Keying in to Anne Frank and her diary

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ANNE FRANK: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, by Francine Prose. Harper, 322 pp., $24.99.

You read the diary, you've seen the play and the movie, you're familiar with the Philip Roth remix, "The Ghost Writer." You toured, or at least read about, the exhibit at the Holocaust Museum. Even if you haven't done all these things, or did them a long time ago, you're pretty well Anne Frankified. Surely you don't need to read a new book about her, or reread the diary.

Well - surprise. Francine Prose will make you feel you have not grasped the full story.

I expected Prose's "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife" to be some sort of postmodern take on the haunting of our culture by the ghost of this long-dead Jewish teenager, now an emblem of the Holocaust. In fact, Prose does thoroughly examine the "afterlife" of the diary - beginning with the challenge of its publication (can you believe that Judith Jones, who rescued Julia Child from obscurity, was the angel here?) and moving through the unworthy stage and Hollywood versions. Prose explains how Holocaust deniers, Internet perverts and American schoolteachers have all used the text to their own ends.

Most importantly, Prose takes Anne Frank seriously as a writer, applying her crystalline critical insight to the work itself. She explains that far from being a piece of "found art" written by an ingenue, the diary is a consciously crafted work of literature by someone who was already, at 15, a real writer - a writer who revised and recopied two years' worth of entries at the pace of 11 pages a day through the spring and summer of 1944, until her arrest. Prose closely examines Anne's literary choices, her characterization and her storytelling skill. Here's Prose on the decision to address the entries to the imaginary "Kitty," an intimate "you": "Reading Anne's diary, we become the friend, the most intelligent, comprehending companion that anyone could hope to find."

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When Otto Frank returned alone to the attic after the liberation of the camps, he found both the original entries and Anne's revision. He created a third version of the text, reinstating some material Anne had deleted but cutting elsewhere - often, snipes at her mother and the other inhabitants of the attic, as well as passages about sexuality. Prose reverses the tide of criticism directed at his efforts: "Over the last half century Otto Frank has been accused of prudishness, of being too ready to forgive the Germans, of censoring and deracinating Anne. . . . In fact, what seems most probable is that his editing was guided by the instincts of a bereaved father wanting to give the reader the fullest sense of what his daughter had been like."

Prose continues that work - giving us the fullest sense of what Anne Frank was like - with contagious enthusiasm.

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