Tonight, PBS is airing a British adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank"--one that The Washington Post calls edgier, gritter, and altogether more realistic than the many that have come before it. The Post review cites Francine Prose's most recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife:
The literary scholar Francine Prose, in a fascinating book last year called "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife," laid out a case for the very phenomenon that this new film seeks to decompress: We've heaped too much meaning on poor Anne. Underneath everything that we demand of her, even now, there remains a great story well told -- and, at last, a very good movie.
This brings me back to my experience reading Prose's book on Anne Frank a few months ago ... and reminds me of my ongoing trouble with the writer (Prose, that is; not Frank).
Prose's book revisits Anne Frank and her legacy, positioning herself from a perspective that takes Frank seriously as a writer, rather than, as the myth tells us, a precocious schoolgirl whose diary was a mere lucky accident of history. As Prose makes plain, Frank approached her writing from the beginning as a deliberate craft; she anticipated it being published after the war and she intentionally revised it and amended it for a broad public. Prose writes:
Like most of Anne Frank's readers, I had viewed her book as the innocent and spontaneous outpourings of a teenager. But now, rereading it as an adult, I quickly became convinced that I was in the presence of a consciously crafted work of literature. 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 ... 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.
I kept pausing to marvel at the fact that one of the greatest books about the Nazi genocide should have been written by a girl between the ages of thirteen and fifteen--not a demographic we commonly associate with literary genius.
Following a close reading of Frank's diary, Prose traces its legacy, from Miep Gies' effort to preserve the pages (in hopes of returning it to Anne after the war); to the controversy that clouded Otto Frank as he made choices about publishing his daughter's writing; to the tumultuous rise of film and Broadway adaptations of the diary that have, of course, presented an altered image of Anne Frank. Prose also touches on those who doubt the veracity of the diary; those who fiercely preserve its legacy, along with the infamous Annex; those who use the diary as an international peacekeeping tool; and those who teach (or try to teach) the diary in schoolrooms.
I received the book as a Christmas gift from my grandmother--who is preternatural in her ability to pick out books that I'm eager to read--and read it hungrily. I felt relieved by Prose's stance that takes the diary seriously as a work of art. Her case for Frank as both an ambitious and talented writer, rather than an incidental one, is convincing. I appreciated the breadth with which she approached the "afterlife" of Anne Frank, as well as the rich context she uncovered--including writing about Frank from the likes of Bruno Bettelheim, Philip Roth, John Berryman, and many others. She also pays particular attention to how the Frank line about "people being really good at heart" has been mutated and decontextualized beyond belief. And I found myself following up on a few of Prose's references--to see, for example, a preciously rare film clip where the real Anne Frank appears (a clip that struck me dumb). In short, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife brims with ideas, and I found a lot of joy navigating them.
Something is missing.
For the lack of anything better, I have to call it insight. Prose's book is full of fascinating information, and its stance is original, but the narrative moves laterally and feels, ultimately, like a series of compelling anecdotes. I kept wanting Prose to dig deeper, beyond merely laying out the facts of Anne Frank's 'book, life, and afterlife', and to bring her own bright mind to the significance of these things. I wanted her to wrestle with contradictions, to get her hands dirty in this messy history, to embed herself within this narrative. But she only moves partway towards that: her personal voice is present--and her love of the diary is especially palpable--but not much beyond summary emerges.
Consider these final paragraphs from the chapter called "Denial" in the "Afterlife" section of the book:
A Google search using the words Anne Frank Holocaust denial first turns up pages of legitimate sites about Holocaust denial, then descends into a vortex of bigotry and hate. A more direct route is via Anne Frank Hoax, hoax being a buzzword and a coded entry into the world of defiant racism.
On Yahoo, there's a list of Anne Frank chat rooms, each with a slogan hinting at what may be found at the end of one thread or another. The group that logs on to explore "The fictional life and times of Anne Frank, the young lover of Herr Adolph Hitler" is closed to new members. and membership is required to join the discussion on "Anne Frank--The Truth"--the truth apparently being that "Mr. Frank betrayed his own family to escape justice." This theme has some currency, attracting yet another group under the rubric, "Anne Frank was betrayed by her own father, what more could you expect from the Jews?" The majority of the chat rooms have more obscene and violent slogans, and share graphic fantasies about Anne's sexual kinks, her enthusiasm for oral sex, and her fondness for showing her breasts.
