Francine Prose Explores Anne Frank's Literary Genius
Over the past 50 years, Anne Frank of Amsterdam has become an emblem of the innocence and brilliance that was destroyed by the Holocaust. Her diary is read and quoted around the world by youngsters, statesmen and scholars alike. But novelist Francine Prose says it's time the diary was appreciated as literature — not just as a historical document.
In her new book Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, Prose examines Frank's tremendous literary gift, as well as her maturity and insight.
"Among the things that's so extraordinary about the book is her unbelievably mature and balanced view of human nature," Prose tells Scott Simon.
Though some readers have criticized Frank's sentimentality, Prose says her voice is a nuanced one that mixes inspiring optimism with the deepest of pessimism. She points out that though the diary begins when Frank is 13, the voice we read is really that of an older, more insightful teen.
"She decided that she wanted the book to be published, and she went back to the beginning and she re-wrote all the entries she wrote as a 13-year-old, except of course now she was a 15-year-old," Prose says.
Prose remembers reading the diary as a child and feeling an immediate connection to the girl who, like herself, experienced problems with her mother and closeness with her father. She adds that she's still struck by the way modern students respond to Frank's words.
"Every time I've talked to students or brought the diary to students and heard what they have to say, I've been incredibly moved by how current it is for them and how much it still affects them all these years later."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Over the past 60 years, Anne Frank of Amsterdam has become an icon - smart, sassy adolescent girl who because of the diary that she left to the world may have become the single best known victim of the Holocaust that murdered six million Jews. Her diary is read and quoted around the world by youngsters growing up today and statesmen and scholars who cite it as an inspiration. The book became a play and a movie, but over the years Anne's own picture has become more recognizable than any of the actresses who portrayed her - small schoolgirl's classroom portrait that's become an emblem of the innocence and brilliance that was destroyed in one of history's greatest crimes.
Francine Prose, the novelist, says it's time that Anne Frank's diary was appreciated as literature, not just as a historical record, a book written with craft and skill by a great writer who died at the age of 15. Francine Prose's new book is "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife." She joins us from New York. Thank you for being with us.
Ms. FRANCINE PROSE (Author): Oh, thanks so much for having me on the show.
SIMON: Let me begin with the fact that that red and white plaid covered diary is not what people are reading.
Ms. PROSE: No. In fact, like so many people, that's what I thought. But in fact, as I started doing research for the book I realized that - that the truth was quite different, that she wrote in those diaries for couple of years, then she wrote in two more black exercise books. Then - and this was the most amazing thing for me because I really hadn't known this - during her last few months in the diary, starting in March 1944, and they were arrested in August 1944, she went back.
She decided that she wanted the book to be published and she went back to the very beginning and rewrote everything, rewrote all the entries that she'd written as a 13-year-old except that now, of course, she was a 15-year-old. So very consciously and very methodically she said about telling the story exactly as it had happen but with the added wisdom and the added insight and the added writing ability that she had as a girl two years older.
SCOTT: I like the implicit argument we give people who say a teenage girl couldn't have written a book like this. You…
(Soundbite of laughter)
SCOTT: You - you cite genius in that regard.
Ms. PROSE: Yeah, well, you know, one of the things I say in the book is, okay, it's not a demographic that we ordinarily associate with literary genius, but in fact it happened. A teenage genius girl did write this book. But in a way, one of the reasons I wrote the book was that I felt this was something I was doing for teenage girls everywhere to say it's possible they're an undervalued part of our population, underestimated, and in fact here was a teenage girl who wrote a book.
And decades from now, a few decades really, everyone who lived through this particular time will no longer be alive but the - the names that we'll remember are the names of these eight people who lived in that attic. And when I began to realize that, in fact, it was because of a teenage girl that we will know these eight people's names, it really just astonished me all over again.
SCOTT: I wonder if I get you to talk about your students, I guess, in Queens, reading the diary.
Ms. PROSE: Oh, yeah. I went to a - a middle school in Queens and the students were doing little graphic novels, little tiny, little graphic short stories really about the diary. And every time I've talked to students or brought the diary to students and heard what they had to say, I've been incredibly moved by how current it is for them and how much it still affects them all these years later.
SCOTT: Well, part of that is - is the theme of estrangement from your parents.
Ms. PROSE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, well, you know, I remember when I was trying to figure out how old I was when I first read the diary. And I realized that I had seen the play when it opened on Broadway, which was in 1955. So I had - and I had read the book beforehand. So I read it sometime between '52 and '55, which meant I was about eight years old. But already I was kind of a precocious teen and the things that Anne was writing about, I mean this was before there were many young adult novels and that sort of writing.
So the idea of her problems with her mother and her closeness with her father were things that I felt very strongly myself but I'd never seen them in print before. I had never seen them on the printed page. So I was very moved by it and felt that I had a kind of company in what I was going through, which of course was nothing, needless to say, compared to what she was going through. But I felt that kind of immediate kinship with her.
SCOTT: I want to get you to talk about perhaps the best known passage in the diary. And I will explain to our listeners that we're going to replay something from a story we did on the anniversary of Anne Frank's death back in 1995. And we have a - a succession of voices of teenage girls. Then Francine, I want to get you to talk about some of the varied reaction it sets off.
Unidentified Woman #1: It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel…
Unidentified Woman #2: I can feel the sufferings of millions, and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty…
Unidentified Woman #3: …that this cruelty too will end and the peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals for perhaps the time will come when I should be able to carry them out. Yours, Anne.
Unidentified Woman #4: I think that is kind of ironic that she says that she hopes that she goes on living long after she dies. And she says that in her diary, which is what keeps her voice alive like 50 years later.
Unidentified Woman #5: I feel the same way that she feels. I feel as though she can never die. She will always be there. If it's not with me, it's with someone else.
Unidentified Woman #6: In the meantime, I must have hold my ideals for perhaps the time come when I shall be able to carry them out. Yours, Anne.
SIMON: Those were voices from Sarajevo, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia, reading that passage from the diary of Anne Frank. Francine, there are people - Dr. Bruno Bettelheim thought that was sentimental nonsense because things didn't come out all right for Anne.
Ms. PROSE: Well, one of the reasons that I wrote this book was that I wanted to treat the book as a work of literature and - which meant to be reading it line by line, word by word, phrase by phrase. So even if you look at that famous passage, if you look at the whole passage, I mean, the line that's been extracted and used to end the film and so forth and used for this message of optimism, as I still believe that people are good at heart, but if you look at the entire passage it comes from, which is about thunder and misery and goes back and forth between hope and despair, between her wanting to believe that things will come out right and fearing the way the world is and how people have and continue to behave to one another.
So the passage has been distorted to make her this kind of messenger of optimism and good cheer, whereas in fact among the things that's so extraordinarily about the book is her unbelievably mature and balanced view of human nature. I mean, that is something that can inspire optimism and it's something that can inspire the deepest pessimism. So both those things are there and both those things are throughout the diary.
SIMON: I really try and be careful with what-if questions. But I'm going to open the door to this one because you play around with a little bit in this book. If, God bless, Anne Frank had lived, would she in your mind have become an author of note?
Ms. PROSE: Well, people often say what a writer she would have become. But - but really, what a writer she was.
SIMON: Francine, thank you so much.
Ms. PROSE: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.
SIMON: Francine Prose, her new book, "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife." You can read an excerpt of Francine Prose's book on our Web site, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.