The dead are public property

Did Anne Frank have sex? The unlikely and, some might say, impertinent question has been raised in the publicity surrounding the publication in the autumn of a novel for teenagers called Annexed. The book’s author, Sharon Dogar, is said to have included “intimate scenes” in what is a fictional diary of Frank’s close friend Peter van Pels.


For many, The Diary of a Young Girl by Frank has been part of the cultural landscape for so long that what she might or might not have done in her life is a literary question along the lines of “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” It is as artistically acceptable to use the story of a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis and eventually died in Belsen as inspiration or starting point for new work as it would be to work around Romeo and Juliet or a Greek myth. For others, reality is what matters. Buddy Elias, a first cousin of Frank’s now in his eighties, is angry about Annexed. “Anne was not the child she is in this book,” he has protested. “I also do not think that their terrible destiny should be used to invent some fictitious story.”


He is, of course, fighting a battle that is already lost. Some people are fated, or doomed, to become larger-than-life figures after their deaths, representing all sorts of values and trends which are important to those left behind. When the person is a writer who has provided a version of his or her life, the scope for myth-making, for finishing an unfinished story, is all the greater.


I have sympathy with Buddy Elias, and his determined clinging to his memories of the real person, having recently had a small, and very different, experience of the way posthumous fame can work. When my good friend Roger Deakin died in 2006, he was the author of one remarkable, highly praised published book about swimming across Britain, Waterlog; his two final works were published after his death.


He was an extraordinary, lovable, utterly original man whose view of the world around him was always curious, well-informed and impassioned. Soon after he died, it became clear that another Roger was under construction. His became a name to drop in essays about nature, environmentalism, England. An editorial headlined “In praise of Roger Deakin” appeared in a broadsheet. He inspired websites and festivals. His books received new attention. A theatrical one-man show based on Waterlog was written. A BBC film is in development.


Those who knew the original version are likely to have mixed feelings about the process; gratitude that his worth is being recognised is cut with a niggling unease that the real, complex human being is being lost and that a plainer, smoother imitation is being erected in its place.


Humans need a story with shape and coherence, even in the context of something as gloriously shambolic as a human life. A must lead to B. Actions must have consequences and, even more importantly, causes. When I recently attended a reading of Andrew Burton’s stage version of Waterlog, I began to understand why there is often so much trouble surrounding the way a writer is presented after his or her death. Thoughtfully put together and well staged, the play pleased the audience, which was then invited to stay for a question and answer session with the writer and director.


As the discussion eddied around me (Should Roger’s death have been included? What were the causes of his loneliness?), I found it difficult not to flee the theatre. The problem was not just that the public, much discussed Roger was different from the one I remembered, but that my own memories of him felt weirdly threatened.


No wonder there are rows around literary estates. The fictional version of contemporary heroes and villains tend to be an odd conflation of what he actually was and what the world which survived him wants him to be. Quite soon, it is that which becomes the truth. The real person, the wonderful human mess that they were, fades in the memory as history takes over.


Independent, Tuesday, 22 June 2010