What makes it all the more frightening is that these groups twist every mention of Anne Frank into new evidence that the diary is a fraud. For them, the very idea that a brilliant girl would keep a daily journal of her time in hiding and then go back and revise it because she wanted her book to be published is final, irrefutable proof that the Holocaust never happened.
It is compelling (and frightening) information that Prose lays before us. But I felt frustrated that the chapter ended here, with a paraphrase of her internet searches rather than propelling forward from this information to offer something original to her own thinking. (This is a tendency that Prose often tipped into throughout this book.) She might have looked into who, exactly, is behind these groups. She might have questioned why the idea of the "brilliant girl" who revised her book is satisfying to these myth-ologists as proof of the Holocaust as a supposed hoax. She might have dug into how the rise of the internet has propagated hate related to Anne Frank, and compared that to how it traversed the world pre-1990s. Prose misses an opportunity to transcend, here and elsewhere. As a result, an interesting book felt thinner than it might have been.
And here's the thing I realized as I finished the book: this is my ongoing trouble with Francine Prose. The Anne Frank book is the fourth title by Prose that I've read; I've also read Gluttony; The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired; and Blue Angel. Again and again, I'm drawn to Francine Prose's fascinating ideas; I'm drawn into her clear way of presenting intriguing places and people and ideas. I will likely finish whatever book of hers that I pick up. But I will be somewhat disappointed that each book--at least drawing from what I've encountered so far--flirts with depth without actually diving in.
Take Gluttony, for example, which was part of the New York Public Library's 'Seven Deadly Sins' series. In it, Prose spends most of her time discussing her bewilderment that gluttony would be named a sin, particularly given that its more generalized counterpart--greed--is also one. Why is the specific act of overeating, or eating with gusto, picked out for special notice as a sin? How does it resonate with a contemporary America so obsessed with food and dieting?
These are the brilliant questions that Prose raises. But her response felt underwhelming. In the book's concluding chapter, she spends a great deal of time quoting the wise M.F.K Fisher's defense of gluttony. The chapter's final lines read like so:
Over the centuries, our notions of gluttony have evolved along with our ideas about food and the body, about society and the individual, about salvation and damnation, health and illness, life and death. However one praises or condemns this problematic and eternally seductive deadly sin, one thing seems clear: the broad, shiny face of the glutton has been--and continues to be--the mirror in which we see ourselves, our hopes and fears, our darkest dreams and deepest desires.
To me, it all seems too generalized to resonate. What came before wasn't enough to infuse these lines with singularity. And granted, this book is a mere 100-page thing; I shouldn't expect it to be all-encompassing. But I wanted more. This brief book could have held more.
I was left with questions that begged asking, questions that Prose seemed to skirt. Could gluttony as a sin be specifically addressing the peculiar shame of eating more than we need in a world where others starve? Could gluttony be a sin, over and beyond greed, because it leads to imbalance in our bodies, or because it reveals a lack of reverence for our physicality and for the earth that grows our food? Is there a real reason why gluttony is not something we would characterize as a Top Seven sin today, something that reveals a notable change in today's society from the ones that came before us? Prose elides these questions. She rather affirms eating as a joy (and I agree with her) in the face of gluttony as a historic sin, and that's that.
The trouble with Francine Prose is that there's no follow-through. She has the most wonderful ideas, she brings together far-reaching and thoughtful literary references, but it just doesn't go much further than "isn't it interesting." And it is interesting. Which is why I very well may read another Francine Prose book, despite what I discuss here. But if I do, I'll likely be nagged by the persistent wish that she'd push harder, that she'd analyze more, that she'd welcome more nuance head-on. I want her books to move not just laterally, but also longitudinally: multi-directional ideas rather than ones that flatline.
Prose is a very prolific woman, and an intelligent one. Maybe it is yet to be.