Of the many hats worn by icon Anne Frank—ingénue, prophet, precocious innocent, even an actual lampshade, in one ill-advised incarnation—the most obvious is the least examined: writer. But in Anne Frank, author and lifetime fan Francine Prose has done the nearly impossible to one of the world’s most revered figures and her relentlessly pored-over text. She’s taken Anne off the pedestal where our near-religious cultural fervor has placed her, and settled her firmly in what she views as a far more appropriate seat: her writing desk.
Prose’s first act is to rid the reader of a pernicious assumption that the diary itself, paraphrasing the preface to the Dutch edition, is “the unaffected, unpolished scribblings of an unusually gifted child.” It’s ironic that Anne’s introduction to the world from its first publication in 1947 was already so mysteriously wrongheaded, but Prose acknowledges that as a child she herself was similarly fooled. Only as an adult author, picking up the book to research her novel’s protagonist, another 13-year-old girl, did Prose remember with increasing admiration “how much art is required to give an impression of artlessness.”
And Anne, perfectly cognizant of her task, would have agreed. “Anne Frank thought of herself as not merely a girl who was keeping a diary, but as a writer,” Prose tells us, proving her case through historical Anne’s own statements (“I must…get on to become a journalist, because that’s what I want!” a close reading of the book Anne’s Otto edited and published, and a side-by-side comparison of all available texts, ones that clearly reveal Anne’s significant edits up until the time the Annex’s inhabitants were discovered.
In the last case, it’s a testament to Prose’s skill as an author that she’s able to imbue what could have been a mind-numbing versioning affair better left to Microsoft Word with all the drama of a classic whodunit—with a 13-year-old Anne, 15-year-old Anne, and Otto, the novel’s final editor, as the culprits. Looking side-by-side at the Otto-edited edition most of us read, the 1995 so-called definitive edition, with much of Anne’s original material reinstated, then the 800-page Critical Edition , which lays out all available versions in A, B & C texts running concurrently on the page , Prose unveils the numerous instances where Anne in fact judiciously edited the diary, omitting material the tedious material, like a list of birthday presents, that she actually received when she was 13.
Prose also dismisses the frequent charge that Otto’s edits sanitized the diary, pointing out that his omissions more than often merely cut out material that would have been embarrassing to Anne as a writer, not as an individual. in “Preserving the essence of the diary,” he returned, for example, Anne’s depiction of her romance with Peter Van Pels, which she removed after the romance itself cooled. “His editing was guided by the instincts of a bereaved father wanting to give the reader the fullest sense of what his daughter had been like,” Prose writes.
Prose’s close readings of the diary itself also point out how Anne, “immensely observant,” was both humorous and unsparing in her depiction not only of herself, but of her parents’ marriage, her fellow annex inhabitants, and the implications of the war for them all. We can feel Prose’s admiration grow with each instance, as she practically argues with an invisible dubious combatant, “Anyone who has ever tried to write autobiography will know how difficult it is to do without seeming mannered, strained and false. Only a natural writer could sound as if she is not writing so much as thinking on the page.”
But even as Prose admirably recreates the events in the attic over the years – no small feat – she herself is unable herself to escape the charge she often levels at other readers: the emotional transformation of Anne from skilled writer into a “perky messenger of peace and love. As a writer, Prose admires Anne’s skills, but as a reader, she too is seduced, unable to look at Anne’s book without seeing its implications for the entire world.
This may explain the ill-advised latter section of the book, the “Afterlife” portion, where Prose takes us through the novel’s translation into a dramatic play, its various film adaptations, its place in the political sphere, and finally, its use in Prose’s own classroom. It’s difficult to say if these sections falter simply because suddenly our fascinating heroine is absent from the narrative, but one also feels a scrambling grasp for greater meaning coupled with a slapped-together quality, as if an editor, blank-faced at Prose’s own project—“I would argue for Anne Frank’s talent as a writer”—still suggested it might be grand to round out the work with a comprehensive examination of the book’s permutations.
And the minute we shift the diary stage left, we find ourselves with Otto Frank and ardent advocate Meyer Levin, who bolstered not only the book’s U.S. publication but its transformation from page to stage. Here, the book also moves from transcendent criticism into a workmanlike history tailor-made for a biopic, with Carson McCullers and Lillian Hellman with walk-on roles. (I see Kathy Bates as Hellman!). But Prose is a hapless Dominick Donne, and the film section similarly is larded with gossip without the juicy. (Who now remembers, or cares, that Audrey Hepburn rejected the role, turning instead to star in Green Mansions?)
The brief “Denial” chapter, which touches on those who either deny the existence of the Holocaust or simply ban the book, is inexplicable. Can’t a book that asks us to looks straight-on at the horror of the Holocaust take the persistence of petty stupidity as a given? And in the last section, a chapter about teaching a close-reading of Diary of a Girl at Bard, Prose seems to descend into the kind of soft-focus she abhors in others. Quoting from a student’s paper contending that “I know that, given the chance, we would have been close in life,” Prose dreamily decides, “They would have been friends.” That’ not as insipid as the scene that Prose describes where Natalie Portman lies happily
on the floor onstage, kicking her legs back and forth as she scribbles away. But it’s close.
But even these last sections cannot undercut the case Prose undercuts has so brilliantly proven just pages before—that Anne’s story should be first and foremost be understood as the story of a serious author . “On the sunny and otherwise quite morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht,” Prose writes. “That is all one needs to write, and already the reader knows who was hiding in the attic and the fat about to befall them.” One has to appreciate Prose’s very human struggle: she is unable to look at Anne simply as a fan or simply as a fellow writer because Anne’s own skill as a storyteller forces us to try to seek greater meaning from the story, whether to clumsily make a film palatable for American audiences or to take on the grand task to “rid the world of hatred.” It’s a story that will never stand alone, and Prose’s own struggle proves her case as well as her argument. Anne’s enormous power as a writer will always force us, as she was forced, to finally leave the Annex.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery, a memoir of teen reading.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times