Friday, April 23, 2010

Anne Frank by Francine Prose

In May of 1944 Anne Frank began to refine and polish her diary into a form that she hoped might someday appear as Het Achterhuis - literally, " the house behind" or "annex" . Returning to the earliest pages, Anne cut, clarified and expanded her original entries, and added new ones which in some cases she predated, sometimes by years. Thus the book is not, strictly speaking, what we think of as a diary - a journal in which events are recorded as they occur, day by day - but rather a memoir in the form of diary entries. Judith Thurman got it right, as few have, when she questioned even calling the book, as Anne's American publishers did, The Diary of a Young Girl. " That ingenuous title corresponds to what is in fact an epistolary autobiography of exceptional character. It takes full measure of a complex and evolving character. It has the shape and drama of literature. It was scrupulously revised by its author, who intended it to be read. It was certainly not a piece of ' found art', as one Dutch critic has suggested."

The form of the diary - letters with breaks, like chapter breaks, allowing for gaps in time and changes in in subject- lets Anne glide from meditation to action, from narration and reflection to dialogue and dramatized scene with 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. One of the most intriguing of these oppositions is the tension between the extraordinary and the ordinary, the extreme and the normal, the young genius and the typical teen. In one entry, Anne can make the most trenchant or poetic observations; in the next, she complains that she is being picked on, singled out, criticized unfairly; that adults don't understand her, they treat her like the child that she sounds like in these passages. Even as the dangers grew more pressing and her reflections more transcendent, she keeps insisting on how ordinary she is, and regardless of the evidence to the contrary, we believe her, and we don't, because its true and it isn't.

Her voice is so recognizable and so evocative that we might mistake it for any girl's, until we read more closely and realize that its timbre, its tempo, and its choice of what to focus on is uniquely Anne's. Anyone who has tried to write autobiographically will know how difficult it is to do so without seeming mannered, strained, and false. She sounds as if she is not writing so much as thinking on the page.

One striking aspect of the diary is how much life it packs into its pages. Sex is part of it, as is death, love, family, age, youth, hope, God, the spiritual and the domestic, the mystery of innocence and the mystery of evil. In addition, the diary is about Hitler's war against the Jews, about Holland during World war II, and about the allied invasion of Europe as seen from inside an occupied country. It's easy to overlook the amount of history folded into these entries:

"Saturday March 27, 1943. Rauter, one of the German big shots, has made a speech. 'All Jews must be out of German-occupied countries before July 1. Between April 1 and May 1 the province Utrecht must be cleared out (as if the Jews were cockroaches). Between May 1 and June 1 the provinces of North and South Holland' These wretched people are sent to filthy slaughterhouses like a herd of sick, neglected cattle."

Anne's diary is a symphonic composition of major and minor themes, of notes and chords struck at sufficiently regular and frequent intervals so that they never leave the reader's consciousness for very long. It is possible to trace each thread as it weaves through the diary, periodically reappearing to heighten and sharpen our understanding of a character or situation. How amazing, a casual reader might say, how thoroughly unlikely that such a penetrating, dramatic, and structurally ambitious work should have evolved, on its own, from the natural and spontaneous jottings of a young girl added every day, or every few days, to her diary. Such a reader would have been right to wonder about that naturalness and that offhand improvisatory spirit yet is as all unquestionably the work of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl between the ages of 13 - 15 hiding out in Nazis occupied Holland between 1942 and 1944.


On the pages of the book Anne Frank is brilliant, in the original Broadway production based on the book she is a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she's the naive baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed. Anne is always needing the obvious explained; she's invariably the slowest to grasp the dangers and necessities of their new life. A preteen trickster, she can't stop playing playing pranks, hiding Peter's shoes and saying lines like, "You are the most intolerable, insufferable boy I ever met!" How the real Anne Frank would have cringed at the scene of her spilling milk on Mrs. Van Daan's precious fur coat, and how that brave girl would have railed against being shown fainting from terror when thieves break in downstairs. Arch, kittenish, silly and shallow, what could the girl we see in the play manage to write? The prodigiously articulate author can hardly utter a sentence without pausing to collect her scattered thoughts, none of them especially incisive. The pointed accuracy of her observations has been blunted, the delicacy of her perceptions has everywhere been coarsened. All of Anne's intriguing contradictions simplified out of existence.

The 1997 revival suffered a similar affliction. Two years after the play's Broadway run Natalie Portman, wrote about the difference those two years made in her reading of the diary:

"At 16, when I portrayed Anne on Broadway, it was her flaws - vanity, over-excitability, and quickness to fight - that interested me the most. And now, upon my most recent perusal just weeks before my 18th birthday, I am struck most strongly by her introspection, solitude, perfect self-awareness and sense of purpose... the beauty and truth of her words have transcended the limits placed on her life by the darkness of human nature."

The desire to extract an affirmative 'American' lesson from Anne Frank's story likewise explains the fact that the Anne who visits our classrooms, and whom the pedagogical literature describes, more closely resembles the Broadway and Hollywood Anne than the Anne we meet in the diary. Much is made by the teaching guides of her optimism and resilience, but there is little acknowledgment of the fact that she was a complicated young artist who died a tragic early death. An article in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, by Stephanie Jones and Karen Spector, notes that students may actually resist the suggestion that Anne's story is not the sunny narrative they wish to imagine:

Even when students were explicitly told of her cruel death, they still tended to imagine her in hopeful ways. When students answered a question in their textbook...that asked how Anne could have been happy in a concentration camp, Charlotte answered, "Knowing Anne, she was happy in the concentration camps. She didn't have to be quiet anymore; she could frolic outside. She could be in nature. I think it was a welcome relief for her" When Karen asked Charlotte's classmates if they agreed with her, the room was filled with lifted arms; some had both hands raised, yet no one raised a voice or kept an arm down in protest of Charlotte's statement. No one. This is a testament to the powerful pull of the Americanization of Anne Frank.

The idea of Anne frolicking in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen suggests a flaw in the Holocaust units of which her diary often forms the core. Some responsibility for this may stem from the cognitive dissonance that must effect teachers attempting to present ( and students trying to grasp) the life of Anne Frank as an example of the triumph of the human spirit. The logical conclusion to that story is not the mass grave at Bergen-Belsen, and so it must be tempting to proceed as if Anne's story ended when her diary ends, as if Auschwitz never existed.

In The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, Rachel van Amergogen- Frankfoorder reports that that the emaciated Frank girls " had little squabbles, caused by their illness..[ including scabies which covered them in sores]...They were terribly cold. They had the least desirable place in the barracks, below, near the door, which was constantly opened and closed. You heard them constantly screaming, 'Close the door, close the door,'... What was so sad, of course, was that these children were so young...They showed the recognizable symptoms of typhus- that gradual wasting away, a sort of apathy, with occasional revivals, until they became so sick there wasn't any hope and then one day they were no any longer. Their corpses were heaped near the barracks." Rachel passed the bodies of the Frank sisters on her way to the latrine. Then they were buried in a mass grave.


  1. Anne Frank; The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose: HarperCollins, 2009

  2. "In 1997, Anne Frank returned to Broadway, in a new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman. Approached by producers Amy Nederlander and David Stone and by director James Lapine, Kesselman undertook the commission because, she says, "I wanted to restore the truth" to the way Anne was portrayed on stage."- a decision complicated by the fact that the copyright specified that no more than 10 percent of the original 1955 play could be altered...Kesselman's adaptation is more faithful to the diary than its predecessor.

    Finally, a play is a script, a blueprint, and much depends on the quality of the production. In the spring of 2007, a staging of Kesselman's version, directed by Tina Landau at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, seems to have maximized its potential."