The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe

The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe by Paula Fox. Henry Holt and Company, 2005; 144 pages; $18.


In 1946, Paula Fox walked up the gangplank of a partly reconverted Liberty with the classic American hope of finding experience -- or perhaps salvation -- in Europe. She was 22 years old and would spend the next year moving among the ruins of London, Warsaw, Paris, Prague, Madrid, and other cities as a stringer for a small British news service. In this lucid, affecting memoir, Fox describes her movements across Europe's scrambled borders: unplanned trips to empty castles and ruined cathedrals, a stint in bombed-out Warsaw in the midst of the Communist election takeovers, and nights spent in apartments here and there with distant relatives, friends of friends, and in shabby pensions with little heat, each place echoing with the horrors of the war. A young woman alone, with neither a plan nor a reliable paycheck, Fox made her way with the rest of Europe as the continent rebuilt and rediscovered itself among the ruins.

Long revered as a novelist, Fox won over a new generation of readers with her previous memoir, Borrowed Finery. Now, with The Coldest Winter, she recounts another chapter of a life seemingly filled with stories -- a rare, unsentimental glimpse of the world as seen by a writer at the beginning of an illustrious career.


From Booklist: In her acclaimed memoir, Borrowed Finery (2001), Fox wrote with quiet power about her traumatic childhood. Now she writes about huge political upheaval, and once again she brings it close with small, intimate details. She remembers herself in 1946 as a journalist stringer in post-World War II Europe. She meets the famous, including Paul Robeson and Jean-Paul Sartre.... In an unforgettable scene in a freezing, bombed-out opera house in Yugoslavia, the orchestra plays the Brahms violin concerto, and the audience listens so intently "it was as though we had never heard music nor would again." You read the simple words slowly, and they haunt you.

From Publishers Weekly: In sparse, careful prose, Fox relates her experiences in London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, and Spain in 1946. Her writing style is detached, often sparing details (e.g., "We fell in love," she states simply of her brief relationship with a Frenchman).... The picture Fox paints of postwar Europe is both profoundly beautiful and sad, and her memoir is affecting, leaving one wishing she had stayed there longer.


Paula Fox, born in New York City in the 1920s to a bibulous screenwriter father and a termagant of a mother, is the author of one previous memoir, Borrowed Finery, and six novels, including Desperate Characters (made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine), The Widow's Children, and Poor George. She is also a Newbery Award-winning children's book author. Grandmother to five grandchildren, including rock star Courtney Love ("You can see where Love got her legs," an observer noted. "Fox modeled in England after World War II."), Ms. Fox lives with her husband in a brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.


Ms. Fox was in her Brooklyn home and I in California when we talked. She speaks in elegantly modulated tones, in the rises and falls and stops and starts that one rarely any longer hears.The photograph on the dust jacket is of Ms. Fox in her early 20s. I asked about the photo.

"It was taken by my oldest friend, who lives in Santa Barbara. I've known her for 65 years now. She took it in the Prado, I think. Although I'm not absolutely sure. But the building looks like the Prado. There's another picture of me inside when I was 23, sitting in a group of journalists, next to Bierut, who had been elected president of Poland."

"You were so young."

"I know. I was 22 when I first went there. And so foolish and unknowing."

Complimented on her memory of that winter of 60 years ago, Ms. Fox had told a Publishers Weekly interviewer, "I don't remember anything that happened last week and I forget people's names all the time. But ...I can remember the suit wrinkles of my father's suit as he bent his elbow to draw in cigarette smoke and that was 70 years ago, when I was 12. I can see it."

Asked about her memory's tenacity, she said, "I quoted in The Coldest Winter something Cesare Pavese wrote in his diary, The Burning Brand: 'Real amazement comes from memory.' My past is absolutely engraved, stamped on my brain."

