Though The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was originally turned down by nine publishing houses in the U.S. and five in the U.K., it went on to be translated into more than 55 languages and sell more than 25 million copies. Around the globe, young people study it; audiences flock to revivals of the play based on it; and writers — and I admit to being one of these — cannot stop mining it. Now Francine Prose, the author of 15 novels and five books of nonfiction, takes up the challenge with Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife (Harper Collins, $24.99).
As the subtitle makes clear, Prose has undertaken an explication of the text, a retelling of the events chronicled in the diary, and an account of the bizarre life Anne Frank’s diary took on after her death.
The first part sets out to show that the work is not merely the day-to-day musings of an adolescent girl, but a dazzling work of art, carefully crafted by a gifted and extremely serious young writer. Like the able teacher she is, Prose plumbs The Critical Edition, which is a comparison of the various drafts of the diary edited by Anne before her death and by her father after, as well as handwriting analyses, to demonstrate Anne’s eye for detail, ear for dialogue, skill at character building, and sure sense of pacing and voice.
Prose’s account of life in the Secret Annex is brief but authoritative. She separates the characters Anne renamed and brilliantly brought to life from the actual individuals in hiding, whom we know from contemporary accounts and memoirs. Peter’s parents were not the vulgar feuding couple we meet in the diary. The dentist was not the buffoon she loathed. Rather than undermine the validity of Anne’s account, the differences reveal the subtlety and skill of the young writer, who used her own perceptions to heighten the power of the tale. But the most dramatic section of Prose’s study concerns the strange and often heartbreaking life the diary took on long after the young girl who perished in Bergen Belsen wrote “I want to go on living even after my death!”
The diary, and the play and movie based on it, incited passions. Feuds broke out, careers foundered, marriages fell apart, charges flew, and lawsuits dragged on interminably. Prose demonstrates how the play and the movie turned a precociously intelligent, talented, and morally evolving young woman into a mindless American teenybopper. “On the page she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit.” She is generous to all the players involved, occasionally too much so, as when she ignores Otto Frank’s letters urging the stonewalling of the dentist’s widow who protests his portrayal as a fool, as well as Meyer Levin’s reckless Redbaiting of just about everyone involved in the production of the play. But for the most part, Prose is admirably evenhanded.
Nothing here is new, but Prose never pretends it is. She has read exhaustively in the Anne Frank literature, thought deeply about the diary and its place in our world, and written a book that is at once passionate about the diary and dispassionate about the controversies that have surrounded it for more than half a century. In the cacophony of Anne Frank partisans and deniers, those who want to canonize her and those who want to use her as a cudgel to hammer home their own views, Prose sounds a note of sanity.
Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction, is the author of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for England’s Orange Prize.