The Prodigy of Prinsengracht

Does anything new remain to be said about Anne Frank and her diary? Apparently yes, when the writer is Francine Prose. In a book characterized by both passion and judiciousness, she explores a captivating range of facets to the 'Diary of a Young Girl'

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine ProseHarper, 322 pages, $25

"Very dull" ... "a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions." That assessment, undoubtedly one of the great publishing bloopers of the age, was the view held by editors at the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf when the firm was offered the manuscript of the diary of Anne Frank in the early 1950s. Not surprisingly, Knopf declined to publish the book in the United States. "The Diary of a Young Girl" was eventually published by Doubleday in 1952 for a $50 advance.

Since its original publication in Dutch in 1947, Anne Frank's diary has been a worldwide phenomenon, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time. According to a 1996 survey, one-half of American high schoolers had read the diary (though only a quarter could properly identify Hitler ). In Japan, "Anne Frank day" is a euphemism for menstruation, since she wrote straightforwardly about her own period, while in North Korea, children are taught to think of the Nazis in the book as Americans. Adaptations have been legion: Anne Frank's story has been presented in several stage versions (including a musical ), on the screen (including a hip-hop version ), as a TV detective story, a puppet show, a Japanese anime cartoon and on Facebook and YouTube. A million people visit the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam yearly and the original manuscripts of the diary are on a UNESCO documentary heritage list.

In brief, since her diary was published, Anne Frank (1929-1945 ) has become an iconic figure whose life is emblematic not only of the tragedy of the Holocaust, but of the joys and pains of adolescence. She has become a symbol of how to live with decency, dignity and hope in dehumanizing conditions -- and also, it must be said, has become something of an industry.

In the wake of this fame, books and articles about Frank, her times and her diary have proliferated in the hundreds. So one could reasonably ask if the world really needs yet another book about Anne Frank. Well, it probably needs this one.

In her 2006 book "Reading Like a Writer," Francine Prose, the author of 15 works of fiction as well as five of non-fiction, makes the point that good writing should be approached through close and careful reading. Applying that to Anne Frank, she argues convincingly that in spite of its ubiquity, her diary has still not been properly understood. Prose aims to rescue the diary from its popular image as a children's book, one generally seen as professing a message of tolerance and optimism (as expressed in the much-quoted sentence, "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart" ), and to present it instead as a carefully crafted work of art.

In this sensitive, beautifully written and fascinating account of the myriad aspects of Anne Frank's life, death and diary, Prose makes a case for her subject as a memoirist of the highest rank, who saw herself as a writer and revised and edited her diary with eventual publication in mind while she was still living in the annex on Prinsengracht. "Regardless of her age and gender," Prose writes, "she managed to create something that transcended what she herself called ?the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old'" that "should be awarded its place among the great memoirs and spiritual confessions, as well as among the most significant records of the era in which she lived."

If there is a fault in Prose's book, it may lie in the fact that she attempted, perhaps, to accomplish too much. Literary criticism, history, the saga of the play, the story of the Anne Frank House and a proposition for how the book should be taught are just some of the topics touched on. Each of these themes is worthy of a book in itself. Yet Prose's book is so well-written, so fair-minded and passionate, that the temptation is to read it, as Prose herself first read the diary as a child, straight through without putting it down.

Call from a minister in exile

The diary was begun in 1942 and revised starting from the spring of 1944, after the family in hiding listened to a radio program in which an exiled Dutch minister called on citizens living under the German occupation to save documents such as diaries and letters for an eventual wartime archive. Anne herself acknowledged her ambition to publish: "Whether these leanings towards greatness (insanity! ) will ever materialize remains to be seen, but I certainly have the subjects in my mind. In any case, I want to publish a book called ?Het Achterhuis' [?The Rear Annex'] after the war. Whether I shall succeed or not, I cannot say, but my diary will be a great help."

