Thurman and Harold Bloom, seeming to extract the most succinct and provocative thoughts from each one.
Ms. Prose’s book uses a forthright structure, beginning with a chapter explaining the circumstances that led Anne to spend over two years hidden in the secret annex to a building in Amsterdam. She then devotes chapters to the publication of the book; the adaptation of that book into a Broadway play; the further adaptation of it into a Hollywood movie; the way the book has been used in schools; and the way it continues to excite antipathy in some quarters. Above and beyond a normal research effort, Ms. Prose has examined the worst of the Internet hate sites, the ones that favor the word hoax or call Anne Frank’s book a work of kiddie pornography.
That opening section about Anne’s life provides “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife” with a relatively unsurprising introduction. Yet Ms. Prose picks up on the less familiar aspects of Anne’s character (a friend’s mother would remark that “God knows everything, but Anne knows better”). And she fills in the final months that Anne, nearing 16 and incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen, could not immortalize on paper. She also fills in blanks about what became of the four other people who shared the annex with Anne, her parents and her sister, Margot. And she emphasizes the heroism of those who helped these Jews survive for as long as they did.
When Ms. Prose writes about the book, she pays careful attention to Anne’s set of revisions and to what they reveal about her writerly choices. She admires the diary’s way of using small household details to reveal each resident’s character and underscores how ably she transformed those around her into larger-than-life personalities. She goes on to describe the difficulties in getting the diary published, not only in the United States (where someone at Alfred A. Knopf rejected it as a “dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions”) but also in Europe.
Of the 1950 German translation that omitted anti-German references, Ms. Prose writes coolly: “This reluctance to offend readers in a country whose leaders had murdered the book’s author was one gauge of the speed at which the diary had already become a commodity that the public might, or might not, choose to buy.” In dealing with stage and screen versions of Anne’s story, Ms. Prose tracks the attempts to make the story happier, fluffier, more dramatic and more “universal.” As she puts it, “The adorable was emphasized at the expense of the human, the particular was replaced by the so-called universal, and universal was interpreted to mean American — or in any case, not Jewish” for all kinds of reasons, not least of them commercial ones.
As she provides her blow-by-blow account of the denaturing of the Anne Frank story, Ms. Prose remains impressively fair. She believes the book to be a masterpiece written by a complicated artist who died too young. But she by no means clings to the idea that every word of its text should have been inviolable, and she recognizes the occasional improvements that were made. The deletion of a 13-year-old girl’s “bubbly longueurs,” she says, must be seen as an improvement even by Anne’s most devoted fans.
This seemingly narrow work is an impressively far-reaching critical work, an elegant study both edifying and entertaining. In a book full of keen observations and fascinating disputes (the craziest of which involves Meyer Levin, who had no qualms about both reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review and trying to act as its agent), Ms. Prose looks in all directions to find noteworthy material. And when she writes of how Anne’s diary, which according to a 1996 survey was at one point required reading for 50 percent of the schoolchildren in the United States, keeps on finding its way “onto the desks of teachers who discover that the book most certainly does not, as they say, teach itself,” she underscores the importance of keen analysis. This is a Grade A example of what a smart, precise and impassioned teacher can do.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Diary (or is it a novel?) of a young girl
The Book, the Life, the Afterlife
by Francine Prose
HarperCollins. 322 pp. $24.99
Among the thousands of stories written about World War II and the fate of the Jews, none is more widely known, or more cherished, than that of Anne Frank. "The Diary of a Young Girl," first published in Dutch in 1947 as "Het Achterhuis" and since translated into more than 60 languages, is today an international literary classic. Often read as a school text, it has been a primary source of information on the war years and the Nazi persecution of the Jews for millions of young people. The transmutation and dissemination of the book by other media -- stage, film, television, song, dance and traveling exhibitions -- have spread Frank's story, or versions of it, to still larger audiences. The famous house in Amsterdam, at 263 Prinsengracht, where for 25 months the young girl and seven other Jews hid from their Nazi hunters, is among Europe's most popular pilgrimage sites.
In "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife," Francine Prose explains some of the many sides of this remarkable story. Editors at numerous publishing houses initially rejected the manuscript of Frank's diary, believing it to be of little interest to readers. Obviously, they were wrong, for following translations into French, German and English, and especially after the book's adaptation as a popular Broadway play and Hollywood film, Frank's story has been passionately embraced by audiences around the globe.
The question is: Why? Prose believes the answer lies in the book's artistry. In her estimation, the diary is a "masterpiece," a work of "literary genius" and "one of the greatest books about the Nazi genocide." But however one may weigh Prose's high regard for the diary's literary merits, nothing she presents in her own pages supports her description of the book as a seminal text about "the Nazi genocide." In fact, such references hardly appear in the diary. Indeed, much of the book's success may be owed to the fact that its author, who was to become a victim of the Nazi slaughters before she was yet 16, had only scant knowledge of what awaited her beyond the protective rooms of the secret annex. With respect to the dehumanizing circumstances that Frank encountered and ultimately succumbed to in Westerbork, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, then, "The Diary of a Young Girl" is an anticipatory text, not a fully realized one. It points toward the genocidal crimes of the Hitler era but spares the reader any direct confrontation with them.
Nevertheless, this is a compelling story, as Prose makes clear. In the first part of "Anne Frank," the author distills the known facts of the young girl's biography into a generally accurate, engaging sketch of her life. She then moves on to consider the diary's literary dimensions, praising the book's novelistic qualities and arguing effectively for seeing it as a "consciously crafted work of literature." An accomplished fiction writer herself, Prose appreciates Frank's observational powers and skill in developing memorable characters. As is well known, Frank not only wrote but rewrote her diary, substantially editing many entries with an eye to publishing her book as a novel after the war. Prose's commentaries on the changes wrought by these revisions are often illuminating and raise this interesting question: Is Frank's book in fact a diary or a "memoir in the form of diary entries," an "epistolary autobiography" or a "novel in the form of a journal"? How one answers this question could help to determine how one reads the book and what one takes away from it.
To numbers of people, though, Frank's story probably acquires its most lasting impressions elsewhere -- not from the pages of the diary but from the Goodrich and Hackett dramatization and George Stevens's Hollywood film. Prose's chapters on these productions convincingly show how the complexities of Frank's self-presentation disappear in the "silly and shallow version" of her developed on stage and screen. Unfortunately, this thinner, more mindless version has come to prevail as the "real" Anne Frank for many, who extract from her story sentimentalized notions of tolerance and understanding, caring and compassion. To some degree, Prose sympathizes with them. But she suggests that, admirable as these ideals are, to reduce Frank's life and death to facile "messages" of goodness, hope and inspiration is to read her less than faithfully and, thus, to remain still at a distance from one of the 20th century's best known, but not yet fully understood, figures.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld, who teaches Jewish Studies at Indiana University, is the author of "A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature," "Imagining Hitler" and other works on Holocaust literature.
October 11, 2009
By JOSHUA HAMMER
In August 1944, hours after Anne Frank and her family were arrested by the Gestapo in their secret annex in Amsterdam, Miep Gies, their principal protector, gathered a handful of notebooks and loose pages that had been left behind and hid them in the bottom drawer of her desk. Handed back after the war to Otto Frank — Anne’s father and the only member of the family to survive the death camps — the manuscript was accepted by a Dutch publisher, which initially printed 1,500 copies under the title “Het Achterhuis” (“The Rear Annex”). But American and British editors deemed the work too narrow in focus, too downbeat. Alfred A. Knopf Inc. found it “very dull,” dismissing it as a “dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.” Eventually the manuscript landed at Doubleday’s foreign bureau in Paris, where a young assistant rescued it. In 1952, on what would have been Anne Frank’s 23rd birthday, “The Diary of a Young Girl” was published in the United States.
