Francine Prose, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife

Publisher: Harper
2009, 322 pages, hardcover, $25

as wrong as it sounds to admit, Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife is a page-turner.

Prose doesn’t have to do much to keep a nonfiction work about the prodigious young writer’s exile, murder, and posthumous global renown as compelling as fiction. She accomplishes this largely by filling in the personal and historical context only sketched in Frank’s diary. The use of historical records and personal accounts of survivors imparts the feeling of being let in on more “story,” making the book a fulfilling compliment to The Diary of a Young Girl, as well as a tribute. Prose follows the Frank family from the girl’s parents’ youth to each member’s fate at the camps, including a harrowing account of Anne’s last days in Bergen-Belsen. The book then dramatizes the hardship Otto Frank faced in his quest to publish his daughter’s diary and then bring the work to the stage and screen. Throughout, Prose’s retelling rings with nothing less than the weight of the tragedy of Anne Frank’s life–hope beyond hope ultimately extinguished.

Prose does not shy away from tackling the controversy over which of the many versions of The Diary is the most authentic. She is quick to note that the notion of authenticity is slippery, since a year into hiding Anne began severely editing the original document to shape it as a work of literature. As “purity” was therefore never intended, it is hard to debate whether Otto Frank was at fault in editing The Diary a third time, in which he added, deleted, and merged sections to preserve an honorable image of his daughter and family, forging the document most Americans read as children. As Anne Frank’s sole desire was to produce a work that would immortalize her as an author, other than a conciliatory note on the shame that the intended version has yet never been published in full, Prose concludes that Frank achieved her goal through the popularized version without sacrificing her artistic vision.

Perhaps to avoid criticism for capitalizing on another’s misfortune, Prose begins Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by framing her desire for writing the book. She confesses to a longstanding obsession with The Diary and having taken on the task with the beneficent aim of asserting Frank’s talent as a writer. These sentiments come across with great passion and authenticity:

Regardless of her age and gender, she managed to create something that transcended what she herself called ‘the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old’ and that should be awarded its place among the great memoirs and spiritual confessions, as well among the most significant records of the era in which she lived.

Predominantly, Prose achieves this aim in the section entitled “The Book.” Here she explicates The Diary as a piece of literature by highlighting the brilliance of Frank’s craft beside seemingly endless laudatory remarks. According to Prose, Frank’s characterization of her companions is a “marvel of literary portraiture,” a feat accomplished through the girl’s unique “dispassionate observation.” This gift allowed Frank to illuminate the minutiae of her daily life and string it together to make meaning, as well as to track the finer psychological developments of herself as narrator, by which The Diary reaches the art of memoir. The level of craft, as well as its multifarious themes, allows The Diary to transcend the genre of war document. As Prose reminds us, the power and popularity of Frank’s diary is due to the fact that it is more than a tale of survival in Nazi Amsterdam: “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.” With grace, wit, and reverence, Prose makes good on her promise of earning readers’ esteem of Frank as one of the most talented writers of literature.

To further justify The Diary‘s place among classics, Prose details the global impact of the work. We are shown how, in Argentina, the traveling exhibition created by the Anne Frank Foundation, “Anne Frank–A History for Today,” confronted the issue of police violence, getting members of the police and students together to discuss and reflect on their socio-political situation. Prose contrasts the trials of educators, who use the book as a means of confronting racism and xenophobia, with the resistance from delusional holocaust revisionists, neo-Nazis, and Christian fundamentalists. Ultimately, the endearments from Eleanor Roosevelt, friends of the Frank family, and the editors who made The Diary‘s publication their own personal crusade bring the vast impact of the book home. All are resolved that The Diary helps people, as Otto Frank remarked in his correspondence with the former first lady, “‘to understand … that only love not hatred can build a better world.'” Prose caps the book with a personal account of the effect The Diary has had on her own students. In doing so, she comes full circle, her belief in the power of The Diary affirmed despite the controversies that surround the text, her heart consoled that Anne’s wish–“‘I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me!'”–has been granted.

Yet, having finished Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, I am left most of all with a deeply troubling thought–a brilliant writer, an immensely talented girl with the ability to achieve her dreams of celebrity and literary renown, is dead, cold dead. “Future generations … will have to remind themselves that [this] happened to real people, though these people have survived, and will live on, as characters in a book.” Yes–but that is all, Prose reminds us. And the effect is staggering.

-Daniel Keltner