In his new novel, writer Shalom Auslander resurrects the living ghost of Anne Frank

March 17, 2012

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At a recent reading in Chicago, Shalom Auslander confided in his audience that he had asked his publisher if he could skip the normal book tour Q & A, and just interview himself.

The questions he gets are “often repetitive,” he lamented.  “Normally, the first one is about Philip Roth.”

Upon reading Auslander’s new novel, Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead Books, 2012), it’s not hard to see why. It’s not just that both Roth and Auslander are Jewish writers who struggle with questions of contemporary Jewishness, like the presence or absence of God in modern life. It’s not just that each writes explicitly about his various sexual urges, whether in Portnoy’s Complaint (or, OK, just about every Roth novel) or in Auslander’s very NSFW essays for GQ and Nerve.com.

No, it is also because with Auslander’s latest novel, Hope: A Tragedy, each writer has now conjured a speculative fiction or “what if” version of Anne Frank -- not as a young diarist murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, but as an adult who secretly survived the Holocaust and who now lives in hiding somewhere in America.

In Roth’s case, a fictionalized Frank appears in The Ghost Writer, the first book in the Zuckerman series. Published in 1979, it is, like many of Roth’s books, a portrait of post-war America: The Holocaust has just happened, Jews are not yet fully assimilated and, anxious about their status and security in this country, are eager to portray themselves in a positive light. The main character, Nathan Zuckerman, is a young, aspiring writer who has been criticized by his parents and his rabbi for supposedly bringing shame to his family and his faith by writing honestly about the moral and financial foibles of some of his relatives.

Searching for his path, Zuckerman goes on a pilgrimage to visit his hero, a reclusive and aging novelist living in the countryside with a young mistress—who may or may not be Anne Frank. Marrying Anne Frank, it dawns on Zuckerman, could solve all of his problems: If he were married to this patron saint of Jewish writing, he and his writing would be unassailable.

Zuckerman’s fantasy is, of course, just that. But the question, even accusation, that Roth seems to raise with this scenario is provocative and troubling: In a world determined to “never forget,” is Anne Frank more useful dead – as a symbol of persecution, injustice and mass murder – than she would be alive?

In Auslander’s Hope, his fictionalized version of Frank reaches a similar set of conclusions when she walks into a publisher’s office after escaping from Bergen-Belsen. “Stay dead,” the publisher tells her. “They want a martyr, they want to know we’ve hit bottom. That it gets better, because it can’t get worse.”

Auslander’s treatment of this material is darker than Roth’s, yet somehow much funnier, too. This American Life fans know Auslander from radio stories that detail with deadpan hilarity and horror the drama of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. The same listeners will be pleased to find these same qualities here.

Hope is set in the present day, and Auslander’s main character, Solomon Kugle, has moved his wife and young son to the rural town of Stockton, where nothing has ever happened, trying to escape the past. We already know that Kugle can’t, though, and the point is driven home when he discovers a feisty, half-dead Anne Frank squirreled away in the attic of his newly acquired farmhouse, trying to write the story of the latter part of her life.

That’s where we find Kugle in this excerpt of Hope: A Tragedy, read aloud by Auslander during his recent stop in Chicago. You can listen in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Shalom Auslander spoke at an event presented by the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in February. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.