Reclaiming Anne Frank’s Diary as Literature
Francine Prose is the author of fifteen books of fiction, including A Changed Man and Blue Angel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. Her latest novel, Goldengrove, was published in September 2008. She is the president of PEN American Center. She lives in New York City.
Question: Why is Anne Frank’s diary of universal interest to readers?
Francine Prose: I wrote the book essentially because I was trying to figure that out. What is it about this book that made it explode that way in popularity and readership and the devotion of its readers? So the first thing I decided to do, or thought I was going to do, was to look at the book as a book and as a work of literature, really, because that was the thing that seemed to me really hadn’t exactly been done before. I mean it had been talked about in all different sorts of ways but not that way. So I thought having written Reading Like a Writer, which is all about close reading, I would do a kind of straight up close reading of the book; a kind of tribute to the book.
And look at the way Anne used dialogue, narration, passages of reflection, dramatized scenes, and so forth and really so many novelistic techniques work throughout the book. Also, it had occurred to me that in ten or 20 years all the survivors of that time will be gone. And here’s a book that will survive. Here are names of actual people that we’ll remember among all those millions who were killed and again it was written by a 13 to 15 year old girl. So I set out to figure out why that happened. So the first surprise, really for me, was how consciously crafted the book was.
I mean, I thought just what many people thought which was she wrote in this little checked diary and that was it. And then when she was arrested along with her family, the diary was left in the attic and it was essentially transcribed and published. Well what I discovered was that, in fact, she had gone back and rewritten the entire book. She had rewritten it from start to finish. So starting in the spring of 1944, so essentially the last few months in the attic, and very consciously set out to write something that would be published; that would be read. So it wasn’t quite the accident that most people think. I mean, she really thought of herself as a writer.
She thought of what she was writing as a work of literature. She thought, you know, her intention was to do a kind of novel; almost like a girl’s detective romance, in a way, based on her diary. So that’s what she thought she was doing.
Question: What kind of writer was Anne Frank?
Francine Prose: She was very conscious of what she was doing. I mean, for example, people think that the device of calling the diary Kitty and of framing the diary entries as letters to the unknown, unseen, imagined, imaginary friend Kitty was again some kind of spontaneous thing that she did. Well the early diary entries, for example, the first diary entry in which she decides to talk to Kitty, to call the diary Kitty, is dated June 20th, 1942 but again it was written in 1944. So that decision to call the diary Kitty, which sounds like the decision of a 13 year old, was actually the work of a 15 year old trying to imagine her way back into the persona and the mind of the 13 year old that she was. And even that, I mean that device of using Kitty, being able to write partly in the second person to a particular audience turns the reader into that audience. So it’s not as if she is writing into the ether really, she writing to a very particular person and when we read it, we become that person, that listener, that intimate friend of hers.
Question: Was Anne Frank a self-conscious writer?
Francine Prose: I mean, she sounds very innocent and open and it sounds completely unselfconscious but one of the things I thought about and discovered and thought about some more is how much craft it takes to sound unselfconscious. I mean, in fact, the unselfconscious way of writing sounds self-conscious. I mean, when most people start to write—sit down and start to write their journals and diaries, what you get is this kind of stilted, you know, and you can see it on peoples’ blogs all the time that kind of, you know, you’re looking in the mirror and writing at the same time in a certain way. So that naturalness and that kind of flowing quality of her narration was actually something worked on; something that she got right finally. I mean, of course, a lot of it came from her actual personality and her nature and she was very, very obviously really smart and aware and observant and nervy and resourceful but she worked on getting that voice on the page.
Question: What were Anne Frank’s influences?
Francine Prose: She was a huge reader and she read all the time they were in hiding. I mean, she had been reading before. And she started out really, I mean, the early diary entries, the real early diary entries on her 13th birthday, she got a lot of books along with the other presents. So she was, at the beginning, she was reading mythology. You know, the things kids read. Mythology, she was very fond of these girls. Novels, these kind of girl’s detective novels. Then when she was in hiding, she was reading Goode and Shiller and the Bible and the Old Testament and the New Testament and so forth. So she had a kind of literary sensibility already formed. So it wasn’t as if she were writing in a vacuum. She knew very well what literature was and what she was aiming at.