In the half-century since, Frank’s account of her two years and one month hidden in the attic, shadowed by Nazi terror and the constant threat of discovery, has become the most widely read first-person account of the Holocaust. The book has sold tens of millions of copies; is required reading in schools from Buenos Aires to Tokyo; was reborn as both a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie; inspired anime cartoons, puppet shows and hip-hop films; and has even been used as a propaganda tool in North Korea (according to “60 Minutes,” schoolchildren there were instructed to read the diary and make comparisons between Adolf Hitler and George W. Bush). Yet as Francine Prose writes in “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife,” the diary remains an object of controversy as well as admiration. Critics have dismissed its literary merit and its value as a historical document. Some of the book’s champions charge that its story of Jewish suffering at the hands of Hitler’s murderers has been distorted by teachers, producers and publishers into a sunny tale of forgiveness and redemption. “Few other writers,” Prose argues in this deeply felt reappraisal of the work and its global impact, “have given rise to such intense emotion, such fierce possessiveness, so many arguments about who is entitled to speak in her name.”
It’s hard to find much fresh to say about a book that has been scrutinized as much as Frank’s diary. Prose valiantly attempts to solve the problem by linking an exegesis of the text to a look at its reverberations in the media and academia — and to the oft-told back story of the Franks’ journey into hiding. Prosperous Jews who fled Frankfurt in the mid-1930s, they resettled in the Netherlands, one of the worst places, it would turn out, to be a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. As Prose points out, three-quarters of the country’s Jewish population died; 107,000 Jews were deported between July 1942 and September 1944, most rounded up by compliant Dutch police. (Adolf Eichmann reported that the efficiently run Dutch transports were “a pleasure to behold.”) In July 1942, the day after Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, received orders from the Gestapo to report to a work camp — the final step before deportation — the family fled to the hiding place that had been readied for them by a handful of sympathetic friends and colleagues. There, faced with a near-total lack of privacy, the adolescent Anne addressed an imaginary companion she called Kitty, documenting the daily dramas and privations of her life along with reports of Nazi roundups and the Allied advance filtering in from the world beyond.
Prose rebuts the charge that Frank’s diary was a “found object” — the inconsequential scribblings of an adolescent whose death elevated it far beyond its value as a work of literature. In fact, Frank intended her writings to reach as wide an audience as possible, inspired by a radio address given by a Dutch minister of education in exile who was determined, once the war was over, to establish an archive of accounts of life under the Nazis. In the spring of 1944, Frank, then 15, rewrote and amended earlier entries, making scenes more vivid, deepening characters, shifting seamlessly, as Prose puts it, “from meditation to action, from narration and reflection to dialogue and dramatized scene.” Prose’s summaries and explanations of dialogue and plot can, inevitably, sometimes read like CliffsNotes, but she makes a persuasive argument for Anne Frank’s literary genius.
The best part of Prose’s book is her consideration of Frank’s divisive legacy. She meets educators at the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam who have used the diary to promote reconciliation in Argentina and Ukraine — with mixed results. She also retells the fascinating story of the Broadway adaptation, a tale of “high-mindedness and slipperiness, . . . accusations and counteraccusations” that crystallized the debate over the diary’s meaning. At the center of that drama was Meyer Levin, a Chicago novelist and journalist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and became one of the diary’s earliest champions. After writing a glowing review for The New York Times Book Review (whose editors he angered by covering up his close friendship with Otto Frank), Levin embarked on a self-destructive quest to adapt the book for the stage. His dark vision put Levin in conflict with the Broadway establishment, including Lillian Hellman and Garson Kanin, who wanted to cast Frank’s tale as an upbeat story deracinated from its Jewish identity. The play — which ends with young Anne praising the goodness of mankind — earned the Pulitzer Prize but was also criticized for sanitizing the truth. In an essay that appeared in The New Yorker in 1997, Cynthia Ozick attacked both the play and the subsequent movie, arguing that Frank’s work had been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized.”
The Broadway ending was belied, Prose reminds us, by Anne Frank’s fate. Prose describes the Frank sisters’ last days in Bergen-Belsen: huddled in the barracks, succumbing to malnourishment, fatigue, cold and disease in the harsh German winter. “You heard them constantly screaming, ‘Close the door, close the door,’ ” one surviving occupant of their barracks remembered, adding that “their voices became weaker every day.” The Franks died of typhus within days of each other and were tossed into a mass grave.
Karl Josef Silberbauer, the Austrian Gestapo agent who arrested Frank and her family, ended his days in comfort. Tracked down 20 years later by Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, where he’d settled into postwar obscurity as a police officer, Silberbauer was cleared of criminal charges, partly on the basis of Otto Frank’s curious testimony that the Gestapo man had “done his duty and acted correctly.” Unrepentant, somewhat pleased with his notoriety, Silberbauer observed that he’d missed a chance to be the first to read Anne Frank’s diary: “Maybe I should have picked it up from the floor,” he told a reporter. That role, fortunately, was left to Miep Gies, who preserved for the world a profoundly moving — and still hotly debated — work of art.
Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek, is a freelance foreign correspondent. He is at work on a book about German colonialism in southern Africa.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 25, 2009
A review on Oct. 11 about “Anne Frank,” by Francine Prose, misstated one aspect of the chronology of Frank’s wartime diary. She had already addressed entries to an imaginary companion called Kitty before her family went into hiding from the Nazis in July 1942; she did not begin doing so in their secret apartment.
==== JERUSALEM POST
Nov. 5, 2009
Anne Frank in Prose
ELAINE MARGOLIN , THE JERUSALEM POST
Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
By Francine Prose
To fully grasp the tragic importance of Francine Prose's book, which delves into the controversies that have swirled around the publication of Anne Frank's diary, one must pay attention to the poignant comments made by Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times of London. He wrote recently about his personal connection to Anne Frank. Finkelstein's mother and aunt were both prisoners in Bergen-Belsen and when Anne Frank and her sister Margot arrived; his aunt made a note of it in a small writing pad she kept hidden on her.
Both his aunt and his mother knew the Frank girls; they had attended the same school in Amsterdam and had played together. Finkelstein's mother and aunt survived, but Anne and Margot did not, and Finkelstein writes: "I am telling you this story because I want you to understand Israel. Not to agree with all it does, not to keep quiet when you want to protest against its actions, not to side with it always, merely to understand Israel.
"There are two things about the tale that help to provide insight. The first is that all these things, the gas chambers, the concentration camps, the attempt to wipe Jews from the face of the Earth, they aren't ancient history and they aren't fable. They happened to real people in our lifetime. Anne and Margot Frank were just children to my aunt and mother; they weren't icons or symbols of anything.
"The second is that world opinion now weeps for Anne Frank. But world opinion did not save her.
"The origin of the State of Israel is not religion or nationalism, it is the experience of oppression and murder, the fear of total annihilation and the bitter conclusion that world opinion could not be counted on to protect the Jews."
