Sunday, November 8, 2009
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.