Question: How do you teach the diary as a work of literature?
Francine Prose: Well, you know what? I never taught it until I was working on the book. I mean, I never, it hadn’t occurred to me really to teach it. And it was – the last chapter of my book is about teaching the book at Bard College where I teach. And I assigned it to my students and one of the things that I found so amusing was that they were carrying the book around the campus and other kids were saying, I mean, they were acting really as if they were doing, you know, wearing their grade school t-shirts or something. As if it were some ironic gesture. And they were saying, well didn’t you read that in seventh grade, dude. You know, why are you reading it now? But my students got it, you know, how beautifully she wrote. Because by then, you know, I teach a closed reading class so by then I taught it late in the semester. So by then they’d been with me all semester, they knew how I wanted them to read and that’s how they read it. And they were impressed by it, technically. I mean, how much she’d accomplished. And also, one of the things that I found so moving and why I decided to end my book with a chapter about that class, was the power and the emotional connection and the intensity of the connectiveness that 20 year olds, 2007, sophisticated, hip kids still felt with this 15 year old girl in that attic in Amsterdam during the World War II. And whatever Anne had done, what her achievement was, was to make that kind of connection possible, that after all these years and such different circumstances, my students could read it and still feel as if she were talking to them.
Question: What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?
Francine Prose: I mean, really the biggest thing for me was finding out that she had revised the diary. I mean, I really hadn’t known that. I thought what most people think which is she wrote the diary, it fell on the floor when she was arrested. They picked it up off the floor, transcribed it and published it. Not true. So that was a huge revelation. And then the ability to go back and look at her revision process and her as a writer and see what she changed and how she changed it was a real revelation. I mean, really it was – whenever you see a writer’s first drafts and second drafts and how things are crossed out and changed, it’s always incredibly interesting to see the process. So that was a huge revelation. Then, you know, all of the way through to find out that the book had been turned down by every publisher. No one wanted to publish it. So when her father – after the war, when her father came back, the only survivor of the people in the attic, and typed up the manuscript and was bringing it around to Dutch publishers, everyone was saying too boring, too domestic, too Jewish, who wants to read a girl’s diary and besides, everyone wants to forget the war.
They don’t want to be reminded of what happened. So only after an article about the book, an essay, was published in a newspaper that had formerly been the resistance newspaper by a Dutch intellectual who had been a resistance worker, leader really, there was Dutch interest in publishing the book. Then the book was almost wasn’t published in the United States until Judith Jones, the legendary editor, fished it out of the rejection pile in France where she was working at Doubleday. Then the book was published here by another odd and in this case, kind of sketchy accident, it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book review by Meyer Levin who was working as the book’s agent in a certain way. Trying to sell it’s the theatrical rights which is, you know, not a good idea to have a book review in the Times by its agent but in this case; it turned it into a best seller. So one thing after another. Then the play which was this unbelievably stormy, conflicted, nightmarish drama really, propelled the book’s popularity. I mean, you know, it came out in 1952 in this country. It was a best seller. Then it kind of and it never sold particularly well in Europe. Suddenly when the play started going around and then the film, it became – I mean, that’s what really made, turned it into the icon it eventually became.
Question: Was Anne Frank’s diary a diary at all?
Francine Prose: It started off as a diary and then it became a memoir in diary form. Because, you know, when we think of a diary, we think something happened and then that day or two days later, you write about the thing that happened. That is it’s more or less concurrent with what’s happening. But if you’re writing about what happened two years later and putting yourself back in the frame of mind of the person two years earlier, that’s a memoir. But the form of it, of course, is a diary. It’s written as a diary entries so that’s really what she was doing. A writer’s notebook is something quite different. A writer’s notebook, at least mine and most of the one’s I’ve seen, they’re just random jottings and observations and ideas maybe for something you might want to write or whatever but there’s no feeling that you have to have a consistent sustained narrative.
Recorded On: September 16, 2009
Author Francine Prose uncovers some unexpected things about the young diarist—most notably that her diary wasn’t a diary at all, but a heavily edited and re-written memoir.