The Definition of a Classic
Stephanie Eve Boone reviews Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose
Before I read Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, I had never finished Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, progressing perhaps 100 pages through before I became distracted by other books. As a kid, I was a voracious reader, but I usually stuck with linear novels and omniscient third-person narrators. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on in The Diary, and I hadn’t yet discovered that a little uncertainly could be a good thing.
As I got older and passed the age Anne had been when she started writing in her diary (13), the age at which she was arrested by the Gestapo (15), the age at which she was killed in Bergen-Belsen (nearly 16), my inclination to read the book diminished. Because I wanted to be a writer myself, I was envious of all the praise that had been lauded on her. At 17 and 18, at 25 and 26, I was reluctant to confront evidence that a 13-year-old had been a better writer than I was and maybe ever could be.
Francine Prose, it must be said, does not share that fear, and embraces the possibility of learning something from Anne. Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer, ultimately approaches Frank’s work both as student and scholar. Having read The Diary several times as a girl, she returned to the book as she prepared to write a novel with a teenage narrator.
“Like most of Anne Frank’s readers,” she recalls, “I had viewed her book as the spontaneous and innocent outpourings of a teenager. But now, rereading it as an adult, I quickly became convinced that I was in the presence of a consciously crafted work of literature.” Prose is not the first reader or writer to make this discovery—Cynthia Ozick, Patricia Hampl, and Philip Roth have all written on Anne’s skill—but she is the first to write a book that tackles the whole messy Anne Frank saga from every possible angle. Yes, a good portion of Anne’s story is contained in The Diary and needs no replication, but the young writer could not tell us what came after, as her book became an international bestseller and inspired a Tony-winning play, an Oscar-winning film, numerous memoirs, social justice organizations, lawsuits, accusations of forgery, and scathing personal attacks on her closest surviving family member. Backlash is inevitable, and even the martyred young writer’s book is no exception.
A beautiful young genius creates a remarkable work of art and dies tragically before she can learn how much it meant to the world—so Hollywood, right? If you don’t read The Diary, or you read it but you don’t read it, you might think, well, would this ever have been publishable if its author had not been killed in the Holocaust? Girls write diaries every day, and no one but a snooping sibling or nosy parent thinks them worth reading.
And then, it no longer seems necessary to consult Anne’s version of events; why read an entire book cover-to-cover when a film and play are available, and when we all know the gist, anyway—Anne and her family go into hiding with a few friends, they have some wacky adventures, and two years later they get arrested by the Nazis. Anne dies. Her father discovers her diary, publishes it, and makes a lot of money.
But as Prose tells us, people who only experience Anne by way of the film, the play, some synopsis on Sparknotes or a portrayal in pop culture will lose something. Case in point: in 1998, The Onion published an article titled “Ghost of Anne Frank: ‘Quit Reading my Diary.’” It began:
That’s funny stuff, because most teenage girls, most people, would be mortified if millions of strangers read their diaries. But Anne Frank wasn’t most people. Her portrayal on Broadway as, in Prose’s words, “a bubble-headed messenger of redemption . . . robbed of her genius, removed from history and recast as a ditsy teen,” might actually have inspired her to say, as The Onion put it, “It’s enough to make me want to crawl into a hole and never show my face again.” As for the diary, however, it appears that she would have been overjoyed to learn how popular it ultimately became. Prose explains::
What The Onion did, and what many of us do, is make the mistake of categorizing Anne as a typical teenage girl, or (maybe) worse yet, our current stereotype of a typical American teenage girl. In some ways, of course, she was a normal teenager; she was vain about her hair and particular about her clothes, she idolized movie stars and developed a crush on the boy upstairs. It’s easy, instinctive, not to take young people seriously.
Most books about books are basically superfluous—do we need another collection of scholarly essays on Hamlet? No. The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, however, is an essential companion to The Diary. It is perhaps the ink-and-paper equivalent of Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now.
The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, as its title suggests, is more than a critical companion, however. It serves as a biography of Anne, her family, and the tangled journey of her legacy; it raises questions about ownership, revision, posthumous revision, image exploitation, pedagogy; it describes the difficulty of dramatizing a classic work of literature without getting something really wrong.
We need not have read The Diary to experience shock and grief in Prose’s harrowing chapters that describe the arrest, “deportation,” and subsequent murders of seven of the eight people who lived in the Annex, because Prose, with a little help from The Diary and a range of historical sources, has presented the characters to us just as fully as Anne did (and in some instances, with a bit more sympathy).
Eight people hid in the Secret Annex, but after they were caught, only one survived the camps. Otto Frank was a veteran of the German army (he had fought in World War I) and a middle-aged man by the time he took his family and friends underground. Unable to save them, he found comfort in the gift his daughter left him, in “the exercise and account books in which . . . he would later say, he met a daughter he had never really known”—and in the task of providing her with the literary career she had craved.
The central character in The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, if there is one, is not Anne but Otto, who outlived his children, who faced the tricky job of editing his daughter’s manuscript and finding a publisher, who survived attacks on his character, who found himself the defendant in an ego-bruised screenwriter’s lawsuit and felt compelled, himself, to sue a German writer who claimed his daughter’s masterpiece was a fake.
Critics even liked to attack Otto for not getting his family out of Amsterdam, as if that were a legitimate criticism, but it turns out that the Secret Annex was not Plan A, anyway. Otto lobbied for years to bring his family to the U.S.—and was repeatedly denied.
Like Anne, Prose is a deliberate and passionate, sometimes angry, writer. Whenever possible, she uses Anne’s intended title, Het Auchterhuis, in lieu of The Diary of a Young Girl, and when she mentions the deaths of Anne, her sister, her mother, the Van Pels (a.k.a., Van Daan) family, and the dentist Fritz Pfeffer (a.k.a., Albert Dussel), she relies primarily on one word: murder. She avoids even the slightly less harsh “killed,” and in over 300 pages I do not recall her explicitly writing, “Anne Frank died in the Holocaust.” And why not? Linguistically, such a sentence would almost make it sound as if “The Holocaust” were a place, as if Anne had died in a house fire or horrific accident, instead of, as Prose constantly reminds us, being murdered by the German government.
As an author, Prose does have one annoying habit: she’s a know-it-all. As in Reading Like a Writer, she spends a lot of time explaining that the normal way of doing something is wrong, and her way is right. Delving into the history of “Anne Frank in the Schools,” she discusses the myriad ways in which The Diary has been misused or underused as a teaching tool, where it has been used at all (and don’t even get her started on the textbooks that switch out Anne’s text in favor of the 1955 play, in which “Anne’s intriguing contradictions have been simplified out of existence”). Then, to prove she can do more than talk, she goes and does it better (with a group of upperclassmen at Bard College).
But like Gregory House (or maybe Barack Obama, depending on who you ask), Francine Prose is that rare know-it-all who really does know her stuff. Describing The Diary, she writes, “like any classic—it may be one definition of a literary classic—it rewards rereading.” The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, likewise, rewards rereading.
Prose’s book is a rarity: it could not exist without another, much more famous book, but it is self-contained. To follow The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, we need not have read The Diary. If we haven’t, though, it’s going to make us want to.
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