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The Coldest Winter, by Paula Fox




Memories of a war just ended

Reviewed by Darrell Hartman

Sunday, December 4, 2005


The Coldest Winter

A Stringer in Liberated Europe

By Paula Fox

HENRY HOLT; 133 Pages; $18


Your lousy parents and that time you went abroad: These two staples of the personal narrative are also among the genre's stalest fodder. And yet for Paula Fox they have inspired two fresh, exceptionally fine memoirs -- "Borrowed Finery," a chronicle of her fractured childhood, and now "The Coldest Winter," about the year she spent in Europe after World War II.

"The Coldest Winter" reads more as a companion to "Borrowed Finery" than a follow-up. Indeed, the two books constitute a sustained literary effort, if not a single literary work. In each, Fox (previously known for her novels and children's books) revisits, across a gulf of more than a half century, a formative phase of her history, and in each, it is not things past, but rather the remembrance of them, that leads to jolts of revelation. "Real amazement comes from memory," Fox writes in the opening pages of "The Coldest Winter," quoting Italian novelist Cesare Pavese.

"Yet again," she might well have added. In "Borrowed Finery," Fox recounted with a cool precision growing up in the occasional custody of her mother and father, two of the most negligent and utterly selfish adults to be found outside the pages of Roald Dahl. If rage or revulsion seethed beneath Fox's polished, exquisitely suggestive prose, it did so silently. The author's tone was one of curiosity, punctuated by moments of stunned incredulity. Not, How could they! But rather, How could they?


"The Coldest Winter" begins on a different note, with Fox's fond memories of the jazz stars of New York, where she lived in the 1940s. After a string of odd jobs, Fox departs for England in the summer of 1946, at the age of 23. In London, she stays with friends of her father before getting hired as a stringer for a small-time news agency. Her editor sends her to the Continent to report on the postwar reconstruction. Fox arrives in Paris with next to nothing, aside from her "ravenous interest" and a borrowed winter coat.

Mainland Europe, torn apart by a war the author never saw firsthand, is a place of mystery and quiet misery. Fox has a doomed love affair with a celebrated French Resistance fighter ("There was no future, only the past. We told each other our histories, our breaths mingling, as we rode the Metro under all of Paris") and, without recognizing him, a brief exchange with Jean-Paul Sartre. At her boardinghouse, Fox plays bridge with a neighbor whose sleeve creeps up one evening as she is dealing cards to reveal a prisoner number tattooed on her wrist.

East of France, the war's stamp is even more indelible. Fox goes to Prague and then to Poland, a nation haunted by a Holocaust of which its people refuse to speak. Signs of destruction are as pervasive as the bitter cold. Fox attends a Brahms concert at the Warsaw opera house, where bombs have ripped holes in the ceiling and the musicians wear wool gloves. Later, she visits an orphanage for children raised in concentration camps, "stunted little weeping figures" who ask her many things, but cannot be persuaded to talk about themselves.

Fox maintains a humble, almost invisible presence in her own story. She records observations without presuming to know the answers to the many questions they raise. Her style is direct and brutally spare, and she provides few and precious details; they outline shadowy depths of meaning rather than attempt to navigate them. But while Fox's calm, crystal-clear prose may seem to suggest dispassion, it in fact gives way, marvelously and almost imperceptibly, to rushes of profound sympathy.

Her description of a Czech man whose first wife and two daughters were killed by the Nazis has a particularly piercing effect:

"Jan watched [his second wife's] every move, the half smile fixed on his face. I slowly recognized in him an underlying desperation. Later, when we were on the trolley to the station, when he spoke to me of the fate of his family during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, I was unable to take in the meaning of his story except suddenly, and then for only a few seconds at a time. When I did, it was as though I grasped broken glass in my hand."

Fox is blessed with a dry, disarming sense of humor, but finds little to engage it in her tour of the Continent. After taking a turn south through Spain, where she travels with a friend for a while, she returns by herself to New York.

She had come home enriched, Fox decides, shifting tenses, simply because her time in Europe "had shown me something beyond my own life." This conclusion will mean more to those who have read the author's first memoir. But it contains a wisdom and maturity that should be lost on no one.

Darrell Hartman is an assistant editor at Travel + Leisure.







