The Girl Who Lived: Historical People and the Question of Ethics in Historical Fiction

This entry is going to broadly discuss historical fiction, and the framing of two novels, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979) and Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (2012) in particular. While normally I wouldn’t post spoiler warnings for two books forty-four and eleven years old respectively, because both books’ synopses play the historical denouement of their stories as potentially a “twist,” I want to leave it for people who want to be surprised. That said, as someone who knew “the twist” going in, I don’t think it ruined the reading experience. Lector emptor…











“The importance, so-called, of this book is a morbid illusion. And playing dead is melodramatic and disgusting. And hiding from Daddy is worse. No atonement is required,” said Amy to Anne. “Just get on the phone and tell Pim you’re alive.” — The Ghost Writer

Do you really think, said Bree, her voice rising, that anyone would have read that fucking book if she had survived? — Hope: A Tragedy

It should be obvious that I love historical fiction as a literary genre. I loved to read it long before I started writing my own, and I still do. Telling stories about the past and the people in it is a powerful way to bring those people out of the murky before and make them, for lack of a more elegant term, human to us. But I do believe that there is a moral component to most fiction, and this genre is no different. Just as the best romance novels understand how important their framing of even transgressive sexual practices is important, I think the historical fiction novelist who uses real people in their stories should never lose sight of the fact that they are playing with real people, even when they are crafting fiction.

Now some of you are understandably giving me side eye right now, considering how often and flippantly I sock-puppet historical figures on this blog. But I try to be always cognizant of who I’m treating this casually—in short, dudes like Julius and Octavius are big boys in history who can take some mild abuse. When dealing with marginalized or victimized people and groups, I think the level of scrutiny gets raised, especially for a writer such as myself who is coming from multiple points of cultural privilege. I know a lot of folks treat this like art is getting silenced when people potentially don’t get to write whatever first flies into their head, but all writing benefits from thinking about the process for more than half a second, so asking writers to think about their own perspective is not much of an ask.

[Sock-puppeting Roman emperors will continue…]

This has been on my mind a lot during the creative process for The Flight of Virtue (out now!), particularly in regards to writing the character of Sally Hemings. From the start I envisioned this novel as a pas de deux between Sally and Theo Burr, but I will confess that in the very first scene I sketched out, I had Sally rather than Theo as my first person narrator. Even though I think that original sketch was artistically solid, I almost instantly abandoned it because it became clear to me that I, a white writer, was not the person to write a novel from an enslaved Black woman’s point of view. I’m sure other authors of many backgrounds may disagree that I could not do so, but that’s beside the point. I personally felt that I should not do so. And that is not to say, having done this, that I have produced an ideologically pure manuscript in its place. I am still a member of a cultural majority writing about Black, and a few times, Native American people—I’m sure there are many things I could be rightly critiqued on. However, being willing to engage with these issues isn’t about “cancel culture” or some insidious gotcha thing. It’s at the very least an acknowledgment that if you’re going to sandbox with different kinds of people in your fiction, especially if those people really existed, you need to start from a place of empathy, and display a willingness to listen and learn.

Similarly, just as I believe the historical fiction novelist owes a higher standard of care when they write about people and cultures that are not their own, I personally feel like the closer your fiction dwells to the present, the more careful you should be about your story. I’m not especially comfortable writing about historical figures who have close living relatives who could be affected by my nonsense—I’m just not important enough to put someone through that. The Age of Enlightenment is as probably as far forward in time that you’ll see my books, so sorry if some of you were holding out for something a little more modern.

