Francine Prose tells the story of Anne Frank’s diary: how it come to be written and what happened to it once it appeared in the world.
Francine Prose’s Anne Frank is not, strictly speaking, a book about Anne Frank. That’s a good thing: We’ve had quite a few of those, and it would be difficult to do better than, for example, Melissa Müller’s stellar biography, also titled “Anne Frank.”Skip to next paragraph
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Prose’s work is, instead, the biography of a book. Contrary to what one might think, the diary is a book complicated and resonant enough to be worthy of a biography that retells both how it came to be written and what happened once it appeared in the world.
The latter story is stranger than one may think. The diary has been beset by controversy, from allegations that it was actually written by Anne’s father, Otto, (a case put to rest by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in the 1980s) to legal battles over its adaptation for the stage. These strange twists and turns get a third of Prose’s attention; the biography of Frank, another third. But the weight of the book is its middle section, where Prose takes up the diary with the sustained attention merited by classics.
Prose writes about Frank as if the 15-year-old were Ernest Hemingway or Eugene O’Neill, returning to original and revised manuscripts and looking for clues about the writer’s artistic process. She is uninterested in the Anne Frank most of us know, the poignant symbol of suffering who could have been great had she lived. Prose discovers, instead, a “prodigious” writer executing deft editorial decisions, a young woman who in fact did something great.
The diary, Prose argues, is not actually a diary. It is better understood as a memoir in the “form of a diary – letters with breaks, like chapter breaks, allowing for gaps in time and changes of subjects.” The form allowed Frank to manipulate her gifts and her craft into a work that reads like a novel. “[T]he first thing that draws us into the diary is Anne Frank’s voice, that mysterious amalgam of talent, instinct, hard work, and countless small authorial decisions that make words seem to speak to us from the page,” Prose writes. “Part of what keeps us reading with such rapt attention are the regular yet unpredictable shifts between opposites of tone and content – between domesticity and danger, between the private and the historic, between metaphysics and high comedy.”
The analysis is at times, and necessarily, a bit laborious: Frank spent 26 months in her secret annex editing and revising her work, leaving behind several drafts for parsing. Prose argues that in the revisions, we can see Frank’s gift for words mature – that the very exercise of the revisions themselves illustrates that the 14-year-old had a far more sophisticated vision, and more professional dedication to her work, than she is usually given credit for.