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

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Francine Prose explores the artistry, ambition, and enduring influence of Anne Frank’s beloved classic, The Diary of a Young Girl.

Approved by both the Anne Frank House Foundation in Amsterdam and the Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, run by the Frank family, this work of literary criticism unravels the complex, fascinating story of the diary and effectively makes the case for it being a work of art from a precociously gifted writer.

Alberto Rios: Welcome to Books & Co. Welcome to all. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined by noted author and activist Francine Prose who's going to be talking about her books, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, a new consideration of Anne Frank's diary, and Goldengrove, the story of an adolescent girl who suffers the difficult death of her older sister. Both are published by HarperCollins. Welcome, Francine.

Francine Prose: Thank you.

Alberto Rios: We've got two very interesting and distinct books which I think are joined in many ways. We'll talk about them separately. Before we do, I wonder if you can talk about what it's like as a writer, to set out writing about something completely extant already, The Diary of Anne Frank. And then the freedom of writing a novel in which you get to create a life.

Francine Prose: They both started in such different ways. Starting the Anne Frank book, it turned out to be a very different book than I had imagined. I reread the diary for reasons actually connected with Goldengrove, which I’ll talk about in a second. I was struck by what a great book it was and how beautifully written. I just thought my original plan was to do a kind of straight-up appreciation of the diary and do a close reading of it, and say this is what she did, this is her achievement, and why we remember these eight people in the attic so well. And how, in addition to that, a little girl really wrote this book. And then the amount or kind of information or what's in my book was as much a surprise to me as it would be to anyone else, because there are so many things about which I had no idea. I was curious about why this girl's diary had become such an icon, such a universal widely read, translate into dozens of languages book with so many readers. I was curious about that process. Just to take one example, it was the fact that Anne Frank rewrote the entire diary.

Alberto Rios: One of the things we learned from your book is the diary is a multilayered complex of Anne Frank's books and her father's.

Francine Prose: For starters, it's not strictly speaking a diary. We think at the end of every day or couple of days, someone sits down and writes an entry about that day. And the past days. But in fact what happened was Anne Frank wrote the diary straight through. She got the book in June of 1942 for her birthday.

Alberto Rios: Her 13th birthday.

Francine Prose: For her 13th birthday, and started writing. And just a few weeks later that July the family went into hiding. She kept on writing the diary. They were in hiding together for about 25 months. But in March of 1944, a few months really before they were arrested in August, the family heard a radio broadcast, the Dutch Minister of Culture in exile saying after the war people will want to read documents of ordinary Dutch people to tell future generations what they went through. Anne began to think that's what he's talking about, documents like my diary.

Alberto Rios: Just in that moment, it's extraordinary that she was so touched by this radio voice. We have such a white noise of sound all around us all the time now, she took that to heart and it kept her going.

Francine Prose: That radio was extremely important in the attic. They found out news, the invasion had happened and so the progress of the Allies, they were dependent on that radio. They took it very, very seriously. There were arguments about whether or not they should listen to German music on the radio. When they heard that broadcast, she went, okay, my diary is going to be published someday. Maybe it will be a book that should be read by other people. She went back to the beginning and rewrote the entire thing entry by entry, and then was ongoing to the end. By the time of her arrest she was writing 11 pages a day, rewriting and writing new entries.

Alberto Rios: She was doing both things; the revision and she kept updating the original notion of a diary, pure and simple.

Francine Prose: Uh-huh. So then I began to realize part of my job was comparing her original entries with her revisions, and then after the war her father came back and found Miep Gies had preserved both versions of the diary.

Alberto Rios: And Miep Gies was --

Francine Prose: There was a handful of employees who helped keep the family alive during those months, and Miep Gies had saved the diary. Otto went and combined the first draft and the second draft. All three versions, the first draft, her revisions and his editing have been published. They were published in '86 in Dutch and in '89 in English. Partly because it's so difficult to read, no one really sat down and really compared the different versions. So that suddenly became for me the heart of the book. When I first began to look at it, I was so amazed I was calling up friends saying, am I actually seeing what I think I’m seeing? Because of the differences. For one thing the difference between a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl is huge, especially a girl who's been writing for those two years.

Alberto Rios: And the oversight of her father. You described three versions. You give them letters. Are those scholarly attributions?

Francine Prose: They are called the A, B and C versions. A is the original.

Alberto Rios: You're careful not to use the word diary perhaps.

Francine Prose: A is her original. B is her -- the revision. And C is the version that Otto Frank made by putting together -- editing the first two. Although it should be said that Otto Frank didn't add one word. Every word in the diary was written by Anne. So he just cut what needed to be cut from the original, added things from the original to the revisions that he felt should be -- for example, by the end Anne had kind of gotten over the boy upstairs, the big romance with Peter. It was over so she essentially wrote him out of the diary. When Otto was editing, he realized it was actually a good thing to have in the diary so he put it back in.

Alberto Rios: And things like the movie and play really grabbed hold of that, which was something she even recognized was not at the heart of this. Though she may have felt it in its moment. We read that with her.