Talented author Francine Prose approaches Anne Frank with the awe and respect of one writer for another. Prose, who in addition to her many novels, has written extensively on the art of writing and analyzing literature, is awestruck by Anne Frank's raw talent as expressed in the diary which she believes charts the awkward transition of a child into a woman. Prose reveals that when writing her own novel Goldengrove, which is written in the voice of an angst-ridden adolescent girl, she used Anne Frank's diary for inspiration and guidance.
Prose's research uncovers what many will be surprised to discover: There were actually three drafts of the Anne Frank diary, the first written during the two years Anne and her family were hiding in the secret annex; the second version was a revised draft written by Anne during her last months in hiding with an eye toward its eventual publication after the war, and a third adaptation which was a carefully constructed hybrid of the first two which was edited and published by her father Otto Frank, the only one of their family to survive. All three versions of the Anne Frank diary were published in 1989 in the Critical Edition. Years later, five additional pages that Otto had kept throughout his life and given to a relative before his death were released.
Prose feels that 15-year-old Anne instinctively understood how "art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's." The revised draft, according to Prose, demonstrates a greater level of technical proficiency and a novelistic quality that is absent in the first draft.
For example, when Anne writes about her sister Margot in the first draft, she says: "Margot would so much like to be my confidante, but I can't. She's a darling, she's good, she's pretty, but she lacks something I need." In the revised draft, she rewrites the sentence to read: "Margot is very sweet and would like me to trust her, but still, I can't tell her everything. She's a darling, she's good and pretty but she lacks the nonchalance for conducting deep discussions."
It is known that Anne heard on the radio requests for people to keep written records of what had transpired for after the war (Anne herself writes about this in the diary), and Prose claims her attempt at revision was a conscious effort to construct a carefully crafted work of literature that would permit others to understand what they had endured. Her second draft uses pseudonyms and often deletes passages that the critical eye of the 15-year-old now found immature and foolish.
Otto Frank has been harshly criticized for the changes he made while editing the diary and his decision to delete certain sensitive material that focused on Anne's perception that his marriage was passionless and his daughter's critical remarks about her mother. But Prose finds only empathy and tenderness for Otto Frank, who lost his wife and two daughters and stumbled half-alive back to Amsterdam where Miep Gies, the woman who hid them, returned his daughter's work to him.
In fact, Prose praises Otto's careful editing, which she feels allowed him "to produce a manuscript that told Anne's story in the most affecting and consistent way." She concedes that he did remove Anne's flashes of meanness and toned down her impatient musings, but left in Anne's comments about her own darkest moments as well as her pessimism about the murderousness of the Nazis. He also left in her pleas to God about why the Jews were being singled out for such horrific suffering.
Others, like Cynthia Ozick, disagree, and feel that the memory of Anne Frank has been distorted by those who wish to manipulate her image according to their own agendas. For example, when the first Broadway show about Anne Frank was produced in the 1950s, Meyer Levin's screenplay, which emphasized the particularity of her Jewish suffering, was rejected and other screenwriters were chosen who depicted Anne as silly and scatterbrain and generic.
Prose admits that in most of the stage and screen productions of Anne Frank over the past decades, "the adorable was emphasized at the expense of the human, the particular was replaced by the so-called universal and universal was interpreted to mean American - or, in any case, not Jewish, since Jewish was understood to signify a smaller audience, more limited earnings, and more disturbingly, subject matter that might alienate a non-Jewish audience."
Prose's book once again forces us to mourn the murder of this feisty and precocious Jewish girl whose words have been read by millions all over the world. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps between July 1942 and September 1944 at the hands of the Dutch police and countless Dutch citizens who received payment for turning in Jews. All of this transpired under the jurisdiction of fewer than 200 German soldiers stationed in Amsterdam. The efficiency with which this took place caused Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann to gloat.
Francine Prose Explores Anne Frank's Literary Genius
September 26, 2009
Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
By Francine Prose
Hardcover, 336 pages
Over the past 50 years, Anne Frank of Amsterdam has become an emblem of the innocence and brilliance that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Her diary is read and quoted around the world by youngsters, statesmen and scholars alike. But novelist Francine Prose says it's time the diary was appreciated as literature — not just as a historical document.
In her new book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, Prose examines Frank's tremendous literary gift, as well as her maturity and insight.
"Among the things that's so extraordinary about the book is her unbelievably mature and balanced view of human nature," Prose tells Scott Simon.
Though some readers have criticized Frank's sentimentality, Prose says her voice is a nuanced one that mixes inspiring optimism with the deepest of pessimism. She points out that though the diary begins when Frank is 13, the voice we read is really that of an older, more insightful teen.
"She decided that she wanted the book to be published, and she went back to the beginning and she re-wrote all the entries she wrote as a 13-year-old, except of course now she was a 15-year-old," Prose says.
Prose remembers reading the diary as a child and feeling an immediate connection to the girl who, like herself, experienced problems with her mother and closeness with her father. She adds that she's still struck by the way modern students respond to Frank's words.
"Every time I've talked to students or brought the diary to students and heard what they have to say, I've been incredibly moved by how current it is for them and how much it still affects them all these years later."
September 25, 2009
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl
The novelist and critic on her new book about the life and legacy of Anne Frank
Had she survived Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Anne Frank might have turned 80 this year.
Dead of typhus in 1945 at the age of 15, Anne Frank is perhaps the most famous young girl of all time. Her diary has been a worldwide bestseller for decades, and it inspired a Broadway play and a movie. Now David Mamet is reportedly planning to make another movie about Anne Frank's life.
When Francine Prose, a novelist and critic, read Anne Frank's diary as a girl, it moved her deeply. Rereading it a few years ago, she was moved in a different way. Ms. Prose teaches writing at Bard College, and her 2006 book, "Reading Like a Writer," is an analysis of the craft of fine writing. In her later reading of Anne Frank, Ms. Prose realized that the diary was not a guileless outburst of adolescent sentiment but a "consciously crafted work of literature." In Ms. Prose's new book, "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life and the Afterlife," she reconsiders Anne as an artist, whose eye for detail, ear for dialogue and narrative pacing make the diary read like a novel.
The Wall Street Journal: Why write a book about one of the most-read books in the world?
Ms. Prose: You can't say enough times that the Holocaust happened: People are capable of this, you have to be on guard. Also, teenaged girls are the most maligned, undervalued portion of the population, as though they're all gossip girls. They can be very smart and attuned to the world. But it isn't a demographic we associate with literary genius.
To you, Anne Frank was more than a young diarist; she was a disciplined writer.
In 1944, her last spring in the attic, she heard a Dutch minister in exile on the radio say that after the war, there would be interest in the stories of what ordinary Dutch people had suffered. That's when she got the idea of publishing her diary, and she went back to the beginning and started to rewrite. She was writing more than 10 pages a day, with no privacy, terrible food shortages, the horror of not being able to make a sound all day and the constant fear of betrayal.
One thing that struck me when I first read the diary was that Anne was what my mother would have called “a handful.” Did you get that sense of her?
The mother of one of her friends said, 'God knows everything, but Anne Frank knows everything better.' A lot of girls who turn into something remarkable start off as irrepressible, confidant and a handful.
Extraordinary as Anne Frank's circumstances were during most of the period covered by her diary, there's also a universal voice of female adolescence. I read about her life in hiding while I was lying in my suburban bedroom, and I thought there was something similar about us.When I first read it, there weren't that many books about female adolescence. Reading her descriptions of her problems with her mother—I'd never seen that on the page before. Even reading it now, you think she gets certain things right about being a girl of that age that I haven't seen since. But it's important not to forget the historical context. She was very aware that they were in the attic because they were Jews.
