The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (Anglais) Broché – 17 octobre 2006
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I purchased this book in the hope of getting a feel for Europe immediately following the war. I had thought that the author's visit to Poland right when the Cold War was beginning might throw light on those turbulent times. If these are the kind of insights you seek, this book will not provide them.
Many things bothered me about this book. Among them:
- The first two chapters (about NY and London) are made up of little anecdotes in the nature of "chit chat." In them the author tells us she met this or that person who has this or that job. The anecdotes don't paint a coherent picture nor do they seem to have any significance other than social snobbery.
- The book is very short and therefore very laconic. It's telegraphic at times. Paris is covered in less than twenty pages (including three pictures and one out-of-town trip). Did the author really have so few impressions? The author went to Poland to cover the first elections after WWII, but she never tells us who stood for election, who won, what was going on politically and socially. She does tell us about sad, cold and poor people, who have suffered terribly, but it's very clichéd. Nothing like Frankl or Wisenthal.
- In addition to not telling us very much beyond the obvious, the author does not engage in any moral reasoning that would seem to critical when visiting Europe a year after the end of the Holocaust. She never questions who are guilty or innocent, never discusses retribution. She is not interested in the fate of the Nazis and collaborators, nor does she even mention the beginning of the Cold War. I wondered as I was reading this book what the author actually learned in Europe, since so many central issues did not engage her. The author answers this in the end of the book. She says that the trip to Europe taught her how to see "beyond myself"-that is, how to be less selfish and self-engaged. I am sorry that this is the only lesson with which the author walked away. Other writers have been better able to draw real lessons from the Holocaust-lessons that engage in the moral, political and religious questions that are central to discussions of the Holocaust.
- One part of the book that irked me particularly is an unbridled attack that the author launches at a women called Helen Grassner. Grassner was a Midwestern Jewish women sent to assist refugees (I could find no information about her in any other source). As Fox's descriptions make clear Grassner was rather out of her element in Europe, tormented by sorrow and bewilderment. Why this so irritated the author I am not certain, nor can I make sense of why Fox spent so many pages (of her very short book) lambasting this poor soul.
I don't recommend this book, which seems to me to be a sad miss without any meaningful information or insight. Had the author not already been a published entity, I doubt this book would have been printed. If you are interested in learning about post-war Europe, you might consider reading Joseph Kanon's "The Good German," which is a brilliant book.
"The Coldest Winter" benefits from a reading of "Borrowed Finery," the 2001 award-winning memoir of her childhood, now out in paperback. The impressions of a fairly impoverished American innocent, alone and quiet, though by no means meek, among the war worn people of London, Paris, Warsaw and Spain take on greater heft when you know the trauma and rootlessness of Fox's own childhood.
The daughter of glamorous, feckless, disturbed parents, Fox had been left at a Manhattan foundling home days after her birth, "by my reluctant father, and by Elsie, my mother, panic-stricken and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me." Her parents were Hollywood screenwriters and her father was an alcoholic of the impulsive type who might insist his daughter visit then leave her with friends - or forget to go the railway station to pick her up at all. Her mother remained consistently hostile and terrifying.
There was, however, love in her life. Reverend Elwood Amos Corning, a Congregational minister in a poor, rural upstate community, took her in at five months old and provided unconditional love and safety. What he could not do, however, was protect the child from the erratic claims of her parents. Each week after the comforting ritual of his church service she would have a moment of panic.
"My unquestioning trust in Uncle Elwood's love, and in the refuge he had provided for me...would abruptly collapse. In an instant I realized the precariousness of my circumstances. I felt the earth crumble beneath my feet. I tottered on the edge of an abyss. If I fell, I knew I would fall forever.
"This happened too every Sunday after church. But it lasted no longer than in takes to describe it."
Eventually the day she dreaded arrived. After a horrific year in Malibu with her parents, from which she was rescued by Uncle Elwood, her Spanish grandmother, Elsie's mother, shows up to claim her once and for all. "She is of my blood," Candeleria tells Elwood.
"It was far worse than a fairy tale enchantment. My parting from the minister was an amputation."
Two of Elsie's four oddball brothers live with Candeleria. One of them is almost as terrifying as Elsie while the other is kind and playful. He lifts her out of the depression that has crept over her. But nothing can make her world safe again.
"The Coldest Winter," has a melancholy, almost desperate aura that readers who have not read the earlier memoir will find perplexing, having no way of knowing that Fox is running off to Europe to escape her New York life and the searing memories of a brief, brutal marriage and a sad pregnancy which ended with an instantly regretted adoption.
Though Fox often conveys the impression of being an outsider looking on at the world, this feeling is especially pronounced in "The Coldest Winter." In London she gets a job working for a publisher. One day a policeman knocks at her door, asking for her work permit, then takes her to the station to get one.
"I had heard that one needed a work permit but had not taken the requirement seriously. Perhaps it was myself I did not take seriously. For a minute I grasped at the shadowy nature of reality; of how one moves through it like a mist, forever thinking of what comes next and how impalpable the present is.
"I made my way back to Wandsworth, chastened....I held the work permit in my hand, consoled by its meaning: The government protected its citizens and took my presence in England seriously."
Later, working for a small news wire, she meets people still reeling from the war - a fascist youth who talks raptly of executions he had witnessed, a tireless American Jew driven by the guilt of remaining unscathed by the Holocaust, a former political prisoner whose twin daughters had been killed by Mengele, and, most haunting of all, the children at an orphanage for those born in the camps. Enmeshed with these small, intense portraits is the bone-chilling cold of that winter, the glamour of hobnobbing with real journalists in smoky bars, and the general privation and destruction that prevailed throughout Europe in 1946.
The author of six novels and the Newbery Award-winning author of many children's books, Fox's prose is as elegant as it is spare, conveying a haunting, sad beauty that remains with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Winter does not purport to be a history of the immediate post war countries that she visited but, rather, a story of herself, a frightened young woman with ambitions that she didn't understand and her struggle to reach up to a higher calling that was driving her. The writing is exquisite, this is as much about the cold that enveloped Europe that winter as it is about the people or the politics that lurched along uncertainly after the holocaust. Anyone expecting to read a study of the post war European condition should look for another book. This a small gem by one of our best writers and a true national treasure.
Fox's story follows her biography _Borrowed Finery_, which was amplified by the novel _The Western Coast_. _The Coldest Winter_ fills out the story of her beginnings as a writer & explores how she gained a foothold in the world. She explores the oppression of both the communist bloc & Franco's Spain, by talking about the people who crossed her wandering path.
There are astonishing vignettes, such as seeing Winston Churchill in the street, drunk, being steered along by a group of men, while he is weeping & mascara runs down his face. (She later found that Churchill's lashes & brows were so pale that he always wore mascara in public.) There are many such stunning moments. It's a fast read, but worthwhile.