[Okay, maaaaybe Victorian Era…]

I understand this point is potentially more controversial and more likely to be merely my own Rubicon, given the truly insane popularity of WW2-era historical fiction. But it’s that glut of that period’s novels itself that has made me warier over time of entering it. The endless stories of resistance partisans and Bletchley Park spies has reached the potentially damaging point that American Civil War literature reached many years ago, where it felt like everybody helped on the Underground Railroad and understood that of course slavery is wrong. I’m certainly not suggesting that I want more Nazi protagonists in my historical fiction, but when all of your protagonists are “the good guys,” you run the risk of distorting the numbers of who really did resist European fascism and obfuscate from all the people who simply looked the other way while literal millions of people were systematically slaughtered. It can create a powerful, false “few bad apples” narrative in our collective consciousness that makes it all the more difficult to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

To my mind, this criticism goes double for anyone writing Holocaust-centric WW2 historical fiction. In a time where Holocaust denial remains so disturbingly prevalent, I’m not as sure as some that we’ve graduated to the place where we can fictionalize camp or survivor narratives, no matter how well-intentionally. I remember vividly how, about fifteen years ago, we were collectively surprised to learn that a genuine survivor had made up the part of her memoirs where she was literally raised by wolves while she hid from the Nazis. If we’re credulous enough for that, perhaps it isn’t time for fiction to take over the narrative.

[A lot of the time, the disinformation ends being even more depressing than reality somehow… Btw, I really recommend following the Auschwitz Memorial Museum’s Twitter account. It is very sobering, but it is important and it puts the rest of Twitter’s nonsense in perspective.]

Once, after many years, I got past the red flag twee-ness of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ title long enough to read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I kid you not, I gasped aloud at the ending. Not because I thought it was heartrending, but from vicarious embarrassment that this was the choice made. I understand the point the author was trying to make, but I think it was a bad idea nonetheless. My experience with TBitSP reminded me of a similar reaction I had to hearing about the novel Margot by Jillian Cantor, the premise of which is (given away in the description, so I don’t think it’s meant to be a secret, hence no spoilers) that Margot Frank, elder sister of Anne, secretly survived Bergen-Belsen and is living an assumed life in America when her sister’s diary becomes an international bestseller. I was curious, but at the same time, it set off warning bells in my head. Could any novel resurrect a child who had died under such horrific circumstances with even a modicum of the respect deserved?

[Again, I realize I have a habit of raising the dead in my books too. But aside from my earlier arguments for the increased license time provides, I think there’s a tonal difference between the circumstances of the individuals I have provided this fictional service to and the victims of the Shoah.]

This brings us to Anne herself—girl, writer, victim, symbol, and secular saint. Like I’m assuming is the case for many children, especially non-Jewish children, Anne and her diary were my introduction to the Holocaust. Its eloquence is remarkable for the age of its writer, but I think its staying power has been centered in its mundanity. Anne is an ordinary girl who likes boys and movie stars, who fights with her mother and gets in trouble for talking too much in class. Honestly, I fell in love with the diary as a ten year old in part because Anne was so much cooler than I ever was. But reading The Diary of a Young Girl was what led me down the slightly morbid rabbit hole of Holocaust literature, both nonfiction and fiction, that I remain attached to today. Although, as I said above, in adulthood I’ve largely left the genre’s fiction behind (but don’t worry, I read a lot Jane Yolen too before I did so—in case you thought I was acting superior).

[I was this kid, and the only redeeming part of this tweet for me is it implies other kids were/are like this. I have always assumed it was one of those many things that made me a weirdo.]

But it’s Anne’s ordinariness that has made her such a potent avatar for all Holocaust victims, especially children—she could be anyone (in the cultural West, anyway)’s daughter. This and her death. We’ll get into more of my thoughts on Hope: A Tragedy in a minute, but I think Shalom Auslander has his character make an uncomfortable, but accurate pronouncement in the quote above in my flavor text. Part of Anne’s power is her status as a martyr, an innocent upon whom everything and anything can be projected upon. You might recoil at such a cynical assessment of her legacy, but it’s easy to prove simply by comparing Anne to probably the Holocaust’s other most famous teenager: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel and Frank were less than a year apart in age and they arrived in Auschwitz within months of one another, although Anne would later be transferred with her sister to Bergen-Belsen before Auschwitz was evacuated by the Nazis, whereas Wiesel and his father would be marched to Buchenwald by the SS ahead of the Red Army’s advance through Poland. Like Diary of a Young Girl, Wiesel’s memoir Night is a classic of the genre, but aside from their personal circumstances that have probably made Anne’s book an easier international “sell”—the Franks were highly-integrated secular Jews, compared with Wiesel’s more isolated and orthodox Eastern European upbringing—the obvious difference in outcome is the main thing. Wiesel is the boy who lived, and Anne is the girl who died.

