‘I’m not planning to let anyone else read this stiff-backed notebook grandly referred to as a “diary,”’ wrote Anne Frank in June, 1942, a couple of days after receiving the notebook for her thirteenth birthday. Since the publication of the book by her father, Otto, in 1947, her teenage diary has been sold of 30 million copies and been translated into over 70 different languages. The thirteen-year-old girl who wrote the very first entry could not have dreamed how influential and widely-renowned she would become shortly after her death.
While Anne’s diary is often viewed as a historical artefact, it can also be studied as a literary text. Anne dreamed of becoming a writer: many of her diary entries reflect on whether she’ll be able to make it as a journalist after the war, or whether the short stories she writes while in hiding might be published one day: ‘Will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’ On the 75th anniversary of her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, we can pay tribute to her memory by reading her diary as the literary text she dreamed she would one day write.
Although she may have started her diary as a private record of her schoolmates and daily adventures, after a couple of years Anne began to edit and write the text to be published after the end of the war – in 1944 she heard a call on the radio for personal letters and diaries to be published as eye-witness accounts of the sufferings of Dutch people under German occupation. While all her entries are addressed to ‘Kitty’, the name she affectionately gives her notebook, her later writing is often addressed to an imaginary or hoped-for reader. Following a particularly unflattering description of Mrs Von D, another woman in hiding in the Annex, she adds a postscript: ‘P.S. Will the reader please take into consideration that this story was written before the writer’s fury had cooled?’ She was thinking critically about how the diary would be received, and the impact that her words would have on the reader – she doesn’t want to be judged badly for her quick temper. The idea of an author-reader relationship lends the text much more of a literary focus than the style of a personal diary, where, as in her earlier entries, she wouldn’t have worried about how other people might perceive her writing.
Anne used her diary as a space for literary experimentation, showing the development of her own authorial style. One such example is a motif that runs throughout the diary: while at school, prior to being taken into hiding, Anne is repeatedly scolded by her teacher for being an uncontrollable chatterbox. As a punishment, he gives her an assignment: to write an essay entitled ‘Quack, Quack, Quack,’ said Mistress Chatterback.’ As the years pass by, Anne repeatedly refers back to this incident with good humour, making it into a literary motif – when a plumber visits the house below the annex where Anne and her family have gone into hiding, they must remain in complete silence for hours. ‘You can imagine how hard that was for Miss Quack, Quack, Quack,’ jokes Anne. At a low point, she worries that anyone who stumbled upon her diary would regard it merely as ‘The Musings of an Ugly Duckling’ rather than the work of historical importance she hoped. Yet despite her self-criticism and the attempts of her teacher to keep her quiet, her voice lives on through her book, becoming a mouthpiece for the thousands who suffered during Nazi occupation.
Towards the end of the diary, we see Anne’s writing flourish with a beauty and wisdom that many writers strive – and often fail! – to achieve throughout their careers. “Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again. Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you’re pure within and will find happiness once more.” The strength that shines from her young words is unquestionably stunning. While the words seem to address herself, referencing the loft of the Annex she was living in, her words also reach out from the text and speak to the present-day reader with just as great an impact. The ability of great works of literature to speak not only to the situation detailed in the text, but also to the situation of the reader regardless of age, time or gender, is one that Anne harnesses here to powerful effect.
Literature has the power to keep voices alive in the present day, and share valuable lessons with us that otherwise might be lost to history
Literature has the power to keep voices alive in the present day, and share valuable lessons with us that otherwise might be lost to history. In 1944 Anne wrote ‘I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!’ In 2019 we can safely say that her voice has been kept alive through her diary, and she won’t ever have lived in vain.