Source: Getty Images
The Anne Frank house.
Source: Getty Images
Last night Francine Prose spoke at the DC JCC (that's Jewish Community Center to you), and being a huge Prose (and prose) groupie, I bundled up and stared adoringly at her for an hour and a half. Prose has been a much lauded guest on this program — partly because, in addition to being an artist with the written word (she's aptly named), she's also a really good talker. She's charming and funny and smart and provocative and wears her intellectual pedigree lightly — there are few people who can toss off phrases like "So I had a friend translate it from the Dutch for me," and still be incredibly likable. She's working right now on a cultural and literary history of The Diary of Anne Frank, which, if you're like most people, you read in high school, felt deeply, and then didn't read again. Prose gave me a lot to think about (I'm going to quote her rather liberally here): for one, we take it for granted that what may be the most important Holocaust document was written by a girl, and not just a girl, but a a thirteen year old girl. (I think, as Prose pointed out, that anyone who thinks it's not a Holocaust document should really give some thought as to why on earth she would have been in that attic with her family and four other people.) And second, not only was it written by a little girl — it was written carefully, calculatingly, and with real precision — it is a piece of art, and was meant to be one. Anne revised her writing again and again, shaped it, and changed it with the expectation that it would be something lasting. It was a work of intention — a memoir in the form of a diary.
I saw the revival of the play some years ago, with Natalie Portman playing the lead. It struck me that the Anne of the play was a much less lighter character then the Anne of the diary. I still wept at the end, but I always thought it was a shame that Anne Frank had to be a symbol — a stand-in for all little girls who were murdered during that time — and that her innocence, rather then her deep and sometimes dark nature, had to become proof that the Holocaust was so terrible. It was nice to go home and read the diary again, remembering that it is the diary of a real person who was striving to be an artist. I highly recommend re-reading it — historical document or not, it's also a great book, by a massively talented writer.