Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Review: Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife
by Francine Prose
published 2009
281 pages

Read for: Women Unbound; Support Your Local Library; Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge

"In Amsterdam, on the sunny and otherwise quiet morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a car pulled up in front of the Opekta warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht.

That is all one needs to write, and already the reader know who was hiding in the attic and the fate about to befall them. We know it more than sixty years later, at a historical moment when it is often noted how little history we remember. We know the reason why we know, but it bears repeating lest we take it for granted that we know because a little girl kept a diary." (pg. 63)

I thought I knew the story of Anne Frank's diary.

Like many teenagers, I read The Diary of a Young Girl in middle school and was immediately captivated and inspired by young Anne's writing. Through her diary, Anne became, for my generation and others, a symbol of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed upon millions of people during that time.

But in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, bestselling author Francine Prose provides an illuminating view of Anne Frank and her diary. There are so many aspects of the diary that Prose discusses with fascinating detail, and in doing so, the reader learns so much about a book - and more importantly, a girl - that we thought we knew.

For starters, it's not necessary (as I originally thought) to re-read The Diary of a Young Girl before reading Prose's book. Prose includes so much of the diary's passages that you instantly remember the phrases, the others hiding in the attic with their idiosyncrasies unveiled, and how Anne seemed to speak to us through her diary, which she names Kitty, a brilliant literary device that endears her to her reader.

"Reading Anne's diary, we become the friend, the most intelligent, comprehending companion that anyone could hope to find. Chatty, humorous, familiar, Anne is writing to us, speaking from the heart to the ideal confidante, and we rise to the challenge and become that confidante. She turns us into the consummate listener, picking up the signals she hopes she
is transmitting into the fresh air beyond the prison of the attic. If her diary is a message in a bottle, we are the ones who find it, glittering on the beach." (pg. 91)

Anne Frank: The Book
Prose makes a compelling case for the fact that the diary was, in Anne's view, a deliberate work of art. I didn't know (or maybe I had forgotten) that the diary went through several versions and revisions. There was the first version (A), and then in March 1944, Anne began the process of revising her work (version B). After her death, the diary was retrieved and given to Anne's father, Otto Frank, who began the process of editing his daughter's work (version C), believing as she did that it should be published - which incidentally, did not happen overnight. Far from it.

"The manuscript was rejected by every editor who read it, none of whom could imagine that readers would buy the intimate diary of a young girl, dead in the war. (pg. 77)

Same in the United States, where "Anne Frank's diary was initially rejected by nearly every major publishing house. " It was considered to be "too narrowly focused, too domestic, too Jewish, too boring, and above all, too likely to remind readers of what they wished to
forget." (pg. 81) Others were more harsh, calling it "'very dull,' a 'dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.'" (pg. 81)

An editor found it in the reject pile.

But that's all history, obviously. There's still the matter of the writing itself. In Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, Prose presents side-by-side comparisons of Anne's original passages and the same words following Anne's self-editing and revisions. In the process, Anne's writing strengthens and matures. At 15, she becomes a master of all aspects of writing - the ability to develop characters and detail, create suspense (even though you know what is going to happen), voice and tone, and multiple themes.

"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." (pg. 126)

As a writer, it is both fascinating to watch this literary process unfold ... and heartbreaking because you can't help but wonder what could have been.

Anne Frank: The Life
Through her writing, Anne also gives a reader a strong sense of the history and happenings of that time, which is incredible given the fact the Franks were in hiding. Prose writes that this becomes even more critical as decades pass and memories fade.

"In a few more years, no one alive will have witnessed the scene of a Nazi arresting a Jew. There have been, and will be, other arrests and executions for the crime of having been born into a particular race or religion or tribe. But the scene of Nazis hunting down Jews is unlikely to happen again, though history teaches us never to say never. This will be the arrest that future generations can visualize, like a scene in a book. They will have to remind themselves that it happened to real people, though these people have survived, and will live on, as characters in a book." (pg. 64)

There is a section of Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife where Prose writes about the arrest of the Franks, details of which I again thought I knew but didn't. The arresting officer Karl Josef Silberbauer

"was disturbed by the detail of Otto Frank's military trunk, labeled as the property of Lieutenant Otto Frank, which meant he would have been Sergeant Silberbauer's superior when both fought in the German army during World War I." (pg. 65)

Simon Wiesenthal later successfully tracked down this Silberbauer, whose wartime activities were investigated and later dropped for "lack of evidence." (Is it possible to arrest someone for being an asshole? Because if so, Silberbauer would have been pretty high on my list for his whining. See if you agree.)

