A Writer Is Born

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

THE COLDEST WINTER

A Stringer in Liberated Europe

By Paula Fox

Henry Holt. 133 pp. $18

Not to mince words about it: Paula Fox can write . Now in her early eighties, she has behind her 22 books for children, six novels and one memoir, not to mention a nice collection of medals and prizes. Now, with "The Coldest Winter," she adds another memoir to the list, the spare, haunting story of a year she spent in Europe -- London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona and other places -- beginning in December 1946. She was 22 years old when she arrived, with not more than pennies in her pocket and a handful of references. Not merely was it "what was said to have been the coldest winter in Europe for twenty years," it was winter in a place still utterly devastated by war:

"On nights when there was a moon, its light shone through the holes of windowless ruins that surrounded the heart of the city like a black frieze. To walk in Warsaw as I often did in the late evening, my chin buried deep in my collar, snow and debris piled up on every side, was to feel the cold and desolation and silence of a city of the dead. When the thaw came, we were told, the corpses of those who had fallen in the Warsaw uprising would be exposed."

Fox was in Europe as a freelance correspondent, or stringer, for a strange little news service run by a strange man identified only as Sir Andrew, about whom she knew almost nothing except that "he was well off, strong in his championing of the rights of labor, and wanted to spend his pounds and shillings on a news service with a very different political emphasis from Reuters." It is a mystery that he took on this young American woman who had, to all intents and purposes, no experience, but this did permit him to get away with paying her a "very small" salary, and it gave her the opportunity not just to see Europe but also to get outside herself.

Not that she was a pampered post-debutante. As recounted in her previous memoir, "Borrowed Finery" (2001), she was born to childlike, willful parents who abandoned her to a foundling home in New York, then appeared in and disappeared from her life over and over again. Adults and places came and went, and at the age of 21 -- about a year before "The Coldest Winter" begins -- she turned over her own baby to an adoption agency. She was young, and though she says that "I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn't understand," she was sufficiently hardened and skeptical to travel through bombed-out Europe with her eyes open and, for the most part, her tear ducts dry.

The stories she wrote for her unnamed news agency were sent in by mail and "tended toward the picturesque rather than the newsworthy"; Sir Andrew wanted her to write about "subjects of interest to readers who are not as interested in news stories as they are in life stories," not a bad apprenticeship for a woman fated to spend the rest of her career writing "life stories" in one form or another. She did cover "the peace conference that was taking place at the Palais du Luxembourg" in Paris and the rigged elections by which the communists took control of Poland, but mainly she wrote about rather ordinary people.

She encountered "people who had once been teachers, engineers, actors, and musicians, and others with now-useless vocations, who had been exploded out of their ordinary days by the war and were drifting through the cities of Europe, waiting on the edge of hopelessness for work permits that might enable them to resume some version of their former lives," people clad in "garments of dispersion, dark threadbare jackets, pants often held up by string, their cold-reddened hands thrust into torn pockets as they stood in all kinds of weather near banks and post offices where foreigners tended to gather."

Her eye, as that passage makes plain, was both keen and sympathetic. "This all happened long ago," she writes, "and in a different world." One of the many virtues of this uncommonly fine book is that it brings that world almost palpably back to life, yet without an ounce of sensationalism or sentimentality. Readers of Fox's previous work know that these are not weaknesses to which Fox is prone, but it must be difficult -- even at a remove of nearly six decades -- to write about Europe as it was then without lapsing into easy emotions, easily expressed.

Indeed, the emotions felt here are hard ones. There is Fox's encounter with an odd Jewish woman, Helen Grassner, "from a Jewish women's organization in the Midwest," sent to Poland "to see what the government intended to do for Jews who wanted to leave Poland and settle in what was then British-governed Palestine." At first, Fox viewed her with "a certain unthinking tolerance," but gradually she "escaped my definition of her" and became "as large as life." It is a small moment of illumination, one of many for Fox as she wandered through Europe, encountering "something beyond my own life, freeing me from chains I hadn't known were holding me, showing me something other than myself."

In Spain, Fox visited her elderly great uncle, Tio Antonio, who had been imprisoned and beaten by Franco's thugs after being betrayed by a young relative. After his return, "extremely feeble," he had seen from his window a little dog, "standing, apparently frozen with fear, among the railroad tracks that ran behind his building." He hobbled out and brought the dog back to his apartment:

"I think of what is called political life , so abstract until a cane is laid across one's back. I think of the life of the spirit that would send a sick old man out to rescue a stray animal he had glimpsed on the railroad tracks. And I think of the civil wars, of the young cousin from Cadiz and her cruel act, licensed by ideology, and of the degradation and, finally, destruction of family and fellow feeling. . . . As I look at [the dog] in my mind's eye, I am reminded not of the loftiness or dignity of the human spirit but, rather, its sudden capacity in dire circumstances for an overarching sympathy, its redemptive humbleness."

Europe taught Fox to reject politics, if not outright detest them. Tio Antonio talked to her of politics "always in terms of character: ignobility of spirit, malice, ambition, and human blindness, as though politics were no more and no less than direct aspects of human temperament." She went to Poland vaguely attracted to the communists because of "the racial justice they preached, that and their certainties about life, which comforted me just as Sunday school had years earlier," but an incident with a terrified maid in the shabby hotel where she stayed changed that for good: "My knowledge of socialism, and its ferocious cousin communism, had been spotty, frivolous, without judgment or any sense of responsibility. For a moment I slumped . . . overcome by regret and self-revulsion."

In this as in all other matters, honesty is Fox's rule. Her account of a brief affair with a hero of the Resistance, a man whose wife had protected him from the Gestapo at awful cost to herself, takes only four paragraphs, every word of them precise, painful and -- I have no doubt -- true. Every page of this short, intense book is like that. It is self-revelatory but never self-absorbed, beautifully written but never showily so. Too bad there isn't more of it, but it is, of course, exactly the right length.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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