How would you describe Anne’s literary style?
The diary is beautifully orchestrated—the way she alternates dramatic scenes with reflections, the incredibly vivid characterizations of the eight people, how each one handles the problem of how to take a bath or peel potatoes. Her naturalness of tone, the sense of spontaneity, it's very hard to do. She was an artist, that's the bottom line.
One of the most surprising facts in your book is that there is a tiny video snippet of Anne Frank on YouTube.
When I first saw it on my computer, I watched it over and over again. I was transfixed.
As you point out, Anne’s diary has generally been interpreted in popular culture, and taught in schools, as a message of unquenchable optimism. You have doubts?
In the same passage as the famous quote that ended the movie, "…I still believe people are good at heart," she had a vision of the world completely destroyed. She was veering between hope and despair. She was constantly talking about the dark side of human nature. She wasn't a perky little messenger of good cheer. But she was a kid, and kids think they're going to survive.
Los Angeles Times
October 9, 2009
By David L. Ulin
Last week, a video went up on
that shows the only motion picture images ever taken of Anne Frank. It's just a
quick glimpse, a few seconds of film.
A newlywed couple leaves an Amsterdam apartment building. People hover on the sidewalk, watching them go. Then the camera pans upward -- and there, gazing down from a balcony, is Anne Frank.
The date is July 22, 1941. She's 12 years old. It's a year before she and her family will go into hiding, less than four years before she will die of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in the waning days of World War II. We watch her watching, watch her look back over her shoulder, quick and coltish, as if in response to someone inside.
"As familiar as we are with images of Anne Frank," Francine Prose writes in her provocative "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife," "as inured as we may think we are to the sight of her beautiful face, the film pierces whatever armor we imagine we have developed. . . . It's less like watching a film clip than like having one of those dreams in which you see a long-lost loved one or friend. In the dream, the person isn't really dead. You must have been mistaken. You wake up, and it takes a few moments to understand why the dream was so cruelly deceptive."
Frank would have turned 80 this year, had she remained among the living; in another image available on the Internet, a forensic pathologist has created a projection of how she might have looked. It's as shocking, in its way, as that YouTube video, for all these years later, Frank seems fixed to us: as entrenched in our imaginations as the girl in the secret annex, accessible and inaccessible all at once.
She's the "Jewish Joan of Arc," a secular saint whose most famous utterance -- "in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart" -- was taken out of context, "torn out of its bed of thorns," in Cynthia Ozick's electric phrase. Prose quotes the entire passage in "Anne Frank," and part of it is worth repeating because of what it says about the line between illusion and reality, between how we think of Frank and who she was:
"It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again."
For Prose, that's a key moment -- in terms of both Frank's diary and our ability to read it plain. Here, we see realism collide with romanticism, despair intermingle with hope.
What makes Frank so essential, Prose argues, is precisely such a tension, her "sensibly and understandably mixed view of human nature." Her diary is not, as we have come to think of it, a universal story, but first and foremost a particular one. "I had become increasingly impatient with the notion of Anne Frank as the perky teenage messenger of peace and love . . . ," Prose writes. "Such a misreading of Anne's book and her 'message,' I'd thought, constituted a denial of what happened to her after the diary ended, and of the cruel fates that befell millions of equally innocent men and women and children."
With "Anne Frank," then, Prose means to remove Frank from the wistful amber of her posthumous celebrity and reveal her to us in a more realistic light.
This, of course, is what Frank's writing has always seemed to offer, the direct expression of "a girl who kept a diary for the last two years of her life." In Prose's penetrating analysis, however, the book is less the serendipitous reflection of a precocious adolescent than the intentional work of a young author who tailored her material very much for effect.
Although she'd kept the diary since 1942, it was only in March 1944, after a radio broadcast in which Gerrit Bolkestein, who was "minister of education, art, and science in the exiled Dutch government, called for the establishment of a national archive to house the 'ordinary documents' -- diaries, letters, sermons, and so forth -- written by Dutch citizens during the war," that Frank began to think about her writing in a new way. She revised the manuscript, giving it a title, "Het Achterhuis" ("literally, 'the house behind' or 'the annex' "), clarifying, cutting, changing things around.
"Anne intended 'Het Achterhuis' to begin with the June 20, 1942, entry," Prose tells us, "in which she . . . wonders who will be interested in the 'unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.' The passage was composed at some point during the spring of 1944." What Frank is doing there is "putting herself in her state of mind of two weeks before she went into hiding" -- in other words, constructing a narrative in the most conscious sense.
The notion of consciousness permeates "Anne Frank," pushing us to rethink both the diary and what it means. There's no criticism, Prose argues, in calling Frank's book crafted; if anything, the opposite is true.
Over the years, her father, Otto, who alone among the family survived the war and prepared the diary for publication, was taken to task for editing passages on his daughter's sexuality or her conflicts with his wife. "In fact," Prose writes, "what seems most probable is that his editing was guided by the instincts of a bereaved father wanting to give the reader the fullest sense of what his daughter had been like."
Such a statement sits at the center of Prose's argument -- because of what it says not just about the book but about the life. It's hard to remember, with Anne Frank now a symbol of human perseverance, that there was nothing inevitable about her diary, that she was a person responding to events. It's hard to remember that the Franks were caught, and Anne died horribly, naked, lice-ridden, starving, racked by disease.
Even that YouTube video, so idyllic on the surface, portrays a world already past the tipping point, with Jews "forbidden to frequent parks, zoos, cafes, museums, public libraries, and auctions." In such a landscape, Prose insists, "neither . . . the will to survive with the maximum humanity and the will to extinguish with the maximum brutality . . . makes sense without the other," which is the true, discomforting legacy of Anne Frank and her book.
San Francisco Chronicle
'Anne Frank,' by Francine Prose
Sara Houghteling, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, October 11, 2009
On March 29, 1944, on the BBC program "Radio Oranje," Gerrit Bolkestein, a Dutch minister in the exiled government of Prime Minister Gerbrandy, called for all Dutch citizens living under the Nazi occupation to save everyday documents - in particular, letters and diaries - for eventual collection in a national wartime archive. The archive would, he said, attest to "what the people of Holland had suffered and overcome."
Among those listening to the broadcast, on a contraband radio, was 14-year-old Anne Frank. In 1942, when Anne's sister Margot received her summons for deportation to Westerbork, the family feigned flight to Switzerland and sequestered themselves, along with Fritz Pfeffer and three van Pelses, in the maze of rooms above Otto Frank's former Opekta fruit canning company. Anne brought along the checkered journal given to her a month earlier by her father, in which she would famously recount her life in hiding.
Recount, and redact. Francine Prose, in "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife," takes Anne's story and adds to it a new perspective, that of Anne as editor, deliberate historian and exemplary writer.
The BBC broadcast awoke Anne to the possibility that her diary could be read by an audience outside of herself and her imagined friend Kitty (a character from a popular girls' series). Though at times she doubted whether her "unbosomings of an ugly duckling" would be of any "use to Messrs. Bolkestein or Gerbrandy," in the summer of '44, Anne embarked on an ambitious editorial overhaul of her past two years' worth of writing, all the while composing new entries.
