Monday, October 19, 2009

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose

I might never have bought this book except for a tiny item on the New York Times web site - a link to about 12 seconds of video on You Tube - the only known existing moving picture images of Anne Frank. There, in just an instant, is the young girl looking down from a window on a newly married couple. I sent a link to a few people, and the ones I heard back from responded with gratitude. It was like hearing from an distant old friend, or discovering a memento of a departed family member.

Unlike others, I did not come to Anne Frank as a child. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I read "The Diary of a Young Girl." I had just finished Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," about which a major plot point revolves around the life of Anne Frank. I approached it with a bit of trepidation - thinking it was probably one of those books that gets assigned to schoolchildren for being easy to read, and from which a close reading leaves one underwhelmed. I was probably 10 pages in before I realized what an idiot I was to be so skeptical.

Francine Prose's book examines the phenomenon of the diary through Anne Frank's life, how the book came to be, and what has come since. Among the book's highlights is how much time Prose spends recounting how the book was "crafted" - for example, I had no idea that Anne began revising her diary in the Secret Annex (the space she and her family shared for two years during World War II) nor that the publication of the diary set off interesting stories of obsession among those who had helped it to success. Prose touches on some of this in her own response to the book:

"I understood, as I could not have as a child, how much art is required to give the impression of artlessness, how much control is necessary in order to seem natural, how almost nothing is more difficult for a writer than to find a narrative voice as fresh and unaffected as Anne Frank's. I appreciated, as I did not when I was a girl, her technical proficiency, the novelistic qualities of her diary, her ability to turn living people into characters, her observational powers, her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue and monologue, and the sense of pacing that guides her as she intersperses sections of reflection with dramatized scenes."

And to think, she did all this without knowing how her story would end. And it is the story's end, off stage but ever present, which gives every page of the diary its power. Prose asks the question that others have - would we care about the diary if Anne had survived the Holocaust? And how, exactly, does the story end? Does it end with Anne's affirmation that "people are basically good at heart?" Or does it end with her in the camp, weak and emaciated, the part we never see in the diary but are aware of? Does one ending cancel out the other? Do we cheapen the diary's power when we wish for some kind of happy ending for this little girl, something that affirms the human spirit, when we all know she died as a victim of a movement that dubbed itself "a triumph of the will?"

We are drawn to Anne because she is a child - not innocent at all to what happens, for she makes her neat marks in the book at night as she hears the bombers overhead. What is essential within a child is within the pages - the part of ourselves that we want preserved against the part we wish to destroy, and which wishes to destroy us. The nature of time makes the essential nature of any moment disappear, so that we never again see it as it is, but only how it appears reflected through another now. The original moment itself is irrecoverable, just as the next one is, and the next one. Prose's book reminds us of this, and by examining the diary and the life it came from, she reminds us that Anne's words will forever mean things to us that she never could have guessed at, as it touches generations she never lived to see.

Perhaps eternity is the indestructible moment, in all its power, never growing dim, never growing weary, never growing old.

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