Prose points out how much life is packed in the diary's pages -- sex, love, death, family, age, youth, hope, God, the spiritual and the domestic, innocence and evil. Among the qualities that make it great are Anne's eye for detail, her humor and her ability to render drama and character, including her own, through the mundane. She uses the device of letters to an imaginary friend, "Kitty," as a way of speaking directly to her readers, alternating between dialogue and dramatized scenes. The ever-present danger is a counterpoint to the tedium of daily activities, just as the account of her carefree pre-war life is an implied contrast to life in the annex. Comedy mixes with horror, contempt with compassion, childishness with sophistication. In content and style, the diary matures and sobers over two years. In Anne's revision, she writes, "When I look over my diary today a year and a half on, I cannot believe that I was ever such an innocent young thing."

After the war, Otto Frank, Anne's father and the only member of the immediate family to survive, edited the diary for publication, toning down Anne's criticism of her mother and their neighbors in the annex. For this, as well as for perceived prudishness, sentimentality and personal ambition, he was criticized -- unfairly, according to Prose, who points out that he was understandably reluctant to see his daughter's troubled relationship with her mother, for whom he was in mourning, publicly exposed.

Although Otto had difficulty finding a publisher, eventually "Het Achterhuis" was published in Holland in 1947 and went through six printings. It was published in Germany in 1950, though Anne's anti-German references were cut out of a reluctance, ironically, to offend German readers. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the preface to the American edition in 1952, without using the words "Jew" or "Jewish" -- another irony, Prose points out, since her husband's policies had prevented the Frank family from finding refuge in the United States.

The book was an instant success in the U.S., with the first edition selling out in two weeks, in large part due to the enthusiastic review by Meyer Levin published in The New York Times. In a bizarre twist, the obsessive Levin, who aspired to write the stage version but was passed over by Kermit Bloomgarden -- who co-owned the stage rights with Lillian Hellman -- in favor of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, eventually went so far in his frustration as to call Otto "my Hitler."

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is Prose's revelation of some of the strange controversies that followed publication of the diary. It has frequently been censored; critics have called it too Jewish and not Jewish enough; it has been dismissed as a children's book and bizarrely, considered pornographic. Holocaust deniers have claimed that Otto Frank wrote it (for money, of course ) and that anyway, it is a complete work of fiction. As recently as October, excerpts from Anne Frank's diary were censored from a school textbook in Lebanon after Hezbollah objected, on the grounds that the "so-called tragedy" provided "an open arena for the Zionist invasion of education."

Prose has little good to say about the original stage and screen versions ( the film was based on the Hackett-Goodrich play ), which play down the historical context in favor of a kitschy, saccharine version of life in hiding. She writes, "On stage and screen the adorable was emphasized at the expense of the human, the particular was replaced by the so-called universal, and universal was interpreted to mean American -- or, in any case, not Jewish, since Jewish was understood to signify a smaller audience, more limited earnings, and more disturbingly, subject matter that might alienate a non-Jewish audience."

She is especially devastating in her criticism of the feel-good aspects of the adaptations -- "It was time for the sitcom teen, together with Mom and Dad and Sis, to head off to the secret annex" -- and about Millie Perkins, the actress who played Anne in the 1959 film with "brittle perkiness and a highly mannered affect."

In particular, the ending of both the play and film, which stress Anne's statement that people are "good at heart," strikes a false note. In view of what happened to her, that is patently untrue of many people at least, and it's hard to believe that Anne would have remained as optimistic about human nature in Bergen-Belsen.

On the other hand, Prose asks whether it really matters if "The Diary of Anne Frank" was sanitized for film and the stage, since no matter how shallow those versions may be, they did move people. A case can be made for a version that plays down the horrors, so that the viewer doesn't feel the desire to turn away.

Francine Prose is a teacher as well as a writer, and it is as a teaching tool that she sees Anne's story continuing to reverberate. Though she has seen for herself how difficult it is to present the diary with an optimal balance of the literary, the historical and the personal -- one student cited in the academic literature, for example, who clearly missed the point of the book, wrote that Anne would have been happy released from the attic, "frolicking" in nature in Bergen-Belsen -- she still feels that much can be learned from it.

"Across the equator and around the world," writes Prose, "Anne Frank's strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion" and "may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death."

Carol Novis is a freelance writer.

Haaretz Books, January 2010,