As I said, Anne could be made a pure symbol of what Could Have Been, whereas Wiesel could only ever be a survivor, with, and I say this with nothing but compassion, all of the foibles and frailties of a living person (at least until his passing seven years ago). You could disagree and disregard Wiesel if you wanted—famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal did so constantly, and the friend of mine who recommended Hope to me is an adamant critic of Night (which I adore, but he finds maudlin)—but conversely dead, Anne Frank is above reproach. And as some of you have no doubt deduced, what Hope and The Ghost Writer set out to discover is… does the narrative change if Anne Frank is still alive? Or, to put it abstractly: what would a living Anne Frank mean?

Philip Roth wrote The Ghost Writer in 1979 as the first of his nine novels to feature his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman as either the protagonist or a side character. The bulk of the short novel’s plot is an examination of Zuckerman starting out as a writer and his overnight visit in 1956 to his literary idol E.I. Lonoff’s secluded house in the Berkshires. During his stay, Zuckerman navigates around an escalating marital argument between Lonoff and his wife, Hope (accidental irony there for you), while he tries to parse out a response to his father with whom he has had a recent and unanticipated falling out. Zuckerman’s father and community in his hometown are upset about a short story he’s written based on a family inheritance dispute because it reinforces negative stereotypes about Jews and money, while Nathan defends the piece because nothing that anyone is objecting is fabricated—it’s simply what happened.

But as Zuckerman grapples with this meaning of truth and how it relates to his art, he becomes increasingly aware that the focus of the Lonoffs’ discord is Amy Bellette, a former student of Lonoff’s who has been flitting about the periphery of Zuckerman’s visit, ostensibly doing some cataloguing of the author’s manuscripts. Nathan is instantly attracted to her mysterious, “Velasquez princess” beauty and indeterminate age, thinking her to be Lonoff’s daughter at first and fantasizing about marrying his hero’s daughter as perhaps a sort of ersatz literary glamour. But as Hope’s oblique insinuations explode over dinner, and through a late-night conversation he overhears between Lonoff and Amy, Nathan amends his deduction to Amy being Lonoff’s mistress instead, but also comes to the conclusion that she’s not a Spanish Renaissance muse—she’s Anne Frank.

[I wasn’t getting what Roth was seeing when he made the Velasquez reference until I reexamined Las Meninas, and yeah, Doña Maria Agustina (pictured in detail here) and her fellow menina, Doña Isabel, do look a lot like young photos of Anne…]

The chapter where the “story” of how Anne Frank became Amy Bellette is full of intertextual contradictions, as if Roth knows he is playing with fire and wants some plausible deniability if people get too angry. The story Nathan recounts is believable, but the events don’t involve him and we never hear it directly from Amy or Lonoff’s mouth. Amy is an acknowledged displaced person from Europe in the novel, but we’re never told from where, and what Amy supposedly told Lonoff about how she survived Bergen-Belsen is possible, given the confusion of post-war Europe (something I’m sure Cantor uses in Margot as well). But in the chapter laying all of this out, we’re also told that Lonoff doesn’t believe Amy is Anne, and at the end of book when Nathan asks her directly, Amy denies everything aside from admitting to a passing resemblance between her and the most famous Holocaust victim. So the reader is left to make their own judgment on the matter.

