Friday, November 5, 2010

FRANCINE PROSE'S BOOK ON "THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK"


Posted online last year by the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the film clip above includes 5 seconds of Anne leaning out a window to watch a passing wedding party. It's the only (known) moving image of the famous diarist, who with her family and several others was in hiding from the Nazis 1942-1944 in an Amsterdam attic. 

But she was much more than a teenage scribbler, contends Francine Prose, the author of last year's "Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife," a fascinating look at the girl, her craft, and the legacy of her writings. Instead, says Prose, she was a young writer of great talent who had an eye on the future and a wider audience. Anne gave background information that would be useful only to an outside reader, and made up an imaginary confidante named Kitty, to whom she addressed many of her entries. That's demonstrated in an entry that Francine Prose highlights, and which reads: "I don't want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like most people do ... but no one will grasp what I'm talking about if I begin my letters to Kitty just out of the blue, so I'll start by sketching in brief the story of my life."

That entry was dated June 20, 1942, but was in fact written about two years later, when Anne was feverishly and effectively revising much of her book, in the months before her August 1944 arrest. In another entry in first draft, Anne talked about the conditions of the Nazi occupation (which she heard about from the family's protectors) as being "indescribable," and how doctors were under "incredible pressure" -- phrases that Prose says "writers are sensibly advised to avoid." However, in the revised version from 1944, such generalities were replaced with sharper and more affecting statements. "Epidemics now rage," and "doctors are unable to visit the sick, because if they turn their back on their cars for a moment they are stolen." Another scene, centering on a discussion about modesty among the people in the attic, is transformed from a sketched-out conversation to a fully-realized drama in miniature. In other words, Anne is now describing things she had previously called "indescribable." She is maturing not only as a person and in her moral outlook, but also as a writer.

Anne's use of her imaginary confidante, Kitty, was an important device, says Prose. "What matters is that the device--the diary letters to Kitty--gave Anne a way of addressing her readers intimately and directly, in the second person: you you you. ... 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."

At some point in reading the book, the idea of Anne Frank as a diligent writer and re-writer struck me as a touch cynical. As if what is famously thought of as the spontaneous outpourings of a young girl in a desperate situation were in fact a kind of manipulation -- not that they were any less true, but that they were crafted. But at last I thought better of that, and admired Anne's powerful need to communicate her experience, and her skill in doing just that. 

Later in Prose's book, there is a chapter devoted to the saccharine-sounding Broadway play that was made out of Anne's diary, and another chapter about the only slightly less treacly film version. Reportedly, in these productions (neither of which I've seen), largely gone are Anne's intelligence, her courage, and even her Jewishness, in favor of a more palatable story about an giggling young girl who believes in people's basic goodness. This, in spite of the fact that the real Anne was aware of the fate that would face the whole attic if they were discovered, and in spite of the fact that she met just such a fate in Bergen-Belsen. The only one of the eight people in hiding in that attic to survive was Anne's father, Otto, who was chiefly responsible for bringing Anne's book to the world. 

P.S. Many other interesting videos on the Anne Frank Museum's YouTube Channel.

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