Thursday, January 05, 2006

Post-war, pre-Marshall Plan

Returning temporarily to books I read over Christmas brings me to Paula Fox’s The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. It's a very brief book—just over a hundred pages, including photos, and it feels it, incomplete and uncertain. But the choppy, foreshortened nature of the narrative seems a necessary part of the story being told. In 1946, Fox, the daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter (and, according to the IMDB, the grandmother of Courtney Love), worked as a stringer for a low-level wire service in Europe, filing stories mostly from Warsaw, Prague, and Paris. Impressionistic and uncertain herself at age 22, she presents snapshots of a shell-shocked populace struggling to find its feet.

We Americans often forget how devastated Europe was by World War II and how long it took for life to return to a semblance of normalcy there. It didn’t help that the two winters following VE day were two of the harshest on record. From Warsaw, she writes:
The cold was so intense that like many others I took to wearing sheets of newspaper under my coat. There was hardly any public transportation, a few streetcars to whose dies people clung like flies on a lump of sugar, two or three buses, a few tiny cars with no windshield wipers, and perpetually fogged windows, and some motorbikes with wooden seats trapped on the front, from which, after the shortest ride, one toppled like a stone.

Arrangements had been made for us to attend the opening of the opera house that night, the first time a concert had been given there since the beginning of the war. Our Wroclaw interpreter told us to dress warmly. “There are holes in the roof from the bombing,” he said.

Even after the musicians had taken their seats, even when the audience filled the loges and orchestra, that penumbral cavern with its smell of dust and damp felt like a catacomb. There was something wrong with the electricity, and the lights couldn’t be dimmed without plunging us into total darkness. . . . The violin soloist . . . wore mitts; I could see from the box where I was sitting that they were woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. The musicians wore ordinary suits. Some were without ties.

Fox herself seems to still be uncertain what she learned that winter, how she feels about what she saw, how she understands that year of her life. The deprivation of the European scenes is sharply contrasted with the luxury (despite continued rationing) of the London set she moves in due to her parents, and in the shift, she is at least a tiny bit reminiscent of Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby: present yet apart, impressed yet appalled, and implicated despite. But the fault here is not really Fox's—it's not too-passive witnessing of cruel indulgence, but rather the near-ultimate failure of humanity in general, and the close, detailed witnessing of its consequences. For that reason, The Coldest Winter feels like a necessary book, one that nagged and insisted at its author for 70 years in an attempt to force understanding.

1 comment:

  1. Not to be confused Sister Souljah's ever-popular The Coldest Winter Ever, which famous librarian (and action figure) Nancy Pearl describes thusly in Library Journal:

    "The trials and tribulations of young Winter Santiaga are described in gritty detail in this coming-of-age novel, the first by the phenomenally popular rap star who frequently lectures on the themes of this novel: overcoming teenage pregnancy, fatherless households, and drug use in African American communities. As the oldest daughter of a successful drug dealer, Winter lacks for nothing. But after her father moves the family from the projects to a mansion on Long Island, Winters life begins to come apart. Her beautiful mother is shot, her father is sent to prison, and the familys possessions are seized by the government. Winter and her three sisters, Mercedes, Lexus, and Porsche, become wards of the state. Finally, arrested and convicted of transporting drugs in a boyfriends car, Winter receives a 15-year jail term. Sister Souljah herself appears as a character, urging Winter and other young black women to stand up to the men in their lives, abstain from drugs, and practice safe sex. Although the novels writing is amateurish, the message is sincere."