European Mutilation

The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe

by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
November 8th, 2005 5:39 PM


Paula Fox, venerated novelist and children's book author, spent her youth as an involuntary nomad. Chapter titles of her 2001 memoir Borrowed Finery (Henry Holt) include "Long Island," "Cuba," and "Hollywood"—destinations selected by her well-meaning grandmother and all but indifferent parents. This slim sequel reveals that in her early twenties, Fox, obeying inertia, continued her itinerant ways in postwar Europe, where she wrote human-interest stories for a small British news service. The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe retraces her roamings with the same unflappable narrative voice that distinguished her previous volume. Among chapters here are "Paris" and "London Again"; she also alights on a Polish-run camp for child Holocaust survivors and the homes of relatives in Spain. Punctuated with grainy black-and-white photographs, this memoir summons a lost era without indulging in nostalgia.

Winter skimps radically on background (for that, see Borrowed Finery). In measured, ascetic prose, Fox distills a series of memories, not fussing much about her life before or since. She recalls whimsical images: strolling Parisians with decapitated baguettes, first bites promptly taken, for the freshness "or simply because to do so was a Parisian habit." Nevertheless, she declares, "the old life of Paris was gone." At the residence for Holocaust orphans, stunted children grasp at the hands of visiting journalists, then wave tirelessly at their withdrawing bus. In Spain, Fox encounters the victims of Franco's regime. Her great-uncle was beaten for a "treasonable letter"; a fellow train passenger is en route to visit an inmate in a "prison village" near Valencia. Indeed: This Europe appears mutilated rather than liberated. It's Fox who finds liberation. She credits her voyage with "freeing me from chains I hadn't known were holding me, showing me something other than myself." What lingers is the taste of being 23 years old and at large in a broken but dazzling world.



A Writer Is Born

By Jonathan Yardley

Tuesday, November 15, 2005; C02


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.


November 20, 2005-12-06


The lingering chill of war

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

By Lynne Tillman

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."

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.


The Star-Ledger


A bitter chill

Sunday, November 13, 2005


The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe

Paula Fox

Henry Holt and Co., 144 pp., $18


Something is missing from Paula Fox's intriguing book about her year as a traveling young journalist in liberated Europe in 1946. The author herself, enigmatic and distant, is little more than a phantom in her own tale. It is an interesting absence, and it lends her book much of its emotional strength.

Fox, 22 at the time, was running away from her own demons, which she has already brutally described for us in her critically acclaimed memoir "Borrowed Finery." Abandoned as a child for years at a time while her parents fell into self-destructive spirals, Fox hoped her travels might somehow free her from the past.

In some ways, perhaps, she was right. As a reporter, she was free to reveal only what she wished or nothing at all, which allowed her to lose herself in the postwar madness. Fox journeyed widely, recording the horror on the faces of people she met: concentration-camp survivors, shell-shocked soldiers, homeless children.

A half-century later, Fox documents what she saw and the people she spoke with while describing the paranoia that permeated the streets. Her tale has an authentic rawness that chills to the bone. Europe after the war was in chaos, people were starving, the winters were unbearably cold, and it seemed as if every family had suffered some irredeemable loss.

The story of one man in Prague seems to have affected the young writer more deeply than others. His name was Jan, and he had been a political prisoner. After the war he remarried, and his new wife was an Englishwoman who worked for a postwar refugee organization. Fox's assignment was simply to listen to Jan's story and file a report for a British news service.

Jan's first wife had been murdered by the Nazis, and his children, too; they were victims of Dr. Mengele's hideous experiments. Fox writes that she can still remember the unchanging expression on Jan's face, which seemed locked in an absurd half-smile, frozen somehow between laughter and madness. Like her, he seemed unable to grieve.

There is an unnerving current of tension in Fox's writing. She does not allow herself the luxury of sentimentality or nostalgia, but relies heavily on truth, unafraid of its stink. The anguish of her early years is always right beside her; she feels like a perennial outsider, an orphan, who has mastered the art of survival by resigning herself to bitter realities.

Like many battered children, Fox remains at a distance, from us and from herself, so we never feel the comfort of her full embrace. She seems to understand all too well the dangers of intimacy; people can always disappear, so it is better not to get too close. This may be an awful way to live, but it lends an eerie power to her prose.

Elaine Margolin is a freelance writer who lives in Hewlett, N.Y.






Paula Fox

Rescued from oblivion almost a decade ago, a novelist and memoirist is now lionized by a younger generation.

By: Jessica Joffe
Date: 12/19/2005


Paula Fox leaned out of her ground-floor entrance and said: “Down here. We tend not to use that entrance.” It was early afternoon on an unusually balmy winter day, and the street in front of her brownstone was empty and quiet. Much of the house was dark, but she didn’t turn on the lights.


