Death and the Maiden

The following is based on a talk given at the opening of the exhibition “Anne Frank in the World: 1929–1945” at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts in April.

I must begin by making a confession. In 1957, the American couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who adapted The Diary of Anne Frank into a successful play, established the Anne Frank Prize, intended for young writers in the Netherlands. The prize no longer exists, but I was the first to receive it. And yet I had not yet read her book at the time. Even more shameful is the admission that when almost thirty years later I was invited to open an exhibition dedicated to Anne Frank, at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, I still had not read the book. This is partly owing to a professional idiosyncracy on my part. I only read what is more or less directly related to what I am writing at the time and is therefore of use to me. Reading is, for me, a part of writing and not an end in itself, as it is for legitimate readers. But there may be yet another cause for this omission of mine, namely Anne Frank’s place in Dutch literature which is, actually, nonexistent. Her book has been translated into fifty-one languages and about sixteen million copies of it have been sold. If one asks anyone in the world at large if he knows the name of a Dutch writer the answer will be “Anne Frank.” But in our own literary annals, any second-or third-rate novelist, wholly unknown abroad and hardly known at home, receives more notice than Anne Frank.

I am not going to insist that this is a scandal that should be corrected, but I would like to understand the reason for it. The number of her readers and translations is not significant in itself, of course. There are literary, and especially poetic, masterpieces that are admired by only a few thousand people in the world, while books that one reads sitting by the swimming pool also sell in the millions but are not, and rightly so, remembered at all. But Anne Frank’s book is not one of these; on the contrary, I would say. It is read throughout the world; it is not trivial, but is nevertheless not considered to be literature. Why is this? Could it be that a third category exists?

It has, first of all, something to do with reality, and with death. We know that everything we read in her book is true, and at the same time we are continuously aware of the fact that the writer will seal the written word with her death. The total isolation of the secret annex of which the windows and curtains are never allowed to be opened is reminiscent of a stage on which the relationship between the eight characters keep growing with increasing intensity, the girl being both one of the actors and the author …

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