According to forensic handwriting experts employed by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, Anne revised and wrote up to 11 pages per day, with one eye toward her readers and another on her ever-maturing self. She included a map of the Secret Annex. Her obsession with Peter van Pels, cooled by the time of the Radio Oranje program, was recast as philosophical rather than impassioned. With the increasing terror of possible discovery, Anne excised the girlish petty "dramas" of her carefree days. The history of the writing parallels that of the story. How and why Anne edited (and later, her father) is often nearly as moving as the text itself.
Prose tells of returning to "The Diary of a Young Girl" as an adult, while at work on "Goldengrove," her most recent novel. "Having written ('Reading Like a Writer'), a book suggesting that writers seek guidance from a close and thoughtful reading of the classics, I thought I should follow my own advice, and it occurred to me that the greatest book ever written about a thirteen-year-old girl was Anne Frank's diary."
What she found was the work of an extraordinary literary talent: Anne reveals character "through the way a person deals with (objects)," for example, a peeler and a few potatoes. Prose admires Anne's economy: Anne needs only 13 sentences to recount a scene in which she bitterly disappoints her father - he has assigned her to listen in on a worrisome Opekta meeting, and instead she falls asleep, ear pressed to the floor. If a character is missing from Anne's narrative for too long, he returns just as we, the reader, begin to wonder about his absence. "How much art is required," Prose asks, "to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary to seem natural?"
If "vigilance must have sharpened Anne's eye," Prose too tells this story with tremendous beauty, pathos and a profound awareness of tragic coincidence. Anne writes a comic scene in which she watches a sack of beans burst while Peter is carrying it. Behind him on the stairs, she's left ankle-deep in beans. "Now, every time anyone goes downstairs, they bend down once or twice in order to ... present Mrs. Van Daan with a handful of beans." Otto Frank, on his first return to the Secret Annex after the war, also stops on the stairs to pick up a bean.
The history of the subsequent adaptations of the diary is a fraught story. At times it enrages, as when a deranged agent tormented Otto Frank and passed over Arthur Miller as the playwright for the abominable first stage adaptation. Others are touching, as when film director Garson Kanin visited the Secret Annex and saw that Anne had pasted to her wall a picture of Ginger Rogers from his own 1941 movie "Tom, Dick and Harry."
Holland was second only to Poland in the percentage of its Jewish population killed. Anne's story, Prose writes, "is the one about which memories have been most thoroughly searched. It is the one we know about, if we know about any at all."
Sara Houghteling is the author of the novel "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Knopf, 2009). She lives in Berkeley and teaches at Marin Academy.
Her diary is more than a historical document; it is a literary masterpiece.
A writer's voice is something readers instinctively respond to but don't pay much attention to unless they also happen to be writers.
Voice is what makes Hemingway sound like Hemingway and why, after a few sentences, we can tell the work of Alice Munro from that of Flannery O'Connor.
Complicated, mysterious, difficult to define, voice is the result of every major and minor choice an author makes: decisions about point of view, tone, style, diction, vocabulary, which details to include or omit, whether a sentence should end in a period or an exclamation point.
When I decided to write about the diary of Anne Frank, I had been thinking about the diary not as a historical Holocaust document so much as a work of art, a memoir with the virtues of a great novel: a plot, a dramatic arc, suspense and vivid, memorable characters. I wanted to emphasize what, by now, we mostly have come to take for granted: Namely, that the most widely read and enduring masterpiece about that brutal era was written by a girl between the ages of 13 and 15.
My idea was to look at how Frank paced her narrative, alternated passages of action and reflection, chose to use summary or dramatized scenes and, above all, at how she established and maintained her appealing unique voice. I would consider the way our experience of her diary is affected by her having framed it as a series of letters to Kitty, the imaginary friend outside the secret annex in Amsterdam where the Franks and four other Jews hid for 25 months. How did that decision help her make her readers feel as if we too are her confidantes?
Everyone who has read the diary knows there are passages in which Frank expressed her hopes of becoming a writer. But few realize that she wanted her writing to be published as a novel in diary form. And fewer still know that during her final months in the attic, Frank returned to the beginning of the diary and, using more than 300 sheets of loose colored paper, rewrote the earlier entries, adding and deleting whole sections.
In fact, the decision to call the diary "Kitty" was not made until she began revising -- almost two years after she started writing.
After the war, her father, Otto -- returned from Auschwitz, the only annex resident to have survived -- combined his daughter's two drafts to produce the version that appeared in 1952 as "The Diary of a Young Girl."
Perhaps adults are simply resistant to the idea that a 15-year-old girl could have been a literary genius. In any case, critics and readers have preferred to assume the diary is a printed edition of the spontaneous scribblings in the cloth-covered book that the Nazis left behind when they arrested Frank and her family.
The story, of course, is the same from draft to draft. Yet the contrast in confidence, in ability, in style -- in voice -- is remarkable. Frank's first and second accounts of the Sunday afternoon when her sister, Margot, was called up for deportation, the event that propelled the family into hiding, are very different. The first was jotted down by a shocked, anguished 13-year-old soon after her whole existence was violently disrupted. What makes the second draft so much more polished and eloquent is that Frank had found the clearest voice in which to report what occurred.
Among the many reasons why the diary remains beloved is that it has so much to teach its readers: how to view the self and the world, how to navigate the painful transition from childhood into adulthood, how to remain loving, dignified and decent in the face of the most barbaric cruelty and horror.
But there is another lesson that Anne Frank's diary can offer: how much work is required to make language speak to us from the page and how, word by word, a young writer found the lucid voice that we continue to hear long after the living voice of the teenage girl was silenced.
Francine Prose is the author of "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife." She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times
ANNE FRANK: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
--- Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
When originally released in the United States, Anne Frank’s THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL met with unmitigated enthusiasm, inspiring everyone who read it with its call to understanding and forgiveness. In a new era, civilized people tolerate the intolerable and allow the same book to be labeled false and pornographic by a vocal few. Yet still the book inspires, speaking a universal language with a wisdom that exceeds the years of its writer, teenaged journalist Anne Frank.
This is a book about the book --- a highly favorable critique of its remarkable content and style, and the story of how it came to be. Anne, as it is famously known, was the child of a prominent Dutch Jew, Otto Frank, who converted the attic of his small factory into a cramped hiding place for his family when the deportation of Jews began to take place during the Nazi regime. For two years, the small group woke up, interacted during the night, slept during the day, and successfully kept themselves from discovery with the help of Otto’s trusted factory staff, who brought in supplies and maintained total secrecy. At some point, however, their ruse was discovered and the Nazis finally ripped the Frank family apart.
For the average teenage girl the confining conditions would have been intolerable, and had Anne not been a most unusual teenager, it easily could have been hell. But Anne’s rare talent for writing helped her focus most of her time on composing the story of the everyday events she observed in the attic, along with her musings about love and war. She understood that her suffering was inconsequential compared to what was happening to her fellow Jew and Dutch friends outside, and at times she would even optimistically reflect on nature and life and celebrated small moments of beauty in the pages of her book.
Award-winning fiction author Francine Prose makes the compelling case that Anne Frank was no ordinary teen and no ordinary diarist. A writer from early childhood, Anne, who was fierce in protecting the privacy of her document, continually revised her “diary” much like an adult author would as she intended it for publication after the war. And although the diary would eventually reach its way to readers around the world, it was a posthumous publication for Anne. Believing her parents to be dead (in reality, her father was able to survive the camps) and watching her older sister die pitifully in the camp “infirmary,” Anne passed away a few scant weeks before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen from a combination of typhus, starvation and a broken heart.