Born in 1923, Ms. Fox is the author of six novels, two memoirs and 22 children’s books. Despite critical accolades, her adult fiction didn’t fare well commercially—it went out of print for seven long years. The nearly mythic tale of her resurrection begins a decade ago with an impassioned essay published in Harper’s Magazine by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who had come across her second novel, Desperate Characters (1970), at the writers’ colony Yaddo. At the urging of Tom Bissell, then a tenacious young editorial assistant at W.W. Norton, her work was reprinted. Dozens of writers (including Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose and Shirley Hazzard) came out of the shadows to express what could only be described as ardor.


And then her first memoir, Borrowed Finery (2001), was published to universally admiring responses. It tells the tale of her unnervingly complicated childhood: Briefly left in a New York orphanage by an unloving mother and alcoholic-writer father, she was shuttled back and forth between various family members, their friends, and a compassionate and supportive priest named Elwood Corning—a damaging cycle of abandonment and retrieval.


Last month, Ms. Fox published a second memoir, The Coldest Winter, which tells of her years spent in Europe after World War II. Again, the critical response has been effusive. She’s currently at work on a novel set mostly in 13th-century France, about the massacre of the Albigenses.


Paula Fox is tall and composed and has a warmth about her that one would not expect from her prose, which is cold and precise and minatory. She led the way up a set of narrow stairs to the airy parlor floor, which was composed mostly of shades of brown and dark green and dark red. There was an unobtrusive and comforting sense of symmetry. Through the window was a view of the garden. “We share it with our neighbors. We both had such small ones, we decided to combine them.” She smiles frequently and with such genuine affection that it’s nearly impossible not to become engulfed by her.


She and her husband, Martin Greenberg, the erstwhile editor of Commentary, have lived in this same building for nearly 40 years. Built in 1869, it sold for $32,000 in the mid-60’s. Over the years, Ms. Fox and her husband have spent another $12,000 or so on renovations. “We would not be able to afford it nowadays!” she said. The plans for the house are on display in the Brooklyn Museum. “We keep a laminate of it.”


Despite the fact that she’s lived in New York for the better part of the last four decades, Ms. Fox confessed that she hadn’t wanted to leave Europe after her postwar adventures. “Something drove me home, but I felt bad about it. When I got back, I found a job right away and gave up chaos.”


Thanksgiving had just passed, and Ms. Fox admitted that she “sent for everything” this year. Last year they “had soup.” She had various members of her family (seven, to be exact) around the large table on the ground floor and somehow managed to injure herself. “I threw my neck out. I pulled the trapezius muscle. It must have been the tension of doing everything.”


Nine years ago, walking through the streets of Jerusalem with her husband and a friend, Ms. Fox was attacked by a mugger. She was hurled to the ground and sustained injuries to her head. She said she hasn’t been quite the same since then: It takes her very long to write, and her recall is no longer working as it once did. She mentioned “incipient Alzheimer’s” and smiled: “I can’t recall things I did in the recent past, but I have a very palpable sense of my childhood. I can see things very well.” In The Coldest Winter, she writes of how “impalpable the present is.”


Ms. Fox, who said of herself that she’s neither an intellectual nor an ideologue, quoted the famous Fitzgerald maxim: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” She seemed unimpressed with the present. She made no grand pronouncements, but said that “everything is so poor nowadays. Our culture is brutalized. It’s like this great shifting of gears all the way to the first gear. It’s an atmosphere of irritability, corruption and disgust.”


Her childhood is the key to her work, both children’s and adult novels. “Children have a much more knowledgeable way of thinking about the world,” she said. “They have a true sense of how disappointing life is.”


She tried to explain her fraught relationship with her audience, and the years of absence versus a relatively newfound trendiness. “Fashions seize this country by the neck. And, generally, the middle class—and by that I mean the reading class—don’t like a downer. But you know, there may be a time again when I am out of fashion. I enjoy this, and it allows me to do certain things, but I have no expectations, in a certain way. I am always going forth; I have a great deal of self-reliance. I get impatient with people my age, because I’ve always answered the phone—so to speak.” When asked which contemporary writers she enjoys reading, she mentioned James Lasdun, Richard Ford, Tom Drury and Lorrie Moore.


