Books: An extrovert, flighty teenager who became a celebrity saint

If you wander into the bookshop Borders looking for works on the Holocaust, you will find an extensive section in "History" dealing with the Second World War, but nothing on the Holocaust. Instead a notice directs you to "Religion" where "Holocaust" appears as a sub-heading amid "Astrology", "Sufism" and "Inspirational Islam". Here are there are works on and by Anne Frank, which are also kept in children's books. If the Holocaust has become a secular religion, then its patron saint is undoubtedly Anne Frank.

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.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit