Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife

Is The Diary of Anne Frank a Jewish story about the Holocaust or a universal story about adolescence? Both, says Francine Prose in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife. Even more, she argues, it is literature, a composed and edited text written by a gifted writer.

Since it was discovered on the attic floor, this manuscript has prompted debates. Prose walks us through Anne Frank’s life before the war, her death in Bergen-Belsen, Otto Frank’s attempts to publish his daughter’s work, the saccharine play and movie adaptations, and the Foundation and curricula it generated (50 percent of American high school students are assigned the Diary). 

Prose points out that Frank revised her initial drafts, carefully establishing characters and scenes. She conceived it as a literary work, not private musings, and titled it  Het Achterhuis, (“the house behind” or “the annex”). Through diligent research and with gentle authority, Prose argues we should approach the book as “a novel in the form of a journal,” not a dashed-off diary, giving it and its author the aesthetic attention they deserve. She concludes by advising we teach it through close reading, attending to “suspense, honesty, tone and style.”

That would better some approaches (“True or False: The Holocaust could never happen again” ).  But Prose’s case repels as much as it compels. Close reading perpetuates the apolitical universalism that Prose shows us make the play and movie adaptations problematic.  Without the specific context — which Prose herself provides us in this worthy book — we risk losing the historical particularity of Frank’s book.