Monday, October 02, 2006

Biography of Anne Frank

I have recently become very ambivalent about sharing my thoughts on blogs, but I do want to say something about a book I read over the weekend, Anne Frank: The Biography, by Melissa Muller.

I am a slow reader, but this one (like a book I read last month, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts) took me less than two days to read. The style is simple and selfless, entirely in service of the subject. The book is gripping simply due to the content, which varies greatly. I felt as if I read three books, in fact. The first of these consists of the years before the Franks went into hiding. Ms. Muller tells us vividly about what was going on in Germany in the eyes of ordinary people like Anne's father, Otto. It is gripping to read, with tragic hindsight, about people's decisions in those days to leave or not to leave Germany. Their growing fear is palpable, and if you've only read the diary, it may be especially interesting for you to read about the impact on the Franks of Hitler's occupation of Holland, which took place two years before Anne began writing in her diary.

Perhaps because World War II has been a lifelong interest of mine, I flew through the first half of the book in a single brief seating. Then came the years in hiding, which is a very different part of the biography -- the second of three "books" or distinct experiences that I had. The prelude to the hiding consists of a portrait of the "external" world, in which Anne herself appears as an extroverted child, one with a personality more difficult than I had imagined, and one who was not yet aware of the larger history taking place around her; I dare say she can be the least interesting element of the first part of the biography. But once we come to the years in hiding, Anne is forced to become more introspective, and her inner life, open to us, commands your attention fully.

This part of the biography actually becomes something of a meditation on family life and human intimacy. My reading slowed down, but to my own surprise the content was actually more interesting than the large-scale historical portrait. This was really more than I had expected from a biography of one girl -- it turned into a very sympathetic account of Anne's whole family and its individual members. The discussion of a formerly unpublished diary entry concerning the Franks' marriage, which delves as well into the issue of censorship, is, I think, the highlight of the book. It is obvious that Ms. Muller is both sympathetic to the protaganists and committed to the truth, which makes the subsequent routine turn to other well-trod subjects, like Anne's own love life, appear like an anticlimax.

Still, the story does not flag, and we arrive finally at the "third" section of the biography, the account of the betrayal and the concentration camps. To say that this material is gripping is to say nothing. Yet I was sincerely disturbed by the details here. From a historical point of view, what Ms. Muller has highlighted to great effect is how everything the Nazis did was intended not just to destroy, but also to humiliate. This had already been clear in Ms. Muller's chronicling of the sequence of restrictions placed upon the lives of Dutch Jews, which are rightly described as "malevolent." Here at the close of the book we see it repeatedly, as when Ms. Muller describes the disorientation that Jewish prisoners must have felt upon disembarking from trains at Auschwitz and being greeted with high floodlights and whippings. This is large-scale history from the personal vantage point. Too often what the Nazis did, because it is analyzed in an attempt to understand how it came about and how it functioned, is remembered in the abstract, so that, for instance, the restrictions on Dutch Jews can seem merely like the necessary steps to genocide rather than the malevolent expressions of hatred that they also were.

In the end the biography, though impossible to put down, becomes very hard to read. The only negative thing I can say about the last part of the book is that it is so horrifying, it overwhelms a reader's reception of the gifts in the earlier sections; those have to be taken in again under a second reading.

There is nothing new about finding Anne Frank's story to be compelling. Millions of people have shared the same experience. What is new here is that the myth has been soaked in history. It has been set in historical detail, which makes the story stronger. Rather than destroyed, the myth, stripped of sentimentality, innacuries and other illusions, appears more attractive than ever, as historical truth.


Blogger josephine said...

Kevin: Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts - they are valuable. Josephine V.

October 10, 2006 11:06 AM  

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