The Coldest Winter

Paula Fox’s The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe contests not just a book’s usual designations—major, minor, big, small— but also its genre, in this case, the memoir. Fox is a great American writer, the author of several brilliant novels—including Desperate Characters, The Widow’s Children and Poor George—and a recent autobiographical work, Borrowed Finery. Her arresting, unique style and her profound understanding of character and situation transform a putative memoir into an assemblage of philosophical tales. Fox writes of incomprehensible acts and alarming histories with an earned, uncanny, and special wisdom.

Like other American writers, Fox sought out Europe as a testing ground for her fledgling writer’s life. It was “a time when I imagined that if I could only have found the right place, the difficulties of life would vanish.” But the year she leaves is 1946, she is 23 years old and life abroad is framed by the harrowing landscape of post-war Europe. World War II and the Holocaust pervade almost every meeting she holds and every place she goes.

In London, when England was still on rationing, wealthy and celebrated English people and American expatriates befriend her. Their class and sumptuous houses provoke her wonder about those who imagine their property “reflected their praiseworthy character, not the ease with which they spent money.” Unlike many earlier Americans abroad, Fox must earn her living. She lands a job as a stringer for a left-wing newspaper owned by a peer, Sir Andrew, who hopes to present an alternative and challenge to Reuters’ dominance. He assigns Fox to Paris, to cover a peace conference at the Palais du Luxembourg. But Fox reflects primarily on the effects of the recently ended war, a changed, saddened Paris and human wreckage.

Fox’s novelistic eye tracks the odd habits of a fellow female boarder in a Parisian pension, with whom she partners in bridge. Then she notices a “faded blue tattoo of a number” on the strange woman’s arm. A love affair ineluctably embraces the war, too; her lover is a Corsican politician whose wife suffered torture to protect him. The lovers’ desire collapses under the burden of their own ethical indictments, “her bravery never far from our minds.” One of the people she interviews drives her to his apartment for dinner with him and his wife, and Fox studies his shabby sheepskin jacket. Without being asked, the man explains that “the jacket had kept him warm” for three years in a concentration camp. The jacket, she writes, “seemed to me the brown carcass of an animal that had fought in vain for its life.” Her qualification “in vain” alerts the reader to a struggle of lifelong despair.

In thoughts stunning as camera flashes, Fox knits her past together. She presents startling images and unforgettable stories. She compresses narrative time, moving fluidly from the young Fox to the older one, to measure first reactions and impressions against the insights of retrospection. She is honest, more severe with herself than anyone else. “I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand. My ravenous interest in those days was aroused by anything.”

Sir Andrew assigns her to Warsaw, where “to walk . . . was to feel the cold and desolation and silence of a city of the dead.” Here and elsewhere, Fox encounters people who pose great paradoxes and enigmas. There is troubling Mrs. Helen Grassner, a Jewish-American, middle-aged woman, who searches Poland for Jews and who grieves, because she didn’t lose any of her family in the camps. With her, some other journalists and three Czechs who’d been in camps, Fox tours the Polish countryside, courtesy of the Polish government. They visit “a former vacation estate of a Prussian aristocrat,” now a home for traumatized children “who had been born [or spent some time] in concentration camps . . . [though] their parents, without exception, had been murdered by the Nazis.” A 19-year-old man, formerly a member of a Young Fascists organization, follows her one night and, in shadow, whispers of his thrill at watching executions. She rushes away, feeling disgust, hatred, and also a little sympathy for his abject, ruined life. Much later, working as a tutor for institutionalized, orphaned teenagers in New York, she remembers the children born in camps, their “stunted little weeping figures.”

Chekhov’s stories come to mind, his portrayals of ethical dilemmas, human ugliness and pathos, their unquestionable beauty and compassion. The Coldest Winter accounts for a year or so in Fox’s life, but even more it asks how and why her or anyone’s experience matters. Fox’s past lies between and within the lines of other lives, her history inseparable from the greater one, and nothing she reports is reduced to a truism or general statement. Now, as she looks back, the endurance of memories is a mystery, haphazard as life itself.

In this and her novels, Fox chooses words so splendidly a reader must contend with how language can and cannot allow events and emotions to be rendered. Notably, Fox marks tragedy and “outrageous fortune” with a delicate hand. The enormity of the Holocaust is, in a grave sense, beyond words, so the fewer the better. By her discretion, this reader thought often of Primo Levi’s writings and teachings. The uncaptioned photographs that are interspersed sparely throughout the book add to an idea of memory’s elusiveness, and how very much more is forgotten. The pictures may be of a person or place Fox has just mentioned. Or, untitled, they may suggest that Paula Fox’s experiences, the people she met, places she visited, can also represent those lost to history, unsung and anonymous. Her “year over there,” she writes, “had shown me something other than myself.” 

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