She makes a strict schedule for herself when writing—she goes into her study after breakfast and writes for several hours until lunch. After lunch she writes again, until she takes a two-hour nap and then prepares dinner. “I often have to fight the impulse of reluctance when I go to work,” she said. “But when it’s a good day, I lose all sense of time. I write, and then it’s time for me to lie down.” She won’t be writing until the New Year because, she said, “I have to order a lot of things by phone.”


And with that she gently but firmly ushered out her guest, apologizing for being tired. On the way, she pointed to a little table to show a picture of Father Corning, her first and most loved guardian, next to a picture of her father, coolly smoking a cigarette, staring into the distance. “Look at him,” she sighed.




A memoir of a young woman's experience in war's aftermath

By Heller McAlpin
Tribune Newspapers: Newsday
Published December 25, 2005

The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe
By Paula Fox
Holt, 144 pages, $18

"I see the past differently as I grow older, so in a sense, the past changes," Paula Fox writes in "The Coldest Winter," a slim, resonant book about the year she spent in bleak, newly liberated Europe when she was 23.

The memoir forms a coda to "Borrowed Finery," Fox's remarkable book about her difficult childhood. It also provides a bridge between the girl who suffered those trials and the woman whose moral and psychological acuity contributed to her eventual success as a writer, teacher, wife and mother. With her signature concision and understatement, Fox, now in her 80s, reassesses her past and extracts indelible insights.

Fox fled New York in 1946 on a partly converted Liberty wartime troop carrier, "departing from what was for me a land of sorrow." Readers of "Borrowed Finery" will know that her freshest sorrow was giving up her daughter for adoption after concluding that, single and poor, she was in no position to rear her.

Her first stop is London, where she stays with tony friends and finds part-time work reading manuscripts for potential film projects. A British peer hires her as a stringer for his small news service, sending her on a shoestring budget to Paris and Warsaw to write human-interest stories about "life as it's lived among the ruins." Although Paris escaped the bomb damage that ravaged London, Fox notes that a year and a half after liberation, it "was muted and looked bruised and forlorn. Everywhere I went, I sensed the tracks of the wolf that had tried to devour the city."

In her travels, she meets many people with blue numbers tattooed inside their wrists, including a man in Prague whose twin daughters were killed in Josef Mengele's experiments. She has a brief affair with a Corsican politician and is shamed by the knowledge that his pregnant wife withstood severe beating by Nazis to protect him. When French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre questions Fox about America, she is embarrassed by her foolish replies. "I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn't understand," she says.

Before going to Warsaw, Fox felt "at the center of the world. . . . Then, I wondered if any place where a person stood did not seem to be the center." She confronts her marginality repeatedly, as well as her naivete about Polish anti-Semitism, communism and politics.

On a 10-day bus tour of Silesia, Fox's traveling companions include a Midwestern Jewish housewife determined to help Poland's few surviving Jews emigrate to Palestine, and three Czechs who had spent years in concentration camps. A visit to a recovery residence in the Tatra mountains for traumatized children who survived the concentration camps where their parents were murdered is especially reverberant.

Headed toward Spain, Fox remarks, "I was too young and too dumb to worry about entering a fascist country; what I was apprehensive about were my meager funds."

Fascism quickly loses its abstraction when she visits her Great-Uncle Antonio in Barcelona. He is the brother of her maternal Spanish grandmother, who had partially raised her. Antonio nurses an abandoned dog with garlic soup while he himself recovers from his arrest, detainment and beating after being reported by a young cousin for having written a letter to his sister in America that was critical of Francisco Franco and his Falange Party.

When Fox reluctantly leaves Europe, she is "afraid of the past, afraid of the future." But she closes with one last, hopeful vignette to illustrate how her year abroad liberated her: In the mid-1950s, she takes a group of troubled, abused boys to the Columbia University observatory. At first she attributes their awed silence after gazing through the telescope to having "seen things that were larger than themselves." She soon realizes, however, that like her experiences in devastated Europe, they were awed by the sight of something other than themselves.

Fox's minimalist prose evokes for the reader something other than ourselves--and the effect is deeply moving.



Educated by a war-weary Europe

By Dan Cryer  |  January 1, 2006

The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe
By Paula Fox
Holt, 133 pp., $18

Paula Fox, unwanted child, grew up to be Paula Fox, heralded children's author and neglected novelist. Much later, in her 70s, she was born again as rediscovered novelist and acclaimed memoirist.