Eventually, her father found her diary when he returned to the attic after the war and saw it for the gem that it was. Along with the little book, there were many pages of revisions and additions, so he devoted himself to editing it into a cohesive whole. Transformed into the book we now know so well, the cover was adorned with a picture of Anne’s smiling face, an image that has become an international icon of hope. Prose gives us the back story of the long process of bringing the diary to publication, to the stage and screen, and the serious, often litigious squabbles for the book’s rights. Despite the arduous task in bringing the work to the masses, it was all worth the trouble as it became a beacon for tolerance upon publication.
But tragically, like all beautiful things, it was eventually tainted. The book was marked for destruction by Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers; if Anne’s story is true, then their twisted beliefs would be impossible to defend. Otto Frank, inspired by his young daughter’s spirit, seemed to feel that he needed to uphold her truth by forgiving those who wanted to wrest the story from him, those who claimed he had written the book himself for profit, those who declared that the book was a cesspool of Semitic sex and pedophilic fantasies, and those who wanted the world to believe that Anne never lived and never died. Frank remained curiously passive toward the hate-mongering critics, yet obsessively devoted to the cause of spreading Anne’s story, keeping it alive for all times.
Reading this book brings back memories of one’s first reading of THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL, a literate paean to the idealism of youth amidst the terror and bleak reality of war and hate. It will undoubtedly prompt us to re-read young Anne’s diary as a multi-layered work --- not just the chronicle of long-ago events told by a bright youngster, but as a brilliant work of art given to the world by a rare, lost genius.
'Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife'
By Susanna Bullock
SPECIAL TO THE POST-DISPATCH
In an examination of the classic Holocaust memoir, Francine Prose's "Anne Frank" combines critical analysis, biography and literary history. Although none of the facts are new, Prose offers an intriguing look at "The Diary of Anne Frank" as the memoir of a writer.
Prose, a novelist and author of "Reading Like a Writer," focuses on the growth of a teenager who recorded a list of birthday gifts when she was 13 into a writer intent on revising her manuscript for publication at 15.
In 1942, after the Germans invaded the Netherlands, the Frank family had gone into hiding. Anne's diary famously chronicles the two years before the family was betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Anne died in 1945 of typhus.
Prose's focus is on Anne's diary as both a literary classic and a manuscript that went through revision. The teen wrote: "I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work. I know what is and what is not well written. Anyone who doesn't write doesn't know how wonderful it is.”
contends writing became a way for Anne to process all that she observed and
experienced while hiding. In the last three months in hiding, she wrote 324
pages of revisions and new material.
When looking at the revisions and father Otto Frank's later edition, Prose asks which one reflects Anne Frank's vision.
Her answer is that each edition is a layer — altered to reflect the hands it passed through.
One of her examples is that originally Anne gushed about "the boy upstairs" but in her later revision coolly muted her enthusiasm and deleted pages. In the edition most of us read, Otto Frank reinstated the passages about his daughter's attraction to Peter Van Pels. That emphasis on young love was dramatized with a "light touch" even more in the stage and film versions.
Prose contends that Anne's intelligence, complexity and her view of the world as "a wilderness" are always there, but not always visible in some editions of the diary.
At its best "Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife" sends us back to the original. It also tells us the chapters Anne Frank did not live to write.
Susanna Bullock is a teacher and freelance writer who lives in Villa Ridge.
Published Sun, Oct 25, 2009 02:00 AM
Appreciating an artist who became an icon
Julia Ridley Smith
Francine Prose's "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife" is, in effect, a biography of the book. Reviewers, scholars and teachers have encouraged readers of "The Diary of Anne Frank" to approach the book in many ways -- as memoir, inspirational account, history, Holocaust narrative or, simply, a diary of a girl living in extraordinary times.
But Prose offers another way of reading "The Diary" -- she examines it as a literary work and looks at Anne Frank as an artist.
First, Prose reminds us of the facts of Anne's short life in Amsterdam. During World War II, when the Nazis were rounding up Jews, Otto Frank arranged for his wife and two daughters to go into hiding in rooms above his office. They lived in this "secret annex" with four other people for 25 months. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, they were sent to concentration camps. Anne, age 15, died at Bergen-Belsen. Otto was the only one of the Frank family to survive.
That Anne's diary also survived was a miracle. Miep Gies, a woman who had helped the families hide, found Anne's papers and saved them. After the war, she gave them to Otto Frank. He combined work from two manuscripts -- the original diary and Anne's revision -- to produce the text we know as "The Diary of Anne Frank."
First published in English in 1952, "The Diary of Anne Frank" has touched countless readers.
But Prose wants us to see the work as more than just a young girl's diary: "The fact remains that Anne Frank has only rarely been given her due as a writer." The diary "has rarely ever been viewed as a work of art."
Herself an accomplished author of fiction and nonfiction -- including the New York Times best seller "Reading Like a Writer" -- Prose makes a strong case for viewing Anne's writing as art, as work made with deliberate intention. Prose demonstrates how Anne's revision of her diary shows her growth as a literary artist who was learning to shape a story and write with elegance. Anne worked hard to assemble a whole and vivid picture of her difficult, but far from joyless, life. In losing her, Prose says, the world certainly lost a vivacious young girl -- representative of the millions killed in the Holocaust -- but also a gifted writer.
Over the years, "The Diary" has sparked controversy, and Prose discusses some of these quarrels at length. Early on, there was disagreement over who should write the film and play adaptations, and particularly over how the character of Anne should be portrayed. Many have complained that the Anne of stage and screen is simplified, too full of Pollyannaish optimism.
Yet in some ways, Prose contends, the universalizing of Anne -- the stripping away of her Jewishness and her victimhood, the emphasis on her girlish qualities -- is part of what has made her a cultural icon. The beloved character in the play and movie may have moved people to read a book they otherwise would never have read. Similarly, Prose says, because the book is seen as "just" the diary of a young girl, it is an approachable way for children and others to learn about World War II and the Holocaust.
Prose touches briefly on other interesting aspects of the Anne Frank story, including Holocaust deniers' claim that the diary is a hoax and cases of the book being banned in schools. She describes the Anne Frank house museum in Amsterdam and talks about its effect on visitors. For readers who want to know more about a particular aspect of Anne's life or writings, she provides a selected bibliography.
At the end of the book, Prose talks about teaching "The Diary" to college students. Their reactions remind us how Anne's brave, funny, intelligent voice speaks to individual readers with an immediacy that erases time. That voice, Prose says, is an accomplishment: "The fact that a girl could write such a book is itself a piece of information, as valuable as any of the improving moral principles that can be extracted from the words that a lonely child, imprisoned in an attic, confided to her imaginary friend."
Many of us remember a first youthful encounter with Anne Frank. Prose's Anne Frank may prompt you to reread a classic you think you've outgrown and celebrate a writer who was just beginning to bloom.
Julia Ridley Smith is a fiction writer and copy editor who lives in Greensboro.
Of the many hats worn by icon Anne Frank—ingénue, prophet, precocious innocent, even an actual lampshade, in one ill-advised incarnation—the most obvious is the least examined: writer. But in Anne Frank, author and lifetime fan Francine Prose has done the nearly impossible to one of the world’s most revered figures and her relentlessly pored-over text. She’s taken Anne off the pedestal where our near-religious cultural fervor has placed her, and settled her firmly in what she views as a far more appropriate seat: her writing desk.
