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.”
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.
Yet in Prose’s exculpation, “Anne Frank” drags at times. It’s partly the nature of the task – any text that takes so seriously the diarist’s intentions would necessarily read at moments like an honors literature thesis – and partly Prose’s dedication to that task. She sets out to displace our imagined Anne Frank, a superficial, at times bratty little thing we’d today call a “tween,” and restore a person whom Prose comes to think of as the real Anne, though she stops just short of that locution. And rightly so: The story of Frank’s story, from book to stage to screen, ignites fierce and futile debates between those who claim to speak for her.
But in seeking to consider, even establish, Frank as a gifted writer, Prose may give Frank a bit too much credit, even for the most overly sympathetic devotee of the diary. In a passage meant to illustrate the complexity of the task Frank set for herself, turning a young teen’s diary into a young adult’s memoir, Prose excuses in Frank’s revision the kind of indulgent language that appears mostly in the original. “[T]hinking her way back” to her life before the attic “required such an effort of the imagination that, at least once, Anne overdoes it and begins to gush,” Prose writes.
She may have chosen to gush for any number of reasons, and perhaps the wisest of readers will side with Prose, whose careful study of the diary and renowned literary acuity make her a reliable interpreter. Yet if our shared mission is to restore realism to an Anne Frank too often portrayed as either saintly or silly, then one wants a bit of criticism, too. In other places, Prose obliges, if subtly, at one point arguing that a choice by Otto Frank to ignore one of Anne’s revisions “created a more compelling drama.”
Still, Prose makes a compelling case that as a writer, Frank knew what she was doing. And Prose is at her best when she is a compassionate companion, nudging us to think, for example, of how “Otto learned to steel himself to the discomfort of having his daughter talked about as if she were a fictional character,” or informing us, after recapping Anne’s comical story about a sack of beans that burst and flooded the stairway behind the famous bookcase, that one of the helpers later described Otto, after the war, bending over to pick up a bean from the annex floor.
It’s in weaving together the multiple accounts of Anne Frank, from Frank’s own hand and others, that Prose manages to make her emerge as a person we somehow missed before. By the end, the diarist’s talent and diligence are so overwhelmingly clear one must remind oneself that Frank managed all this graceful work before her 15th birthday. But one needn’t remind oneself of the complexity of the young woman behind “a masterpiece ... between checked cloth covers.” Prose has done that for us.
Still, the masterpiece is incomplete. Frank spent only her last months in hiding in earnest revisions, a project cut off by her discovery, arrest, and eventual death in a German concentration camp. The abrupt end to Frank’s rewriting makes it difficult for even Prose, at times, to distinguish between Anne Frank the character, crafted so carefully in revisions, and Anne Frank the narrator. What is immediately clear to Prose, however, is the facility with which Frank made characters out of everyone around her and a plot out of their lives. With compassion and grace, Prose looks at Anne Frank as Anne wished to be seen: above all, as a writer.
Jina Moore is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.