Portrait of the artist
Exploring the life of Anne Frank, the crafting of her iconic diary, and the book’s historic legacy
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 .