Francine Prose: We do. When I did research -- and there's a lot of -- the most amazing amount of material is in the archive of the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. When I started to do research, they have, for example -- I actually couldn't find this on the DVD of the movie, the supplemental material. And the trailer for the 1957 movie, I think, says something like, the thrill of her first kiss. You know, and this is somewhat horrifying. This is someone murdered by the Nazis, incarcerated for 25 months. To make this a teenaged romance story and more or less strictly a teenaged romance story was terrible.

Alberto Rios: I don't know what that does to us or says about us, but it was very difficult to see the trailers. The emphasis was on that teenaged romance. Maybe that's how it plays best. Boy, it scares me to think that that's how we're reading it.

Francine Prose: Well, you know, commercialism is commercialism. On the other hand, the other thing that was interesting for me when I was working on this, the diary was reviewed by an agent. We don't think an agent should be reviewing a book for The New York Times on the front page, but that book turned it into a best seller. Whatever we think of the play and the film, that created millions. The book was only a modest success, for example in Europe, when it was just a diary. As soon as the play came out and the film, it became a huge success. Whatever the film and play did to the diary, it nonetheless created millions of new readers for the diary. All the easy conclusions I thought I’d come to turned out to be beside the point in a certain way.

Alberto Rios: That's an interesting thing that happens afterward. When we were talking about the diary and its various incarnations, one of the things that's striking is each one comes with its own name. Before the diary she herself questioned who would be interested in the unbosomings of an ugly duckling and then a young teenager. She goes on to call her diary “Kitty,” but we understand how that works. She gives it a more formal name especially in the revision.

Francine Prose: She began to think of it as “The Romance of the Secret Annex.” She was a huge reader, and her reading went across a huge range. She was reading Goethe and Dickens and she was a huge fan of girls' romance novels. Kind of Nancy Drew books for Dutch girls. Her title was The House Behind, translated as The Secret Annex. As the book was about to be published here, they realized that was not the most commercial title. In fact, Barbara Epstein was the editor of the book, and they came up with The Diary of a Young Girl. It was a very successful title. Then the play and the film were called The Diary of Anne Frank.

Alberto Rios: Let me take a moment to remind our viewers that this is Books & Co. I’m your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by Francine Prose talking about two of her latest books, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, a new consideration of Anne Frank's diary and its various influences and incarnations; and Goldengrove, the story of a girl who suffers the harrowing death of her older sister. You say as we're describing this diary and describing it in very public ways, we know as writers -- and you talked about this -- that she chooses a device that immediately connects us to it, and it's her choice of the second person.

Francine Prose: Well, when she decided to address the diary letters to “Kitty,” again, speaking of the revision, the diary the way we read it now begins with “Dear Kitty, dear Kitty, dear Kitty,” and it begins June, 1942, dear Kitty. It wasn't until the spring of 1944 she came up with the device of addressing the letters to Kitty. That puts it in the second person, you, makes it much more intimate and direct and involves the reader in a way pure diary entries could never really. All of those instinctive or conscious literary choices she made helped to contribute to how extraordinary the diary is.

Alberto Rios: And it's passionate in ways that even the smallest moment can speak to us. That intimacy is a very powerful thing. We go on and we are talking about the diary -- you were talking about it in your book but you also contextualize it. You talked about what happened globally as a result of the diary, the film, the play, how it's taught in schools, the holocaust deniers, everybody's reaction to that. Can you talk a little bit about that? I have to say it was wonderful.

Francine Prose: The play of course and the film were huge successes, or their versions of the diary were huge successes. But then it's still one of the most widely taught books still, in the country and around the world. I saw a wonderful French film called The Class, which takes place in a high school class in a suburb of Paris, a completely multicultural class. They are reading and discussing The Diary of Anne Frank, it's very widely taught. It's also one of the most widely censored texts in the United States, the most frequently removed from libraries. Oddly enough, this was all new to me, finding this out as I was writing the book -- I thought that the censoring had to do with Anne, her discussion of her love affair and her body and so forth. There were a range of reasons, some of them religious, all sorts of things that have mounted censorship challenges to the book.

Alberto Rios: Scary. This is clearly something that is going to have changed people's lives. It certainly changes readers. I was brought to tears many times, even at a distance, just reading about it. Especially that moment when Otto Frank is told that his daughters are no more. I can't tell you how that brought me to tears.

Francine Prose: When I went to Amsterdam, a friend who works at the Anne Frank house told me that people would talk about Otto Frank. They said he looked like a Prussian army officer, his eyes perpetually red from weeping, carrying the manuscript around begging people to read it.

Alberto Rios: She said, memories mean more to me than dresses.

Francine Prose: Uh-huh.

Alberto Rios: I think I’m glad -- that's quite a statement for a young woman to make. We thank her for that. But this is a good leaping place to move over to Goldengrove, also the story of a young protagonist and her sister Margaret. These books are not so separate, the young girl Nico in Goldengrove has a sister Margaret, not unlike Margo, and there are many other comparisons. Would you care to address that a little bit?

