Tom Sutcliffe: Let's be Frank - this story still resonates

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When you start treating coincidences as secret signals, it's usually a bad sign. But there's something about literary or artistic coincidences that make them unusually difficult to shake off as simply accidents of synchronicity. That's partly because novels or art-works aren't contingent themselves, of course. We know that they come into the world not spontaneously but usually as a result of painful and considered effort, so when you find the same broad thought occurring in two different places it's hard not to see them as pointing to some underlying truth. I encountered just such an overlap only the other day, shortly after reading Shalom Auslander's first novel, Hope: A Tragedy. And, when I name the second term of the coincidence you'll probably come up with an objection right away. Obviously, it wasn't a simple accident that I picked up Nathan Englander's collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and read the title piece. That's because Englander's title might have been crafted to answer some of the questions raised by Auslander's book, in which Solomon Kugel, an anxious nebbish, discovers that an old lady is hiding in the attic of his rural bolthole. This is no ordinary old lady either – this is Anne Frank, complete with a faded concentration camp number on her arm and a distinctly belligerent manner.

I'll give you a moment to get your breath back. Auslander's book is occasionally very funny indeed, but half the time that you're laughing you're wondering whether you really should be. And he doesn't duck the implications of his audacious premise. Without giving too much away, you're lead to believe that this really is Anne Frank, an elderly survivor dealing with a really grievous case of writer's block (when your first publication sold 32 million copies worldwide, it isn't easy to top it).

Hardly surprising really that I should have been curious about what Englander – another young male American writer – had made of the same iconic character. What was a little surprising, though, was how neatly novel and short-story overlapped. Both feature passages dealing with the inherited trauma of Jewish Americans – in Hope's case represented by Solomon's mother, who has become absolutely convinced that she experienced the death camps (despite having spent an uneventful life in Brooklyn) and in Englander's story by the narrator's wife, Deb, who is similarly preoccupied with the Holocaust: "Her grandparents were all born in the Bronx but it's like, I don't know. It's like here we are twenty minutes from downtown Miami, but really it's 1937 and we live on the edge of Berlin. It's astounding".

Both stories also – more remarkably – feature the same mind-game or thought-experiment. In one of the more excruciating passages of Hope, Solomon finds himself asking various people in the neighbourhood whether they'd hide him in an attic if it ever came to it, a question that comes as a bit of a surprise to two out-of-towners he happens to bump into at the local realtor's office. And in Englander's story, the narrator and his wife and their two house guests (old friends visiting from Israel) do something very similar after getting stoned together. "She's always plotting our secret hiding place," the narrator tells his guest – a revelation that triggers the Anne Frank game or the Righteous Gentile game, in which each person present is asked to audit their non-Jewish friends as potential concealers. The answers turn out to be uncomfortable ones, in some cases, and to come uncomfortably close to home, too.

That's what they talk about when they talk about Anne Frank, anyway. Not a safely historical story about inhumanity and the triumph of the human spirit (or whatever boilerplate is currently on the paperback edition) but an urgently contemporary issue of risk and last resort. And while you don't have to be Jewish to play this game (pretty much everyone who's read about Anne Frank will have imagined themselves in her position), I think you probably have to be Jewish to play it at a championship level. Both these books are knowing about the weariness that such cultural dread can induce, and bold in joking about one of the hallowed martyrs of the Holocaust. But I don't think either on its own would have given such an impressive account of a pervasive state of mind. It's not just a coincidence.

Miro, Miro, beyond the walls of a gallery

Interesting to see that Yorkshire Sculpture Park will be hosting the first big British survey of the sculptures of Joan Miro, an artist who wanted his three-dimensional works to be as liberated as a sculpture can get, rather than stabled in an art-barn. "The sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature" he said – and not a lot of venues offer as much open air as YSP. I feel a certain fondness for the Sculpture Park because – along with the brutalist totem of the Emley Moor transmitter mast which is just nearby – it's one of the landmarks that tells me I'm nearing home when I head north to visit the ancestral lands. If you're ever on the M1 with a bit of time in hand (a contradiction in terms, unfortunately, since if you had time in hand why would you be on the M1?) I can strongly recommend a visit. There is one oddity about this way of encountering art, though, which I don't suppose Miro's biomorphic shapes will do anything to diminish. It invariably feels like visiting a safari park. You have a map which pinpoints the locations of the big beasts and a route to follow that encompasses different habitats. So you set off, on the lookout for the ruminants in the grassland (look, there's a Henry Moore at rest) and more furtive works hiding in woodland (is that an Andy Goldsworthy, or just a wall?) And somehow you can't entirely shake the feeling that they're all in captivity. Free-range, maybe, but not free.

Did Freud slip off his glasses?

It has been a while now since exhibitions became a negotiation with lenses for me, staring through them to read the captions and then over them to look at the works, and then through them again to take a detailed look at brushwork. But if this is a problem for a spectator what must it be like for a painter? The question was particularly pertinent at the National Portrait Gallery's excellent new exhibition of Lucian Freud paintings, partly because it was such a perpetual dance between close-up and long-view, but also because there are quite a few photographs of the painter at work, none of which show him wearing glasses, despite his advanced age. Given that painting necessarily demands a shift between a spectacle at a distance and a canvas within arms reach this raised a question. Was he just lucky enough to sidestep presbyopia entirely? Did he wear glasses to paint but prefer not to be photographed in them? Or did he just accommodate his painting style to his altering vision? The trajectory of his style would seem to suggest the latter – beginning with works of meticulously finished surfaces and ending with far more impressionistic paintwork – wonderfully precise in some senses but never minutely detailed.And if Freud did paint these works without corrective lenses, do I really need glasses to see them properly?

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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