Anne Frank: The Life, The Book, The Afterlife, By Francine Prose

Can there be anything new to say about Anne Frank? No, and there is nothing really new here. On the other hand, the Anne Frank industry is so huge that there's a lot the ordinary reader doesn't know. This is truer in the US than here: only a quarter of American high school students can identify Hitler, Francine Prose says, whereas more British students can identify Hitler than Oliver Cromwell, to judge from recent reports. But the wider story of the Frank family and their helpers is less well known, and the first part of this book is fascinating.

We know the name of Miep Gies, for example (who died only this year, at 100). But I didn't know the full extent of her courage: that she helped not only the Franks and van Pelses, but other Jews as well; and that she not only risked her life for the two years they were in hiding, but even more afterwards, when she tried to bribe the arresting officer to release them. Nor did I know that she had been born in Austria, or that another of the helpers, Victor Kugler, was also originally Austrian. The rest were ordinary Dutch people; but that so many had come from the other side is intriguing – an index of the moral power of guilt, perhaps, and an argument for universal emigration.

Not all we learn is so positive. The fame of Anne Frank's story has left the impression that Holland was like Denmark, a small sturdy country that stood up for its Jews. Many people did: so many in her neighbourhood wore yellow stars in solidarity, Miep Gies wrote, that it was dubbed the Milky Way.

But many more did not. As Prose points out, more than three-quarters of Dutch Jews perished, a percentage second only to Poland's. The Danish king donned a yellow star himself; by contrast, Prose writes, when a resettlement camp for Jews was built in Holland, the Dutch queen objected "because it was too near her estate".

I hadn't known that dismal detail; nor the scarcely less shameful history of the first Broadway play of the Diary, which left Meyer Levin – who had made it famous – completely mad. It only failed to drive Otto Frank mad as well because he was immeasurably kind, and because it is hard to upset a man who has survived Auschwitz and the loss of his whole family.

All this is worth reading: especially Prose's spirited defence of Otto. Otto Frank has been accused of everything, from having failed to foresee the Nazi threat to his family (like almost everyone in Europe) to having bowdlerised his daughter's diary and turned it into a kitsch shadow of the feisty original.

In fact, Prose shows, he was unusually prescient, moving the family to Holland five years before Kristallnacht in 1938, and failing to emigrate from there to America not through any fault of his own – he applied constantly – but because of the obduracy of US policy.

As editor of the Diary, she argues, he did none of the things he was accused of; these are rather the responsibility of the play and film. Prose restores Otto Frank to Anne's heroic figure, the rescuer of her short life, and after it of her diary. When we're not sentimental we're cynical, and people may more easily believe in the bad father than in this almost saintly one. But a few brave and good people do exist, even in wartime; and it is one of the best things about this book that it reminds us of that, in its portrait of Miep, the other helpers, and Otto.

I hope that this praise will be enough for readers, but it won't be, I know, for Prose. For none of this was the aim of her book. Rather, it was to prove three points about Anne Frank's Diary: that it wasn't the spontaneous outpourings of a naïve teen, but the conscious work of a precocious artist; that the simple optimism people remember most ("I still believe that people are really good at heart") was not in the Diary, but in other people's distortions; and that the reduction of a terrible Jewish tragedy to an anodyne "universal" one was the result of commercial motives that cheapened Anne's achievement.

The trouble with these points is that they all fail. The first two are true, but have been made before and better – by John Berryman, Philip Roth, Bruno Bettelheim, Judith Thurman, Lawrence Langer and Cynthia Ozick, all of whom Prose quotes, so that we can see how much more vividly and economically they write. And the third is not true, or at least needs argument, rather than the repeated statement it gets from Prose.

All three points go beyond Anne Frank to Holocaust literature in general. There is the same myth of spontaneity about Primo Levi's If This is a Man, and the same reality of literary art. Levi perpetrated the myth himself, for good historical reasons – to remove all ground from deniers – and for good moral ones, summed up in Adorno's famous ban on poetry after Auschwitz. Neither of these does Prose consider.

Levi's true position on optimism about human nature was much the same as Anne's as well: it is not justified, but we need it in order to survive. But his readers, like hers, need something more positive, and ascribe it to him in the teeth of all the evidence, just as they ascribe it to her. Prose should not be surprised; it just shows that Anne was right (and so was Levi).

Thirdly, If This Is a Man has been accused of the same universalising of the Holocaust as Anne Frank's Diary, with more justification. Levi was the first to say that, for its industrial methods and scale, the Nazi Holocaust was unique in human history; but that its motives were not unique, and nor were its lessons. These are distinctions that Prose fails to make.

She also runs together universal and anodyne. What is wrong with the film of Anne Frank's diary is that it is anodyne, not that it is universal. If This Is a Man is universal; but God help anyone who opens it expecting something anodyne.

So that's "the life" and "the book". On "the afterlife", I will only say that what it shows about the intelligence of Broadway, Hollywood and many American schools is terrifying. But again, Roth or Ozick would have written this with more fire and brimstone, more saeva indignatio. Then there is – can you believe it? – a happy ending. We all need hope, as Anne Frank knew, but Prose has just spent 270 pages deploring the need for a sentimental version, torn (to quote Ozick) out of its bed of thorns. Then she succumbs to the same need herself. Physician, heal thyself.

Carole Angier's 'The Double Bond: Primo Levi' is published by Penguin