I had suggested that Ms. Fox had "drifted" across Europe. She brushed aside my choice of words. "I didn't really drift. I know exactly what you meant, that I went from one thing to the other the way you cross the stream, you know, on stepping stones. A little brook with a waterfall here and there. No, I made my way across by a clear path of stones. Slippery at times. But still, I got to the other side. And that's how I made my way through Europe."

"When some great post- World War II event is mentioned, your imagination must find itself filled with that moment."

"Yes, it does. It's particularly happened because of the terrible hurricane. I lived in New Orleans for a few months many years ago, when I was much younger than when I went to Europe. I was 17 or 18. I had a job out at Lake Pontchartrain and I lived in the French Quarter. Everything about it has a resonance to me that I don't think it would have, although pity moves most of us, at all times; but the combination of the personal memory along with empathy and feeling and imagination is very strong.

"I think St. Anne's Street is where I lived in the French Quarter. I lived with a married couple who were very good to me and who are now dead. I think of their house and the modesty of it and how it must have been affected by this storm. So in that sense, if something happened in places where I was and I can visualize it clearly, then indeed it has another dimension to it for me."

"The aromas of New Orleans come back to me."

"Oh, yes, jasmine. And oleander. And cooking. In the French Quarter especially. There's a bar that's still there and flooded the entrance hall to a place that I first lived in New Orleans. The bar was called Pat O'Brien's. The plumbing was not right so the water would overflow, come into the foyer of what had been a mansion but was a kind of rat's nest of rooms. That's where I lived in the beginning. I remember that very vividly and I heard a reporter mention Pat O'Brien's bar. But the odor of New Orleans, yes, it's a funny, dusky, dreamy smell and yet dank, rank.

"The husband -- Pat -- of the couple I stayed with worked in a plant in Biloxi. Robert Sherwood visited and Pat was picked to show him through. And so he showed him through, and he talked about everything, Pat did. Robert Sherwood said at the end of the tour, 'You ought to write.' So, Pat who was 40 at the time, moved into the French Quarter and began to write his first novel, which won a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship. It's called Green Margin.

"It was about the south of New Orleans, on that long piece of land that used to stretch out where the Mississippi empties into the sea. And I wrote a novel about New Orleans called The God of Nightmares. It was reissued by Norton. Norton reissued all my novels. I fear that three of them were remaindered almost within days. But God of Nightmares pleased quite a few people.

"Anyway, Pat wrote Green Margins and then he wrote a second novel, The Great Big Doorstep, which was made into a play, which, alas, had a very short run. He had been very cruelly treated by Cajuns because in Green Margins he wrote about them and they didn't want to be written about. They had a sort of primitive response. They did a terrible thing to him, and he ended up with a bad heart and then he died. You can look him up."

"Isn't it fun, how you can look up everything now?"

"I know. You can look yourself up even."

"Do you use a computer?"

"I use it in a very primitive way. I don't understand anything except e-mail. And it's not a pose, but I'm 82, and it's too late for me to learn. Children are born knowing about computers now. I think it's genetic. It's culturally genetic."

We talked again about Ms. Fox's new book. "I realized that I'd lived a long time, relatively speaking -- that is relative to the briefness of life and the brevity of it. I sat down and put it together. Some of the things have appeared elsewhere."

"It doesn't feel that way."

"No, it doesn't because it all had a kind of wholeness, the whole experience for me. I didn't realize until I re-read it in the bound galleys that I was in places where enormous things happened. I'm very aware of that now. I remembered when, at one party, which I wrote about in After the Snow, going to the windows and standing there, looking down at the trees and the place where deer used to wander. And behind me was a long table with food and wine and what not, and I was absolutely stunned by my remembrance of this. It was a second only, but I felt the power of memory and imagination and thought and people. It was all there in that second, the window looking through the palace. I couldn't for a moment believe that I was there. I was conscious of the flow of history and the event in this world. I was transparent to myself suddenly."

