One of the more surprising moments in recent music history comes midway through the celebrated 1998 indie rock album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” by the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Hiding in otherwise understated tune are some startling lyrics:
It is, as many a hipster could tell you, an album about Anne Frank. Its singer and lyricist was a shaggy-headed 27-year-old named Jeff Magnum. As far removed as his native Louisiana was from Amsterdam, his songs give the unmistakable impression that he is a man in love with a 15-year-old girl who had been murdered more than five decades earlier.
Magnum was hardly the first to wish he could save her. Because of the hold that “The Diary of a Young Girl” has long had on a certain subset of American youth —sensitive, bookish, mainly but not exclusively Jewish — generations of readers and writers have attempted to revive her with their imaginations. The most notable performance of this shadow play came a quarter-century ago in Philip Roth’s strange little novel, “The Ghost Writer.” Setting his story late in the 1950s, Roth is able, through the figure of Nathan Zuckerman, to encounter a mysterious young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Anne Frank. She becomes for him the answer to all his ambivalence as a postwar Jew in America. He imagines marrying her, the Jewish martyr nonpareil, and writing home with proof that he is no self-hater: “Dear Folks: Anne is pregnant, and happier, she says, than she ever thought possible again.” It is vintage Roth in its skewering of pieties; who else would dare impregnate the ghost of a murdered child to show how perverse the sacralization of memory can be?
In the latest literary reappearance of Anne Frank’s diary, Ellen Feldman comes close. In her new novel, “The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank,” Feldman imagines that a boy who shared Anne’s hiding place somehow managed to survive. As she explains in an author’s note, on a visit to the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, she heard that young Peter van Pels was the only inhabitant of the secret annex whose fate is unknown. Of the eight people who hid there together, only Otto Frank is known to have lived to see the liberation of the camps; the dates and places of six of the others’ deaths appeared soon after the war in the records of the Red Cross. It’s very likely that Peter died on a forced march in 1945, but officially he remains the kind of question mark that begs for a story. What became of Peter, Feldman realized, could make for compelling, speculative fiction.
It could also make for gimmicky, sentimental, cult-of-holy-memory fiction, but Feldman manages to avoid such pitfalls. She does so, in a deceptively straightforward way, by allowing her salvaged character to tell his own story, proceeding from a few parameters set by the diary. If they made it out of the annex, Peter once told Anne, he would reinvent himself entirely. “He said life would have been easier if he’d been Christian or could become one after the war,” Anne wrote. From there, Feldman follows Peter as he leaves his past behind. Sent to Auschwitz along with the Franks and the other van Pelses, he survives to see the limbo of the displaced persons camps and then boards a boat to America. But his survival is only the start of the story. The moment he sets foot in New York, he carries out the plan hatched in the annex: He ceases to be a Jew.
As Feldman tells it, Peter’s fictional life from then on might have followed the path of many passing stories — swift success, endless lies, a house in the suburbs — if not for the one overshadowing fact that the author leaves in place: the diary itself, dropped into the narrative like a bomb that quietly explodes one evening while he is in his big suburban home. His wife, a Jew who believes she is married to a gentile, selects as bedtime reading the recently released book full of all the memories he has kept from her.
At first he tries to ignore it, forgetting the diary just as he has forgotten the events it describes. But as Anne’s words become not just a book but also a cultural phenomenon — the play, the film, the sudden ubiquity of a girl he thought lost — Peter’s hidden past becomes the elephant in every room he enters. When at last he reads the words he had watched Anne write, he is overcome by them. “When I was not reading it, I was thinking of it…” he says. “I was trapped in that book as I had been trapped in that house.”
The inevitable reckoning between Feldman’s speculation and the reality that inspired it begins when Peter hears of the liberties that were taken in the diary’s various adaptations. In one of the historical and scholarly epigraphs at the start of each chapter, we learn that the playwrights and producers of the dramatic production of Anne’s story, faced with a “sagging second act,” decided to invent conflict where there had been none. They made Peter’s father into a thief, a stealer of bread from the mouths of children. While he had done his best to forget his parents and their fate, this outright rewriting of history is too much for him to bear. It is against this backdrop that Peter van Pels, the boy who died in real life, sets out to confront Otto Frank, the man who, here and in history, survived to tell the tale.
Such seamless weaving of fact and fiction gives “The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank” tension to spare, making it a story of unexpected suspense — no small feat, given that the crimes that drive the plot occurred long before the action opens. It’s a page-turner motivated not by the usual whodunit but more meaningfully by questions: When will he speak? Will the revisers of history get away with it? How will the man who knows the truth admit it, knowing the cost?
The novel’s most effective moments come when Peter tries to make sense of what happened to the story of his life in hiding when it became not just his memory but the world’s. When he goes to see the Anne Frank film, he is at first put off by the invented details but then cannot help but be moved by the film, despite knowing how much of it is untrue. Particularly untrue, he finds, is the moral of the story, the words from the diary with which the movie ends. “In spite of everything,” the actress playing Anne says, “I still believe people are good at heart.”
With the credits rolling and that hopeful message hanging in the air, Feldman allows Peter a soliloquy of restrained disgust. “That was what the audience wanted. The triumph of the human spirit, as my wife called it. The reassurance that in spite of everything, of people going to their deaths by the millions merely for the accident of their birth, of other people willing and eager to pry gold fillings from their mouths before they shoveled them into ovens, of ghoulish experiments on unanesthetized individuals in the interest of medical science, of an entire people’s bloodthirsty complicity to cleanse the world of another entire people, despite all that, human beings are good at heart.”
By tearing down the shrine of simple hope and sacred memory that has been made of Anne Frank, Feldman has created a fiction that makes the facts of her story real again. Though one selling point of this book surely will be the promise of a kind of reanimated Anne offered by the likes of Roth and Magnum, she is rarely mentioned directly. This is to Feldman’s credit. Her project is harder work, and she pulls it off. Rather than bringing Anne back to life, the author brings her back to death. A half-century after a found diary made a murder victim into an icon, Feldman succeeds in acknowledging the role the story has played in the world, while allowing — finally — the girl who wrote it to rest.
Peter Manseau is co-author of “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible”(The Free Press, 2004). His next book, “Vows,” will be published in the fall.
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The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel
By Ellen Feldman
W. W. Norton & Company, 264 pages, $23.95.