Francine Prose: Actually the Anne Frank book came out in my research for Goldengrove. When I knew I was going to write a book from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl, I thought, okay, what's the best book ever written about a 13-year-old girl, and it occurred to me it was the book written by a 13-year-old girl. I decided then to write a book about The Diary of Anne Frank. Reading the diary really reminded me a lot of what it was like to be 13. Of course my circumstances couldn't have been more different than those of Anne Frank. But that sort of find your body changing in a way you have no control of, and the sense of becoming a different person and trying to keep touch with your childhood self, losing your childhood self, all those things. They all went into the writing of Goldengrove.

Alberto Rios: You found so many instances of common ground. I think that was one of the great things to, have seen it in The Diary of Anne Frank. People sitting around a dinner table telling stories, everybody knew what those stories were about, how they were going to end. Yet everybody was trying to pretend that they were new. Every family's been through that and we're seeing that in the various books.

Francine Prose: I have to say that just before I started Goldengrove, maybe three or four months before, there had been a death in our family. I became aware -- it wasn't as if I had found this before but I was very, very acutely aware of grief being a particular state of consciousness and a particular way of moving through the world really. I was just talking about this to a friend. The way people look different or things look different or you walk around saying I’m walking around going through something and seeming normal. Is everyone else walking around seeming normal and going through something? In a certain way I was taking notes on my own condition. And then when I started to write about this, because what else do we do, we're writers -- I was very, very aware of those particulars of being in that state of mind and putting them into the mind of this girl.

Alberto Rios: You do it in particularly compelling fashion when you deal with time in Goldengrove. There’s even a gift of a watch where everybody realizes there's a shift in how we view the world. Time is something that we saw in the diary, as well. We have those two years and we focus on two years and not 13.

Francine Prose: Yeah. The gift she gets was a watch I used to have.

Alberto Rios: With a spider?

Francine Prose: The spider moves a little jerky and kind of changes your perception of time. Normal watches are tick, tick, tick, but the spider is jumping in a strange way. In some ways it was an inconvenient watch to have, but very useful when I needed a watch for Nico to get.

Alberto Rios: Memorable. You have many references in Goldengrove to Nico's referring to what she calls -- and what the French call the spirit of the staircase.

Francine Prose: Of the staircase.

Alberto Rios: What I found intriguing about that, she's thinking afterward what she should have said earlier, in the same way that perhaps Anne Frank comes back and revises what she should have said earlier. She gets a very physical chance, whereas Nico gets this emotional chance to rethink what she should have said. Does that make sense to you? Is there something more you can say about that? Is it something we all do or something you were imputing to this character?

Francine Prose: No, we all do it. Among the great advantages of writing over life is that in writing, you can revise. In life the moment is over, sorry. But in writing you can give the character the perfect thing to have said at that moment. So you can change it.

Alberto Rios: And changing is an interesting thing. She seems -- Nico, the main character, seems for so much of the novel to be incapable of change. She's stuck in this place of grief. Her parents are stuck in this place of grief. So change, which scares us all, comes at a price. What would you say the price is? For her.

Francine Prose: I don't -- you know, I think one of the things I remembered actually about being that age was the impossibility to imagine that change is possible. Some years ago I was asked to give a talk at my high school, a graduation speech at my high school. The first thing I wanted to tell these kids, you think your life is always going to be this way. Guess what, this is the way it's not going to be. And that was something I remembered very clearly and I wanted her to realize by the end of the novel.

Alberto Rios: We get this title Goldengrove, you get it from -- we get it as a culture from Gerard Manley Hopkins, a particularly curious poem. I wonder if you can talk a little about how that influenced you.

Francine Prose: You know, people somehow think -- people somehow think that writers actually know what they are doing. But it's not always the case. I had no idea what the novel was going to be called. I knew the characters' names, I knew it was Nico and Margo, for complicated reasons. I like the name Margaret, and Nico; I knew she was going to be named after the Andy Warhol pop subject.

Alberto Rios: You knew that ahead of time.

Francine Prose: I didn't know exactly how that was going to work. I had no idea the book was going to be called Goldengrove. I knew the father owned a bookstore but I didn't know the poem she would find in the bookstore would be about children, mortality, growing up, the theme so relevant, and give me the title for the book.

Alberto Rios: If we can wrap up here, I want to bring up a curious word I think applies in some fashion to both books. It's the word saint. We think of Anne Frank, in the public imagination anyway, as something of a people's saint. It's in a big -- in big capital letters. In Nico’s case we have the everygirl who goes through this difficult circumstance. You're uncomfortable with the word saint in Anne Frank's context.

Francine Prose: Well, it's complicated. She was a human being. If you read the lives of the saints, it turns out they were human beings, as well. Saint Theresa, you can't think of a more difficult human being. In some ways it's damaging to think of her as a saint because it takes away the human element. The saintly aspects of just being human, that's useful too, I think.

Alberto Rios: Well, we are all that. I have to say these were compelling reads. I think the notion of the saint is just leading us to somebody who gives us directionality, something we found in these books. We've been talking with Francine Prose and her books, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, and her book Goldengrove, a Novel. I'm Alberto Rios, for Books & Co. Thank you for joining us today. We hope to see you again very soon with another good book.

Learn more about Francine Prose.
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