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The lingering chill of war

The Coldest Winter A Stringer in Liberated Europe Paula Fox Henry Holt: 134 pp., $18

November 20, 2005|Lynne Tillman | Lynne Tillman's most recent book is "This Is Not It," a collection of stories. Her new novel, "American Genius, A Comedy," will be published in 2006.

PAULA FOX'S "The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe" challenges not just literature's usual calibrations -- major, minor, big, small -- but also the designation of genre: in this case, 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." Here, her arresting style and profound understanding of character and situation transform a putative memoir into an assemblage of philosophical tales. She writes of incomprehensible acts and alarming histories with an uncanny, earned and special wisdom.

Like many American writers, Fox sought out the Old World as a testing ground. At 23, "a time when I imagined that if I could only find the right place, the difficulties of life would vanish," she arrives in England. The year, though, is 1946, and life abroad is framed by the harrowing landscape of postwar Europe. World War II and the Holocaust pervade almost every meeting Fox holds and every place she goes.

In London, wealthy and celebrated English people and American expatriates befriend her. Their class and sumptuous houses provoke her curiosity about those who imagined that their property "reflected their praiseworthy character, not the ease with which they spent money." Unlike many earlier Americans in Europe, Fox must earn her living. She lands a job as a stringer for a left-wing newspaper owned by a peer who hopes to present an alternative to Reuters' dominance. He assigns Fox to Paris, to cover a peace conference at the Palais du Luxembourg. But her "stories [tend] toward the picturesque rather than the newsworthy." And in "The Coldest Winter," too, she reflects primarily on the effects of the recently ended war, a changed, saddened Paris and human wreckage.

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

In thoughts as stunning as camera flashes, Fox knits her past together. She presents startling images and unforgettable stories. She compresses narrative time, measuring 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."

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

Chekhov's stories come to mind, with their ethical dilemmas, their human ugliness and pathos, their unquestionable beauty and compassion. "The Coldest Winter" recalls a year or so in Fox's life, but even more, it asks why her experience, or anyone's, matters. Her past lies within the lines of other lives, her history inseparable from the greater one. Now, as she looks back, the endurance of memories is a mystery, as haphazard as living itself.

In "The Coldest Winter" and her novels, Fox chooses words so splendidly that a reader must contend with how language can and cannot render events and emotions. 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. (I thought often of Primo Levi's writings and teachings.) The untitled photographs that are interspersed, sparely, throughout the book add to the idea of memory's elusiveness, and how very much is forgotten. The pictures may be of a person or place Fox had just mentioned. Or they may suggest that 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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