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Book Review: Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose

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Like many of us, novelist Francine Prose first came across Anne Frank as a youngster. She pictures herself on the floor of her bedroom at an age younger than Anne was when she started writing her diary, reading away the daylight “enthralled” by the teenager’s description of the life of those eight Jews hidden from the Nazi extermination in an attic in Amsterdam. She tells of how she was so fascinated that having completed the book, she went back to the beginning and immediately started all over again.

It was a fascination that stuck with her, and her new book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is her attempt to document and explain that fascination both in herself as well as in the countless others who have come to see the teenaged diarist as the face of the Holocaust.

The Anne Frank Prose presents to the reader is not a callow mindless teenager. The Anne Frank Prose posits is a close observer of human nature with an eye beyond her years. She is an introspective self-annalist. Moreover, she is well able to put those observations and that introspection on paper for the reader. She is not merely a precocious teen gushing confidences in secret, she is a talented writer interested in producing something that will have a life when she is gone.

Prose examines the different versions of the diary to show how Anne went back and revised what she had already written, how she dreamed about using it as material for a fictional work, how she began to think about the diary as a public document, rather than a private record.

It is the theatrical adaptation of the diary and later the motion picture, Prose feels, that is responsible for the image of Anne as a silly teen. Goodrich and Hackett in their adaptation aimed to create a character and a storyline that would be palatable to a Broadway audience. The plight of Anne and the others in the attic was deemed both too dark and too parochial for popular success.

What Goodrich and Hackett did was to turn Anne into something more like an American teenager. They de-emphasized the Jewish elements and added some comic elements to lighten things. They tried to infuse some optimism by emphasizing Anne’s faith in the essential goodness of human beings. In doing so, they distorted both the diary and the diarist, yet at the same time, the popular success of their play may well have been responsible for turning new audiences onto the original.

What Prose has written is a corrective to these adaptations. She details the background of the Frank family. She explains the relationships between the families hidden in the attic and their “helpers”—the Dutch friends who kept them supplied with the necessities of life. She illustrates what life was like in Amsterdam when the Nazis, took over, and Otto Frank’s attempts to get his family out of the country.

She tells us what happened to them all after they were discovered. She hones in on Anne’s death at Bergen-Belsen, just a few days before the liberation. In a world where Holocaust-deniers can still manage to find a receptive audience, this portion of her book is a worthwhile corrective.

The major portion of the book deals with the diary itself. There is the story of the trials and tribulations involved in its publication first abroad and then in the United States. And trials and tribulations there were aplenty: vituperative back biting, law suits, broken friendships. Prose explains it all. More important, perhaps, is her critical attention to the writing of the diary. A writer herself, she is well suited to analyze and explain what Anne’s revisions of her work revealed both about her intentions as well as her artistic growth. Her conclusion, admirably argued, is that Anne’s diary as revised is a conscious work of art, and should in fact be treated as such.

The age of the author need not negate the artistic merit of a work. Here is Prose: “As a boy of five, Mozart was already composing, Keats was dead at twenty-six. Maturity and creativity are unpredictable over a lifetime, and the early appearance of genius frequently obliges us to rethink our preconceived notions of age.”

Prose’s discussions of the various adaptations tend to be dismissive. None of them, despite their popular success, ever capture the essential greatness she finds in the book itself. Perhaps the adaptation that comes closest to doing justice to Anne’s work according to Prose is the 1997 revision by Wendy Kesselman. But even here there were problems. Moreover she is uniformly unhappy with the actresses—Susan Strasberg, Millie Perkins, Natalie Portman—who played Anne in her various incarnations.

Lovers of Anne Frank’s diary will find in Prose’s book a useful companion filled with critical insight and a fund of information. For the casual reader, it may be a case of more information than you really wanted.

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