But I think the ultimate tell is in Zuckerman’s own internal monologue with himself while he’s grappling with his anger at his father’s belief that he shouldn’t write about Jews in any way that could be construed as negative by non-Jews. Conflating his earlier desire to marry Amy with his supposed new insight into her true identity, he imagines being able to stand up to his father and the Jewish elders of his hometown with the Jewish girl par excellence on his arm. He fantasizes, no longer specifically about literary triumph, but his Jewishness being vindicated (because how could you be more uprightly Jewish than being married to Anne Frank?) enough to be able to write whatever he damn well pleases about his people. He pictures his father breathlessly confessing to how mistaken he was about his son when confronted with the living Amy/Anne when Nathan brings her home to meet the family. Through Zuckerman, Roth is showing us that it’s never about the real Anne, but rather the projection of our own experiences and desires on her that brings her to her afterlife as we know it. This extends to Amy herself, if you want to take the reading that she’s not Anne and has merely deluded herself into thinking she is in a desperate attempt to entice the awkward and insular Lonoff into pitying her enough to love her. To Roth, whether Anne is truly alive is beside the point—we’ve raised her from the dead in our own image and she will always be the ghost hovering just beyond our line of vision.

Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy deals with this idea of a living Anne in a much more head-on, confrontational way—perhaps a symptom of the time distance from the events of the Holocaust that I find too recent but clearly isn’t to most people. The story, a dark satire written in 2012 and for all evidence set contemporarily, presents us with an elderly Anne who has been living a Kafkaesque existence in America’s attics while she works on her follow up to Diary of a Young Girl. She is presented as filthy, unpleasant, and possibly mad, but she’s meant to be a reflection of both American Jewish and non-Jewish attitudes and guilt toward the Holocaust and Anne herself.

Sol Kugel, the novel’s protagonist, unknowingly moves his family into the isolated Upstate farmhouse Anne is lurking in to escape New York City’s inherent dangers and history. But he’s immediately pinschered between his deranged mother who has fabricated Holocaust PTSD, and the real Holocaust victim squatting in his attic demanding matzoh and relieving herself in his heating ducts. As these two women threaten to destroy his marriage and his tenuous grasp on his own sanity with their presence, Sol tries with increasing desperation to get Anne Frank out of his house. But it becomes equally clear as the novel builds to its conclusion that, fed on our reverence and guilt, Anne is now stronger than any of us and cannot be evicted from our psyches any more than she can die (again?). Her most telling taunt to Sol is about how he wouldn’t have lasted a day in the camps, and his private agreement that she is right.

[Dutch first edition of Anne’s diary, first titled Het Achterhuis (The Back House)—1947]

Auslander erases the easy heroics of the genre, where everybody is a fighter and survivor to lay out the bare truth that in a tragedy where millions of people were murdered, most of us would be victims and those of us who are adults, probably not even especially good even if we lived. That Anne’s fictive incarnation as everything her sainted memory is not is also an acknowledgment of the quiet sentiment of many of those that did survive—that the best and most innocent of them didn’t walk out of the camps. Survival burdened victims with the additional suspicions of the spared, the silent accusation of what you may or may not have done to live. Survivor memoirs often talk about the terrible tightrope one had to walk every minute in the camps, where one had to lose some of one’s humanity to endure the sheer scale of the horror they were thrust into, but not so much that they became the monsters the Germans had been programmed to believe they were.

The extremely black tone of Hope combined with my ambivalence toward Holocaust fiction means I enjoyed it less on its face than The Ghost Writer, but I recognize that what Auslander is trying to say is a lot closer to the truths of matter than what Roth chose to take on. Hope’s Anne is brutal and ugly, but the Holocaust was brutal and ugly, and the more fiction tries to fantasize it, the more dangerous the genre becomes. When disinformation is already so widespread, the impulse to mythologize puts weapons in the hands of those who want to claim that all of it is a fantasy. If we fail to account for the “real” Anne in our attic, “Never Again” could so easily be twisted into “Never Happened.”

[Photos of Anne (1939)]
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