Being remembered can mean being distorted. But that's better than being forgotten

You know the section of A Question of Sport, What Happened Next? Well, what happened next?

"Mrs Tope's care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner-cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; and then falls to with an appetite."

As he wrote those words, reaching the halfway point of his thriller The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens was already feeling very ill. A few minutes later he wandered over to the lunch table, babbled something about going to London, collapsed and never regained consciousness. There are plenty of other examples of works being truncated by the author's death - Shelley breaking off mid-sentence from his greatest poem, The Triumph of Life, Puccini's Turandot coming to a halt a matter of bars from the end - but it's difficult to think of anything more affecting than the following adolescent whinge. I'll quote only the last few words of what is a very long sentence:

". . . I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I'd like to be and what I could be if . . . if only there were no other people in the world."

The final entry in Anne Frank's diary is dated 1 August 1944. Three days later members of the Dutch security police, led by an SS sergeant, broke into the house, and the family was arrested and deported. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen six weeks before the camp was liberated. These events are outside the diary but, as we read, our knowledge of them permeates every line. And the arrest and her death are crucial for not only the diary's emotional effect but its very existence. If she had survived the war, the diary might well have never been published.

I was working in Amsterdam last week and happened to walk past the Anne Frank Museum. Anne Frank wrote a good deal about the ghastliness of her confinement in the attic of the house and a bit about being a famous writer. Here is an idea for a short story: Anne Frank comes back to Amsterdam for an afternoon. She's taken to the Van Gogh Museum, which is comprehensible enough. Then she visits a "coffee shop". Joint in hand, she is led through the red-light district, where prostitutes behind shop windows are lit by ultraviolet light. She pops into a department store and is shown a display devoted to souvenirs. There are china windmills and miniature clogs, artificial tulips and a painted plate featuring the house from which she and her family were dragged. Baffled, she is led through familiar streets to the house itself, a long queue outside: middle-aged men in shorts, fidgeting children, cameras, ice-cream stalls, postcards. The rooms themselves have been carefully maintained as they were, but there is a new annexe with a display and toilet facilities.

For a moment I felt that this conversion of an atrocity into one of the things that tourists dutifully do in Amsterdam was an obscenity. I was wrong, of course. When things are remembered, they get modified, remade, institutionalised, made strange. If you have made the most beautiful and perfect tower in the world, you may be peeved to come back 500 years later and discover that it is now famous largely for leaning at an impossibly precarious angle. (The engineers want to stop the tower falling, but to straighten it altogether would be a disaster for Pisan tourism.) Leonardo might be dismayed by the sight of his Last Supper, which has been restored so often and so thoroughly that almost none of it is by him any more. What would Bach think of his music played on instruments and in combinations, speeds and pitches that he would hardly recognise?

Most of us don't need to worry about being distorted. We'll be accorded the good taste of oblivion. The cruellest taunt of concentration-camp guards to their victims was that they would be utterly forgotten; in the face of that, Anne Frank's house and the Auschwitz tourist centre, with all their oddities and problems, are victories. But maybe that's why I prefer books. Fifty million people can read a book and they don't need to queue, you don't need a special car-park, and they can use their own lavatory afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo