- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

By Francine Prose
Harper Collins, $24.99, 336 pages

Weeks before her family went into hiding in a cramped Amsterdam attic to escape the Nazis, a Jewish 13-year old named Anne Frank received a red-and-white checked diary for her birthday. For two years she recorded her fears, hopes, conversations and drama until, one horrifying sunny day on Aug. 4, 1944, the secret annex was raided and the family arrested. We all know the heartbreaking story. We all remember where and how old we were when we first read the diary. It haunts us still. How the family was led away to their death. How, discarded, strewn on the floor of the annex, as if it were only so much paper, lay a masterpiece between checked cloth covers. How, at the end of the war, Anne’s father, Otto, among the few prisoners found alive in Auschwitz and the only family member to survive, recovered the diary in the wreckage. And how, today, the story of this individual young girl resonates most with students all over the world as they are taught the Holocaust.

With extreme sensitivity and remarkable insight, acclaimed writer and teacher Francine Prose examines the diary as a work of art as much as a historical record. What few us ever knew was that, during the last months of her hiding, Anne Frank deliberately edited and revised her work, hoping that it would stand as a work of art and be read by the public after the war. Like a series of lectures, this book is divided into three sections: the book, the life and the afterlife. Anne Frank’s diary is given a close reading by the author, who considers the work from a literary perspective. Instead of treating Anne Frank as a myth, we are asked to consider her talent as a writer.

Francine Prose poses several questions: What aspects of the book have helped ensure its long and influential afterlife? Why has Anne Frank become such an iconic figure for so many readers in so many countries? What is it about her voice that continues to engage and move her audience? How have the various interpretations and versions of her diary — the Broadway play, the Hollywood film, the schoolroom lessons, the newspaper articles that keep her in the public eye — influenced our idea of who she was and what she wrote? Increasingly impatient with the notion of Anne Frank “as the perky teenage messenger of peace and love,” Francine Prose demonstrates Anne’s “sensibly and understandably mixed view of human nature,” her ability to “develop a sophisticated moral consciousness” and “maintain compassion and humor under the most intense stress.”

The diary, as John Berryman once wrote, is “the conversion of a child into a person.” It is what makes the most often quoted entry of her diary, of her belief in the goodness of people, so poignant and heart- wrenching. If you think this is a dull academic book, with Francine Prose dissecting each passage by dancing on the head of a pin, you will be gravely mistaken. Just as she demonstrated in her recent work of nonfiction, “Reading Like a Writer,” Francine Prose is brilliant in capturing the complexity of her subject. Indeed, while there have been many books about Anne Frank (amounting to a virtual cottage industry), this is the first that truly sustains our interest.

Ms. Prose not only writes with clarity and sympathy, she also skillfully culls the enormous amount of fresh biographical and literary revelations that, over the years, continues to receive prominent worldwide coverage. She also tells of the obstacles Otto Frank confronted when he tried to publish the work. The manuscript was rejected by every editor who read it, “none of whom could imagine that readers would buy the intimate diary of a teenage girl, dead in the war.” Doubleday eventually accepted it. The young American editor was Barbara Zimmerman (later Barbara Epstein, a founder of the New York Review of Books). She was then in her early 20s; it was one of the first books she was assigned to edit.

Hollywood and Broadway were quick to cash in when the diary became a success. Today, there are dramatic versions taught in classrooms as if it were the diary itself, much in the same way modern students think the play “Inherit the Wind” is the true story of the Scopes Trial. Disturbingly, there are those who continue to declare the diary a hoax and a forgery, though tests have shown the diary’s authenticity. In Berlin, in 2006, a group of neo-Nazi’s burned it in a bonfire. The author also discusses the work of the Anne Frank Foundation, a key instigator of many humanitarian projects. A new generation of Latin Americans have become emotionally involved in Anne Frank’s story. For readers in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala who have experienced dictatorship, torture, or the disappeared, “The Diary of Anne Frank” has, according to Ms. Prose, prompted young people to confront their troubled past and raise their voices.

What shines forth throughout this sympathetic, intelligent discussion is the fact that Anne Frank has finally been given her due as a writer. The most original chapter is the last: “Anne Frank in the Schools.” Most students, as the author recognizes, are able to identify with Anne Frank’s humanity and adolescent struggles, her humor and sympathy. They, too, see themselves as both ordinary and special. Like Anne, they are young and eager. When Francine Prose asks one of her students to read one passage aloud, the room falls into a hush. So Anne Frank and her talent lives on, a “strong and unique and beautiful voice,” “still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” now out in audio by Blackstone Audio Books.

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