Books: An extrovert, flighty teenager who became a celebrity saint
Sunday 28 March 1999
Millions have been reared on stories about Hitler's most famous victim, whose best-selling diary spawned a mini-industry in memoirs and related writing, a Pulitzer-prize-winning play and Oscar-winning film, among other adaptations, museums, charitable foundations and educational trusts, and countless exhibitions. Indeed, "Anne Frank" is a registered trademark akin to "Coca-Cola" or "Michael Jackson". In the process she herself has been dehistoricised and deracinated, her life-story sanitised and sentimentalised. Its moral - "In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart" - may be filleted from the Diary, but its context is ignored. The subtleties and complexities of Frank's text are reduced to a romantic tale of universal redemption.
In a sense, of course, the material invites such treatment. Anne is an innocent girl-child with huge dark eyes and a mercurial grin, a budding writer who, yearning for the fame and immortality of literary achievement, overcomes many obstacles to develop her great gift, only for cruel fate to cut her off before her prime. The Diary and its attendant photos necessarily couldn't depict life after the inhabitants left the annex - denunciation, arrest and deportation, their appalling progress through Westerbork, the Dutch concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen- Belsen, the ghastly deaths of all the annex's inhabitants except Otto Frank. With these left out, however, the story is liable to become a children's adventure yarn - a sort of Famous Five Hide in the Attic. Little wonder, then, that 1950's German and Japanese audiences happily lapped it up as "their" memory of the Holocaust or other war crimes. Half a century later a reassessment is overdue.
Biography might seem an obvious way to recover the individual behind the myth. In an Afterword to Melissa Muller's biography, Miep Gies, one of those who supplied the annex with provisions and rescued Frank's writing for posterity, writes: "Anne's life and death were her own individual fate, an individual fate that happened six million times over. Anne cannot, and should not, stand for the many individuals whom the Nazis robbed of their lives. Each individual had his or her own outlook on life; each victim occupied a unique, personal place in the world and in the hearts of his or her relatives and friends." But these two biographies of Frank, the first ever written for adults, can't quite pull this off. In part, their failure is inevitable. What is interesting and distinctive about a subject's life is not usually to be found in their first 15 years, which is all there is of Frank's: nobody knows what Jesus did until he was 30. Even a psychoanalytic account, which neither of these books aspires to, requires more information about Frank than is available. Consequently, both end up presenting her life up to July 1942, when both the period in hiding and her diary begin, as rather flat and trivial. Both pad out the narrative with family history, which rarely rises above a blur of genealogical facts or the banal detail characteristic of round-robin letters.
The biographical fallacy - that an author's life explains her work - seems at its most absurd in the quest for the special qualities which destined the child for literary stardom. Carol Ann Lee quotes scores of people who knew Frank, admired the Diary and have promoted memoirs and anecdotes on the back of her celebrity, groping for something truly remarkable about her, some presage of greatness. Despite the retrospective wishes of all concerned, Frank was no prodigy, but a pretty ordinary child. Delicate, extrovert, imaginative, fun-loving, appealing, confident - but also rather silly, vain, flighty, flirtatious and driven by a craving for attention. Significantly, her father doted on her, indulging and encouraging her fondness for story-telling and performing. On the basis of her pre-Diary life, she is more Erica Jong in embryo than Nadine Gordimer.
Lee, whose book is much more honest than Muller's, recognises the limitations of biography. Comparing Frank's original diary with the version she worked up for publication, she observes that the former "is that of an ordinary teenager living in exceptional circumstances, which she largely ignores, preferring to write about boys, school, friends, the ping-pong club and her birthday party". How far Frank eludes those who try to depict her only becomes clear when the narrative moves to the annex and can use Frank's own words. For the first time, we have access to her extraordinary inner development, even as she cultivates it both as a means of survival and for her imagined public. Lee and Muller offer no more insights into this than Frank herself. Even her father admitted, on reading his daughter's work after the war, that he had never really known her.
Neither author addresses the problems in picking and mixing material from interviews, statements and memoirs about Frank's life. Lee admits there are "discrepancies, mainly due to lapses in time, memory and perspective", but asks us to take her patchwork of quotations on trust as "based on events as they have been most frequently reported". Muller claims nothing in her book is invented, that she avoids conjecture and that she draws attention to discrepancies. In fact, Muller goes all- out for a penny-dreadful approach, reeling off anachronistic questions as if she were inside her characters' heads. A creaky translation of Muller's original German doesn't help. Despite Lee's much more restrained and sober style, she also cannot avoid speculating about Anne and her father's chats about sex, the state of the Franks' marriage and whether it was one of convenience. She reaches opposite conclusions to Muller. Yet both biographers are first and last Anne Frank fans, early readers who identified with their heroine-writer and see in her fate the triumph of art over adversity.
Both books are nevertheless valuable in placing the Frank story on a broader historical canvas. Though Lee is sometimes clunking, Muller mawkish and impressionistic, both chart anti-semitic persecution in Holland, comparing the Franks' experience with that of other Dutch Jews at the time (their annex was almost palatial compared to other Jews' hiding places). They also follow up what happened to a large cast of characters acquainted with the Franks, underlining the humdrum lottery of death and survival under Nazism. Muller is rather skimpy on the concentration camp experiences, the most important and unpalatable part of the story. Lee, by contrast, succeeds at last in showing how this degraded and dehumanised Anne Frank, and, in March 1945, finally killed her.
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