"Although you were in your 80s when you wrote this book, the narrating voice is that of a young woman. Were you conscious of this voicing as you worked on the book?"

"No, it wasn't conscious. I don't think any of that kind of attitude about one's self is conscious ever with a writer. One just does it in a certain way. Some of those stories go back a ways, 15 years, 10 years. After the Snow, oh, it's about 10 or 15 years old.

"I think probably, when I work, not when I lie down in the afternoon, but when I work in the mornings upstairs in my study, I have a timeless sense about myself and life; something speaks through me. I'm a vessel for certain things, as all writers are, poets especially. Poets are certainly that.

"I suddenly thought of the last few pages of The Great Gatsby when I watched a program on Fitzgerald the other night. I was reminded so powerfully of that wonderful last few pages that he wrote. I don't feel that he had control over that. It was very controlled. It was perfect control. The way a river flows between its banks. But something through him, rather, carried him on in that marvelous way.

"However, one has to work very hard to make one's self available. To make one's self a vessel for that. That's where the hard work comes in. Which is what people don't understand.

"Writing is an affliction, and one gets through one's day somehow, but there is a kind of pure time, purity of hours, where you work and whatever you work at, you know -- you lose all self-consciousness -- if you're a veterinarian or a plumber or a violinist, or whatever it is you are.

"I've said it before so many times to my husband, who is a writer of nonfiction. I said 'There is no time when you don't work.' You're not conscious of it. And it's strange because otherwise the decades pass, and the days pass and the hours, and so forth, and you think, 'My God, did that happen 20 years ago? I thought it just happened yesterday.' And what happened yesterday was 20 years ago. But when you work, all that is obviated in some enormous way. It's like Frank Conroy's title, Stop-Time: A Memoir."

Recently, Ms. Fox had read the section of her new book that describes her time in London. "To say I was very receptive is an understatement. I was all ears and eyes. If I drew myself, I'd draw lots of ears and eyes. Everything was open, you know. I was open to everything, not incautious -- incautiously. I was very guarded too. But I was open to Europe in a way that I hadn't been to anything else."

"Did you think, when you left for England and Europe, that you might escape your unhappy childhood?"

"Oh, yes. As I said in the opening part, you don't escape anything -- except there's a certain sense in which you do. My husband and I have gone to Italy a great deal, and Paris, and we lived in Greece for half a year.

"The Europe that I knew, which was right after the war, is no longer. It's a different Europe now. And my sense of it is so much in my own experience that that's a very personal thing to say. But I don't know how to describe what I mean more than to say that. It was so rich, and I found returning was painful. It was coming back to what I had gone to Europe to get away from, which was my own past."

"In this book you certainly are good at making your reader feel the cold weather. I felt that one almost had to go find one's muffler and one's mittens to keep reading it."

"George Plimpton, when I last saw him, a few weeks before he died, and after he accepted the part of the book that he published, said, 'It's so cold. It's filled with crystals.'"

"How did you decide to write children's books?"

"It came naturally. Someone suggested that I wanted to make up for my own childhood by producing books for children. I began to write both my first novel and Maurice's Room, which was my first children's book, when I was in Greece. It was the first time I had time without anything to do except watch my sons and cook. So I began to write the novel and Maurice's Room at the same time, and I sold both of them. I didn't even question the impulse to write books for children. I think probably also I had a memory of reading The Wind in the Willows andLittle Women and all the books that were around for children. And Peter Rabbit

"Oh, God -- isn't she wonderful? Beatrix Potter? My boys loved her books. I was brought up by the minister about whom you read in Borrowed Finery and he provided me with these books. He was a wonderful man.

"I had books in my room when I was five years old. I was reading by then. I remember the book case that was in my room, in the old house, up in Nyack. I was always surrounded by books until I went out on my own.

"I'm still surrounded by books. Somebody, in fact, gave me Tender Is the Night when I was 17 and I read it every year for 10 years, so I know parts of it by heart."

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