In honour of Anne Frank’s birthday on the 12th of June, I thought it would be fitting to repost a review of one of the best biographies I feel I have ever read.
I purchased a revised and expanded edition of Melissa Muller’s Anne Frank: The Biography on an affecting trip to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam last year. I have been so looking forward to reading it, but for some reason – emotional turmoil over Anne’s story, I expect, which never fails to bring me to tears – it took me some time to pick it up. The Sunday Telegraph deems Muller’s biography ‘sensitive, serious and scrupulous’, and the Independent believes it to be an ‘accurate and honest portrait’. The New York Times writes that Anne Frank: The Biography ‘acts as a supplement to the diary, filling in Anne’s fragmentary view of her own life’.
I have read Anne’s own diary – which has sold more than thirty million copies in over seventy languages to date – countless times, as well as rather a few books about her, but Anne Frank: The Biography has become one of my absolute favourites. It has been translated from its original German by Rita and Robert Kimber. In this updated edition, Muller ‘details new theories surrounding the family’s betrayal, revelations about the pressure put on their helpers by the Nazi party and the startling discovery that the Franks had applied for a visa to the US.’
In her foreword, Muller writes of Anne’s importance: ‘Over the past sixty years, Anne Frank has become a universal symbol of the oppressed in a world of violence and tyranny. Her name invokes humanity, tolerance, human rights, and democracy; her image is the epitome of optimism and the will to live.’ Upon her initial reading of Anne’s diary, Muller had many questions which were left unanswered; this inspired her to research and write Anne Frank: The Biography. At this point, she says, ‘my search began – initially in the 1990s – to search for the person behind the legend, a search for the incidents and events that shaped the life and personality of Annelies Marie Frank.’ Her aim, she goes on, ‘was to gather as many fragments of the mosaic as possible and create as authentic a picture of Anne’s brief life as I could, illuminating the familial and social circumstances that provided the foundation of her life and left their mark on it.’
Anne Frank: The Biography opens with a copy of the Frank and Hollander family trees, which become useful to refer to when grandparents and great-grandparents are introduced into the narrative. The initial chapter of the book opens on a scene in August 1944. This, at first, seems like an ordinary day in the annexe in which Anne and her family, along with others, are hiding, but it proves to be the day on which they are discovered by the Dutch Nazis. After they have been taken away, Muller describes how Miep and Bep, office workers who helped them to hide, retrieve Anne’s diary, not reading a single page so as to protect her privacy. They hoped to be able to give it back to her after the war.
The second chapter then begins with Anne’s birth in Frankfurt, where her family lived on the outskirts of the city. Of their new arrival, the Franks ‘had worried that Margot might be jealous of the baby, but Margot laughed with delight when she saw her. Anne’s ears stuck out comically, and her wild black hair was silky and soft.’ A chronological timeline is followed from this chapter onward, and we are able to chart Anne’s progress as she grows, and becomes more independent. Particular attention is paid to the craft of Anne’s writing, wishing as she did to become a novelist when she grew up. ‘Her style,’ Muller writes, ‘improved rapidly, with astonishing speed considering her age… The more she wrote, the sharper her observations became and the clearer her expression of those observations; the keener, too, her understanding of others and – as if she could step outside herself and look back in – of herself as well. What she had begun in adolescent dreaminess ultimately achieved, in many passages, a maturity that was as convincing as it was astonishing.’
Political and social occurrences, particularly those which relate to the restrictions placed upon Jewish people, run alongside the lives of the Frank family. This social context has been provided throughout, and adds depth and understanding. Upon the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, for instance, Muller states: ‘In one day the social structure of Holland had been transformed. Where once there had been rich and poor, an upper and a lower class, a right wing and a left wing, and various religious blocs, now only one criterion distinguished good from bad, friend from enemy: was a person anti-German or pro-German?’ Along with historical facts, Muller weaves in the interested and intelligent Anne’s own opinions. Upon the surrender of the Netherlands, ‘Anne was outraged… Surrender was a concept she was hearing about for the first time, and she didn’t like the sound of it. It didn’t suit her character.’
Counter to its title, Anne Frank: The Biography is not simply a biographical account of Anne; it includes details of both her immediate and extended family members on both sides, as well as accounts of family friends, and her schoolmates. Photographs have been dotted throughout, which adds to the narrative, and shows those around Anne, first in Germany, and then in Amsterdam, where her family moved when she was small. Perhaps most moving in terms of these portraits is the impression we receive of her doting father, Otto. When writing about Anne and Margot’s friends in Amsterdam, Muller says: ‘The greatest delight of all was Mr. Frank. His wife was always there and always friendly, but the children hardly noticed her; they took such things for granted in mothers. But Otto Frank, at almost six feet a tall man for those days, was special. With Mr. Frank you could talk and joke about anything. He made up games, told stories, always had a comforting word, and seemed to forgive Anne everything… Otto’s high spirits were truly infectious. And when he was at home he spent more time with his children than most other fathers did.’ Of course, Anne is always the central focus here, but more of an understanding of her character can be gained from seeing those around her.
Muller is so understanding of Anne’s character and qualities, and notes how great an effect being in the annexe had for her: ‘At a time when a young person is recalcitrant and restless, defiant and temperamental, full of questions and searching for answers, baffled, helpless, and often irritable, Anne had no outlets for her feelings, no way to let off steam… Anne herself described the period from 1942 until well into 1943 as a difficult time. In the long days of loneliness and despair and of conflict not only with her housemates but also and primarily with herself, Kitty and the diary became her closest confidants.’
Muller’s prose style makes Anne Frank: The Biography a very easy book to read; it is intelligent and measured, not to mention packed with detail, but it still feels readily accessible. The biography is considerate and meticulously researched and, as one would expect, is both touching and harrowing throughout. Anne Frank: The Biography is a moving and detailed tribute to a remarkable young woman, and works as the perfect companion to The Diary of a Young Girl.