"The suddenly notorious [after his whereabouts and wartime history became known] Silberbauer complained to a Dutch reporter that his temporary suspension from the [Vienna] police force [after his whereabouts and wartime history became known] was making it hard to pay for the new furniture he'd bought on the installment plan, and that he could no longer use the pass that let him ride the streetcar for free. Asked if he had read Anne Frank's
diary, Silberbauer replied that he had bought it to see if he was in it." (pg. 66)

I commend Prose for taking a more restrained response to this than I would have, because really ... worrying about his furniture payments and losing his privileges of riding the streetcar for free? Call me callous, but those hardships don't seem to be on par with dying of typhus at age 15 in a concentration camp.

"Why did he think he might be? He knew what happened to Anne after he flushed her out of the attic. Did he imagine that, ill and starving, she could have kept up her diary in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, pausing from her labors to record her impressions of Silberbauer?" (pg. 66-67)

All of this would have been sufficient material for Prose to examine in less than 300 pages. But, she gives us more - so much more.

I hadn't intended to read this for the Women Unbound challenge, but I think it fits. Seeing the emergence of Anne as the feminist she could have been is fascinating.

"Anne is appalled by the thought of growing up with the limited horizons, ambitions, and expectations of the women around her .... Anne writes that she hopes to spend a year in Paris or London, studying languages and art history - an ambition she compares, with barely veiled contempt, to Margot's desire to go to Palestine and become a midwife.

"In an essay entitled "Reading Anne Frank as a Woman," a feminist interpretation of Anne as 'a woman who was censored by male editors," Berteke Waaldijk, a professor of Women's Studies at the University of Utrecht, points out a long and almost entirely overlooked passage that Otto Frank excised from the final section of the diary. Perhaps Otto assumed that a lengthy disquisition on women's rights might distract the reader heading into the final pages in which Anne is unknowingly hurtling toward her doom. At a point during which Anne was
simultaneously writng new material and rapidly revising, she devoted a remarkable amount of space to the question of why women are treated as inferior to men:

[Anne's words]
'Presumably man, thanks to his greater physical strength, achieved dominence over women from the very start; man, who earns the money, who begets children, who may do what he wants ... It is stupid enough of women to have borne it all in silence for such a long time, since the more centuries this arrangement lasts, the more deeply rooted it becomes. Luckily schooling, work and progress have opened women's eyes. In many countries ... modern women demand the right of complete independence!"

It really makes you wonder, doesn't it, about what kind of woman Anne Frank would have become, seeing the blossoming right before our eyes, the issues that she would have been speaking out on, the differences that she would have made in addition to the ones she did make as a 15 year old.

Anne Frank: The Afterlife
By afterlife, Prose is not referring to reincarnation or a ghostly presence or anything like that. She's referring to the life that The Diary of a Young Girl has had in the years since Anne's death and the producton of the play, and the movie. (I never saw either, so the machinations involved surrounding both were not as compelling to me as other parts of Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. After reading the behind-the-scenes drama and the final result that is the play and movie, I'm not interested in seeing either.)

Prose addresses the claims that some consider the diary to be fake, the emergence of Holocaust deniers, and the reasons why The Diary of a Young Girl ranks among the most-challenged and banned book in schools. (After one such case, one school board was ordered to pay families $50,000 in damages because of their children's exposure to Anne Frank's diary.)

All of the above is disturbing at best, horrifying at worst, but Prose counters this with real-life examples of how Anne's diary is being taught in schools - and why it must be. It goes back to the passage of how in a few years, there won't be anyone left alive who has witnessed - much less lived - during a time when Nazis hunted down Jews. But it is more than that: in 2008, a survey found that a quarter of American teenagers had no idea who Hitler was.

If you're a teacher or otherwise responsible for kids' education, I'd imagine that this section of Prose's book would be of great interest.

Anne Frank wrote that she believed that people were basically good at heart. She also hoped that there would be a way to live on after her death.

With extensive research and detail showing us an Anne Frank who was a gifted writer and feminist and change agent for the world, Francine Prose has proven to us by paying homage to Anne that both are, absolutely, very much possible.

FTC disclaimer: I owe a small fortune on this, as this was due back January 29 to my local library.

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


JoAnn said...

This sounds fascinating! It's going on my list - now!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

It's such a compelling book. I think you'll like it!

K a b l o o e y said...

Hey, sorry for comment asking for your opinion of this book -- that's what I get for going through my reader from top down. This was just what I was hoping for. I love Francine Prose and was fascinated by Anne Frank as a kid.