Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife

Anne Frank’s diary as a literary work

By Jonathan Beckman, September 28, 2010
Anne Frank: gap between behaviour and presentation

Anne Frank: gap between behaviour and presentation

By Francine Prose
Atlantic Books, £16.99

If the SS sergeant and his Dutch colleagues who arrived at 263 Prinsengracht on the morning of August 2 1944 had ransacked the annexe above it in a different fashion, its eight residents might have achieved global fame, thanks to the diary of Margot Frank.

Anne's own entry on October 14 1942 informs us that her sister was also keeping a diary, though we do not know how extensive it was.

It is salutary to bear this in mind when considering Anne's diary because admiration of her precocity and skill as a writer should lead not just to an awareness of her partiality in depicting those incarcerated alongside her, but also of the gap between Anne's self-presentation in the diary and her behaviour in the annexe.

The reason that Francine Prose offers for yet another book on Anne Frank is her conviction that the diary is "a consciously crafted work of literature". That the diary is crafted is evident from its complex editorial history, which Prose explains lucidly. In March 1944, Anne began to revise her diary for public consumption after hearing a broadcast by Gerrit Bolkenstein, minister of education in the Dutch government in exile, calling for the creation of an archive for documents recording life in Holland during the occupation.

Anne's father Otto performed his own edit on the diary for its publication, and even the so-called "definitive edition" claims only that "much of this edition is based on the b version of Anne's diary".

Unfortunately, Prose is not up to the task of explaining why the diary is a work of literature. Too often she simply enthuses that the characters seem so "real"; that Anne makes us see things "anew"; that we are reminded what it is like to be a teenager. She does not discuss the complex architecture of proximity and distance that structures the book.

Anne begins the diary because of the isolation she feels even among her friends; the close confines of the annexe only exacerbate that loneliness.

The ebb and flow of her relationship with Peter serves as an analogue to the tension between Anne's yearning for the outside world and the encroachment by the forces of darkness that she senses.

Prose does not pass comment on the implicit comparison that runs throughout the diary between parental authoritarianism and the tyranny being perpetrated outside the annexe. Anne feels a common teenage sense of persecution, which is why, it seems to me, that Philip Roth in The Ghost Writer calls her Kafka's "lost little daughter".

In explaining Anne's literary skill, Prose is drawn to John Berryman's suggestion that, in hiding, Anne was subjected to "a special pressure" that forged her as a writer. Quite what this is remains mystically obscure, though it is likely to be little more than the enormous amount of time she was able to devote to reading.

Prose concisely sketches the transformations that the diary underwent - and the arguments endured - in its adaptation for stage and screen. But this is familiar ground. While Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife is a useful and comprehensive introduction for students, it offers little to the reader already familiar with Anne and her diary.

Jonathan Beckman is the assistant editor of Literary Review

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011