Prose’s first act is to rid the reader of a pernicious assumption that the diary itself, paraphrasing the preface to the Dutch edition, is “the unaffected, unpolished scribblings of an unusually gifted child.” It’s ironic that Anne’s introduction to the world from its first publication in 1947 was already so mysteriously wrongheaded, but Prose acknowledges that as a child she herself was similarly fooled. Only as an adult author, picking up the book to research her novel’s protagonist, another 13-year-old girl, did Prose remember with increasing admiration “how much art is required to give an impression of artlessness.”
And Anne, perfectly cognizant of her task, would have agreed. “Anne Frank thought of herself as not merely a girl who was keeping a diary, but as a writer,” Prose tells us, proving her case through historical Anne’s own statements (“I must…get on to become a journalist, because that’s what I want!” a close reading of the book Anne’s Otto edited and published, and a side-by-side comparison of all available texts, ones that clearly reveal Anne’s significant edits up until the time the Annex’s inhabitants were discovered.
In the last case, it’s a testament to Prose’s skill as an author that she’s able to imbue what could have been a mind-numbing versioning affair better left to Microsoft Word with all the drama of a classic whodunit—with a 13-year-old Anne, 15-year-old Anne, and Otto, the novel’s final editor, as the culprits. Looking side-by-side at the Otto-edited edition most of us read, the 1995 so-called definitive edition, with much of Anne’s original material reinstated, then the 800-page Critical Edition , which lays out all available versions in A, B & C texts running concurrently on the page , Prose unveils the numerous instances where Anne in fact judiciously edited the diary, omitting material the tedious material, like a list of birthday presents, that she actually received when she was 13.
Prose also dismisses the frequent charge that Otto’s edits sanitized the diary, pointing out that his omissions more than often merely cut out material that would have been embarrassing to Anne as a writer, not as an individual. in “Preserving the essence of the diary,” he returned, for example, Anne’s depiction of her romance with Peter Van Pels, which she removed after the romance itself cooled. “His editing was guided by the instincts of a bereaved father wanting to give the reader the fullest sense of what his daughter had been like,” Prose writes.
Prose’s close readings of the diary itself also point out how Anne, “immensely observant,” was both humorous and unsparing in her depiction not only of herself, but of her parents’ marriage, her fellow annex inhabitants, and the implications of the war for them all. We can feel Prose’s admiration grow with each instance, as she practically argues with an invisible dubious combatant, “Anyone who has ever tried to write autobiography will know how difficult it is to do without seeming mannered, strained and false. Only a natural writer could sound as if she is not writing so much as thinking on the page.”
But even as Prose admirably recreates the events in the attic over the years – no small feat – she herself is unable herself to escape the charge she often levels at other readers: the emotional transformation of Anne from skilled writer into a “perky messenger of peace and love. As a writer, Prose admires Anne’s skills, but as a reader, she too is seduced, unable to look at Anne’s book without seeing its implications for the entire world.
This may explain the ill-advised latter section of the book, the “Afterlife” portion, where Prose takes us through the novel’s translation into a dramatic play, its various film adaptations, its place in the political sphere, and finally, its use in Prose’s own classroom. It’s difficult to say if these sections falter simply because suddenly our fascinating heroine is absent from the narrative, but one also feels a scrambling grasp for greater meaning coupled with a slapped-together quality, as if an editor, blank-faced at Prose’s own project—“I would argue for Anne Frank’s talent as a writer”—still suggested it might be grand to round out the work with a comprehensive examination of the book’s permutations.
And the minute we shift the diary stage left, we find ourselves with Otto Frank and ardent advocate Meyer Levin, who bolstered not only the book’s U.S. publication but its transformation from page to stage. Here, the book also moves from transcendent criticism into a workmanlike history tailor-made for a biopic, with Carson McCullers and Lillian Hellman with walk-on roles. (I see Kathy Bates as Hellman!). But Prose is a hapless Dominick Donne, and the film section similarly is larded with gossip without the juicy. (Who now remembers, or cares, that Audrey Hepburn rejected the role, turning instead to star in Green Mansions?)
The brief “Denial” chapter, which touches on those who either deny the existence of the Holocaust or simply ban the book, is inexplicable. Can’t a book that asks us to looks straight-on at the horror of the Holocaust take the persistence of petty stupidity as a given? And in the last section, a chapter about teaching a close-reading of Diary of a Girl at Bard, Prose seems to descend into the kind of soft-focus she abhors in others. Quoting from a student’s paper contending that “I know that, given the chance, we would have been close in life,” Prose dreamily decides, “They would have been friends.” That’ not as insipid as the scene that Prose describes where Natalie Portman lies happily on the floor onstage, kicking her legs back and forth as she scribbles away. But it’s close.
But even these last sections cannot undercut the case Prose undercuts has so brilliantly proven just pages before—that Anne’s story should be first and foremost be understood as the story of a serious author . “On the sunny and otherwise quite morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht,” Prose writes. “That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fat about to befall them.” One has to appreciate Prose’s very human struggle: she is unable to look at Anne simply as a fan or simply as a fellow writer because Anne’s own skill as a storyteller forces us to try to seek greater meaning from the story, whether to clumsily make a film palatable for American audiences or to take on the grand task to “rid the world of hatred.” It’s a story that will never stand alone, and Prose’s own struggle proves her case as well as her argument. Anne’s enormous power as a writer will always force us, as she was forced, to finally leave the Annex.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading.
November 15, 2009
FRANK: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
Harper, ISBN: 9780061430794
When I got this book, I wondered how Francine Prose would untangle the provenance and legacy of this famous book - “The Diary of a Young Girl’’ by Anne Frank. Its hold on us has inspired John Berryman, Philip Roth, Judith Thurman, Cynthia Ozick among others, and engendered adaptations for stage and screen. Everyone seems to want to have the last word on this beautiful, dark-haired, dark-eyed Jewish girl whose mischievous, intelligent face adorns the cover and whose photograph has become an icon of the Holocaust.
I need not have worried. Francine Prose, a highly intelligent novelist and critic, has outdone herself, drawing us into the life of the Frank family and their incredible ordeal, placing their story in an historical context where the Dutch are revealed as all too compliant with their Nazi conquerors, and telling us in straightforward, elegant prose how the various versions of Anne’s diary came to be, and how Anne’s story has spread into the public domain, often by well-meaning but misguided people. She reminds us “how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank’s.’’
Most important for posterity, Prose adds: “In a few more years, no one alive will have witnessed the scene of a Nazi arresting a Jew. There have been, and will be, other arrests and executions for the crime of having been born into a particular race or religion or tribe. But the scene of Nazis hunting down Jews is unlikely to happen again, though history teaches us never to say never.’’
Conceived as a series of letters written to an imaginary “Kitty,’’ from May 1942 until August 1944, this poignant diary relates the daily lives of the eight people hidden in Het Acherhuis (Anne’s title, “the house behind’’ and sometimes called “the secret annex’’), in Amsterdam during World War II. It has been called a coming-of-age story because it covers the remarkable development of an unusually self-aware, 13-year-old girl who started writing because “paper is patient’’ to the 15-year-old young woman who revised it in spring of 1944 after hearing a radio announcement that there would someday be a museum to house such records. But a coming-of-age story implies a longer life. Anne and her family were betrayed in August of 1944; she was sent to Westerboerk in Holland, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen Belsen where she died of typhus a few weeks before its liberation by the British.