Since the mid-'60s Fox has pursued a dual career, writing fiction for both adults and children. Her breakthrough second novel, ''Desperate Characters," should have put her on the literary map to stay. The book, wrote Irving Howe in The New Republic, ''takes its place in a major American tradition, the line of the short novel exemplified by Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts and Seize the Day. . . . Grueling and brilliant."

That Fox was also a gifted writer for children -- winner of a 1974 Newbery Medal for ''The Slave Dancer" -- may have been an unintended curse. As she turned out 21 novels for young readers over the years, she practically faded from consciousness as a writer of adult fiction. By 1992, when Jonathan Franzen happened upon her six novels, all were out of print.

All that began to change in 1999, when, with Franzen as her champion, Norton began reissuing them with introductions by key voices of a younger generation. Fox was once again in the spotlight.

''Borrowed Finery" (2001) let us in on Fox's miserable childhood. This memoir was a fairy tale grimmer than any Grimm. An unwanted, unloved little nomad is dumped into one makeshift ''home" after another by a monstrous mother and an irresponsible father. Paul Hervy Fox, sometime screenwriter, two-bit novelist, and permanent drunk, and his Cuban-born wife, Elsie, were too self-absorbed to care. When the pair showed up periodically to say hello, they showered her with indifference and insult.

''It was a hopeless wish," Fox writes, ''that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother."

After witnessing her wanderings between a grandmother in Queens, a sojourn in Cuba, a Montreal finishing school, and odd jobs in Hollywood, we are given the image of a teenage Fox adrift in California among actors and leftists. She has endured a disastrous brief marriage, given up a baby for adoption, and faces the most uncertain of futures. Yet we sense that she has somehow assimilated a bundle of survival skills, including a tropism toward writing and navigating her way among the rich and famous.

''The Coldest Winter" is a sequel. It shares a penchant for austere, unadorned sentences that keep emotion on a short leash. Likewise, the scenes amount to quick descriptive snapshots, with explanation and interpretation kept to a minimum.

The book takes place in 1946-47, during Europe's harshest winter in 20 years. The black-and-white photographs used as illustration underscore the misery of a war-ravaged continent not yet on the road to recovery. In short, sometimes deft strokes, Fox portrays a Warsaw where fear of the secret police trumps friendship, a Prague haunted by its absent Jews, a Franco-ruled Spain where betrayal is an everyday occurrence.

However shoddy her father's treatment of her, he seems to have schmoozed and boozed with everyone in left-wing artistic circles and passed along all sorts of useful contacts. More borrowed finery.

Thus in London, her initial stop, Fox manages to land jobs out of reach for most 22-year-olds. She reads manuscripts for publisher Victor Gollancz, takes a room with Labor MP Benn Levy and his American actress wife Constance Cummings, hangs out with a communist journalist named Claude who appears to be Claude Cockburn, father of Alexander. (In New York before her departure, she and a friend had spent a cabaret evening in the company of Paul Robeson.)

It is typical of Fox's circumspection that she offers no explanation of why anyone would hire her as a news service feature writer. When Sir Andrew, identified only as a left-leaning member of the House of Lords, signs her up, it's clear this is a casual matter, conducted in time-honored old-boy fashion. As far as we can tell, she has absolutely no experience.

In this way, ''The Coldest Winter," which pretends to be clear-eyed and truthful, is a bit of a tease. Because the author has a tendency to withhold information, it can't be adequately comprehended outside the context of ''Borrowed Finery." Even those who have read it, remembering the adolescent Fox dabbling in art and music but not writing, will wish she had reported on her development during those five missing years before young adulthood.

Fox depicts her 22-year-old self almost as an ingenue, when in fact she had seen and experienced far more than her peers. And she possessed enough poise and bravado to travel abroad on her own.

Europe educated her, but not, except for a love affair with a married Parisian, in the traditional fashion. In Prague, she is told about a Holocaust survivor so enraged during the final days of occupation that he strung up and killed a German soldier on a butcher's meat hook. In Barcelona, she visits an aged great-uncle who has been beaten by Franco's police. Near the Polish-Czech border, she visits an orphanage filled with Jewish children brave beneath their tears.

In the end, Europe lifted Fox out of her careworn self. To the miseries of her life, it provided a counterpoint of larger catastrophe, ''freeing me," she writes, ''from chains I hadn't known were holding me." To fathom those chains, though, you'll have to read the far more satisfying, more harrowing ''Borrowed Finery."

Freelance writer Dan Cryer is a contributor to ''The salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors."