In recent years, Paula Fox has been rediscovered as the gifted author of such novels as Desperate Characters and The Widow's Children; she spoke with PW about her forthcoming memoir, The Coldest Winter.
It's been almost 60 years since the events in The Coldest Winter. Why did you choose now to write this book?
Well I think it's probably something I felt vaguely required by my first memoir [Borrowed Finery], that I better write a sequel to it. But I don't think it was that definite a thought. I just wanted to record, for whatever readers I may have, the year after the Second World War and my own experience in it. Also I wanted to get those stories down because they seemed kind of interesting to me.
Your memory is exquisite.
Well, you know, I don't remember anything that happened last week and I forget people's names all the time. But my memories for the past [are] very visual, and in fact, 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. Whereas my short-term memory is absolutely awful.
Is it strange for you to return to Europe now?
It's changed so much! I mean the traffic in Paris alone is one change. I remember that people used bicycles mostly in 1946 and now, of course, like every other place, it's jammed with cars. So it's changed a lot and I think probably people, young American people, that is, [have only a] vague thought [of the war]; it's a kind of vague reference for them. I thought that I'd try to make it more vivid for readers. And in fact I didn't have to try; I just had to remember.
Did you find Europe to be as you expected when you set out for it?
There was a kind of excitement in going to these places for me. And as I met people and I saw the concentration camps' marks on their arms, the excitement became less and less than it had been on the ship upon which I sailed to Europe. Something else took its place: a kind of grim realization that life could be horrible. [My] sense of excitement was gradually replaced by a much more adult, grown-up feeling of threat, especially when I was in Spain and my great-uncle's partner told me how [my uncle's] cousin had turned [my uncle] in to the police when he was 70. It all became very serious to me in a certain way; it had been only theoretical when I set out. The theory gradually moved away like a barge—a barge of folly—and was replaced by seriousness and concern and worries and all those grown-up things we all try to avoid.