Most of us probably see the annex as a stage set. In reality it was the top floor of a warehouse formerly used as a laboratory. You got to it through a secret bookcase, and during the day there were people working underneath it. At night the hidden could go downstairs and stretch their legs. Prose makes no bones about how hard it was to prepare this hiding place, how hard life in it was, and debunks those who see the diary as a sweet love story or a mother/daughter conflict. In it Anne reveals as much about the others as she does about herself - with humor and longing and curiosity that are nothing short of astounding.
Equally astounding is the tension in the book, because this is, primarily, a diary of fear. The hidden can look out the windows and observe the increasingly desperate Dutch people; they learn the fate of fellow Jews from the “helpers’’ (like the famously altruistic Miep Gies) who bring them food; they subsist on beans and spoiled vegetables with good cheer; they know the war’s progress from their trusty radio. Yet they cannot know the end. In late 1943, Anne writes:
“I see the eight of us within our ‘Secret Annex’ as if we were a little piece of blue heaven surrounded by black, black rain clouds. The round, clearly defined spot where we stand is still safe, but the clouds gather more closely about us and the circle which separates us from the approaching dangers closes more and more tightly.’’
Only Otto Frank survived.
In the section of the book titled “The Afterlife,’’ Prose unravels the agonizing story of how the plays and movies were made. She says, “On the page [Anne] is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit.’’ She follows Anne’s story into the present, with information about the Anne Frank Foundation and its museum; she tells of the simplifiers who insist that this is a work that promotes tolerance and understanding and the even more dangerous Holocaust deniers, in all their iniquitous glory. This section is emotionally wrenching because Prose glosses over nothing, never forgetting the millions who, like Anne, might have made even greater contributions and reminding us to honor works of art by those who endured great suffering:
“Given the choice, we would have been willing to live without the diary if it had meant that neither Anne Frank nor anyone like her, or anyone unlike her, had been driven into hiding and murdered. But none of us was given that choice, and the diary is what we have left.’’
Prose is clear-headed, tough, and fair, and her book, though in places immensely sad, is superb. It should be cherished alongside the masterpiece that inspired it.
Roberta Silman is the author of a children’s book, a story collection, and three novels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
The many lives of Anne Frank's diary
Francine Prose examines the creation, and subsequent re-creation, of the immensely popular book, play and movie
Reviewed by Ira Nadel
What is it with Anne Frank? From a school text to a Broadway play to a Hollywood film, critics, producers and directors just can't leave her alone. Philip Roth revived her in The Ghost Writer and David Mamet is soon to provide a new film life. YouTube even has an Anne Frank channel.
And now Francine Prose, novelist, essayist and critic, takes her on – or, more accurately, provides yet another account of the discovery, editing, publication and reception of the Diary.
In a swift but occasionally incomplete account of Anne and her family, from the Franks' false safety in Amsterdam to the writing of Anne's diary and the arrest and death of the family (with the exception of her father), Prose provides a survey of the life and afterlife of the Diary. Three points emerge: 1. Anne harboured thoughts of being a writer even before she began her diary at 13. 2. She actually revised the diary with an eye toward its possible publication after completing a first draft. 3. Controversy, lawsuits and betrayals define the afterlife of the book, which quickly became a money-spinning property.
Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose, Harper, 322 pages, $32.99
The last point is perhaps the most intriguing, as we learn of edits by Anne's father, Otto; Carson McCullers's early interest in adapting it for the stage; Meyer Levin's battle over dramatic rights; and the alterations that occurred in preparing the work for the stage and screen. The purpose of Prose's book is really to clear the air, allowing us to see the Diary as an artful recounting of a traumatic and ultimately tragic experience at the same time it became a commercial property read and seen by millions.
The popularity of the Diary has never been questioned. From its first appearance in English in 1952, aided by Meyer Levin's counsel to Otto Frank, whom he befriended after reading a French edition of the work, it received immediate attention. Three weeks after its publication, Variety ran a list of possible Broadway producers. But a fight over who would dramatize the Diary ensued with names such as Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller mentioned. Meyer Levin ought for the right to do the adaptation. But the producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, and the director, Garson Kanin, heeded Lillian Hellman's advice: The play would need a lighter touch to succeed, which Levin did not have.
The script for the Broadway production was by the screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. An angered Meyer Levin took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times castigating the producer's decision, but the ad alienated his ally, Otto Frank. Nonetheless, the play opened on Oct. 5, 1955. This new version ended optimistically, with Anne stating that people are good at heart despite the threatening footsteps and sirens from outside the attic.
The play, more sentimental and hopeful than the Diary, was a hit. Susan Strasberg starred as Anne and it ran for 717 performances and won a Pulitzer Prize.
A 1959 film version of The Diary of Anne Frank directed by George Stevens won three Academy Awards and was nominated for best picture; it was also adapted for television several times and was revived on Broadway in 1997 with a cast that featured Natalie Portman.
But even the title, as well as the reception of the work, has been controversial. It was originally called Het Achterhuis, The House Behind or The Annex, when first published in Dutch in 1947. In English, it became The Diary of a Young Girl. For Broadway, it became The Diary of Anne Frank, also the film's title.
And from Otto Frank's bowdlerized edition to a Critical Edition and then a Revised Critical Edition, dispute over the text has continued. Prose discusses them all, as well as Otto Frank's belief that the Diary was not a war work, nor even a Jewish work. Its focus was persecution and survival.
While Prose's retelling is useful, there is little new, except perhaps the idea that Anne herself carefully revised the text with the hope of publication. But Prose's account relies too much on speculation. Throughout, she imagines what Anne thought or wanted to do or hoped to do with the text. When the family is uncovered and Otto Frank shows the courteous Gestapo sergeant the marks on the door frame registering Anne's growth to confirm the length of time they hid, Prose writes, “What could Anne have thought” during this action? She then unconvincingly imagines what Anne might have thought.
But Prose is effective in recounting the drama of the Franks in Auschwitz and then the transfer of Anne and her sister to Bergen-Belsen and her death from typhus and malnutrition. Prose has read the personal accounts of others who witnessed Anne's demise, including letters, autobiographies and essays. Yet there are claims that are not clear, especially in attributing to Anne a perceptiveness of humanity's darkness at odds with the romanticized endings of the Broadway play and film.
Nonetheless, Prose praises her “apparently irreconcilable ideas about mankind” and says the book is a “testament” to the ability of individuals to maintain compassion and humour under “intense stress.” She then quotes the lengthy and well-known passage where Anne resists despair: “I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”
Cynthia Ozick's 1997 New Yorker essay, Who Owns Anne Frank?, railed against those who severed Anne's story from its tragic conclusion. Sentimentalizing and distorting Anne's account has done violence to her life, Ozick maintained. Prose partly agrees, although she suggests that without this divide, the Diary would likely not have been so widely accepted.
Primo Levi perhaps best expresses the importance of Anne. In a passage of his that appears on a wall of the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, he writes that “one single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows.” Why? Because if we were capable of taking in the suffering of all those others, we could not live. Through Anne, we can survive.
Ira Nadel is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia and the author of several books, including David Mamet: A Life in the Theatre.