Book Notes: Stories and essays by Paula Fox
“News from the World: Stories and Essays” by Paula Fox. W.W. Norton, New York, 2011. 216 pages. $24.95
Among the essays in “News from the World” are several I found myself thinking about and wanting to reread. Paula Fox’s essays and short stories in this new compilation range wide and deep; that is, an essay will travel some ground, deposit ideas, make some assertions before coming to rest. Her gorgeous sentences — empty of excess — support complicated emotions, build multiple layers of story and take us to surprising intersections where associations take on meaning.
Fox didn’t dig into her writing till her 40s. Now, in her late 80s, she continues to write and publish. You’ll find that the pieces in this book span a period of 45 years — from the mid-1960s to 2010. She is said to possess a hearty and quick laugh. She has also been through very hard times, from parental abandonment to a more recent mugging in Israel that left her greatly injured and unable to speak or comprehend for many months. She has since fully recovered.
Fox’s essays possess unusual understanding though she doesn’t bring the weight of her own suffering to the surface, even when she writes about a group of terribly scarred children she meets after World War II. The children had been born in Nazi concentration camps and their parents had died there. In my favorite essay in the book, “Unquestioned Answers,” Fox describes the time she spent with these children in a Polish recovery residence.
“They were painfully alert to any sudden movement on our part; they fell into abrupt silence in the midst of merriment when they seemed to sink into a dream, and they would suddenly burst into laughter that was almost frantic,” she writes. Fox and a few other journalists visited in order to observe and write about the children. At the day’s end, the journalists boarded their small bus and slowly pulled away. The children wept and waved goodbye “as though to wish us a safe journey.”
These children, and others Fox describes, were not socialized to have the same boundaries most people learn to erect. While they may struggle more, they are freer and more open to life, as she shows in the sentence quoted above. One boy she spends time with looks at the stars and wonders what’s beyond. It’s probably no surprise that the boy runs away. Fox explores those things that distance us from life, loved ones and ourselves. Language is one such barrier.
She writes, “What I am concerned with here is the deadening of language, an extreme form of alienation expressed in words that have no resonance, and absolutely no inner reference to living people.” When language is murdered, she writes, so is meaning.
In “Cigarette,” Fox’s drunk, abusive writer father spends a short time with her during which he forces her to smoke a cigarette because he thinks he smells smoke on her breath. He shoves the cigarette into her mouth and says, “Smoke it while we have an erudite conversation!” They are in Florida, she is 11, and her mother and her father’s new fiancé visit as well. None of them, she says, are telling the truth to each other or her. While swimming off a dock during that visit, she dislodges five water moccasins from the dock and watches them disburse into the water.
“As I jumped up and down on the planks of the dock, I found it a relief, a scary relief, to watch the snakes slide down the posts and into floating patches of water hyacinths, their mottled, gray, warty heads poking out from amid the delicate white blossoms and thick green leaves — so substantial, so plainly what they were.” Here was a kind of danger she could see and therefore live with. Read to the end of this essay to see what happens to Fox after the mugging incident and to see what an entertaining storyteller she is.
In “Franchot Tone at the Paramount,” Fox describes an early crush on actor Franchot Tone after seeing him in the 1935 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.” She tracks her encounters, actual and virtual, with Tone over the years, noting that this complicated and enduring crush prepared her for love.
Fox has no patience for American prudery, as she calls it. She writes about a Maurice Sendak book titled “In the Night Kitchen,” in which the little boy, Mickey, falls out of darkness and loses his pajamas as he floats into the light of a night kitchen. His “infant nakedness” offends many parents and they manage to get the book banned from numerous libraries. Some even call the book pornographic. We have systems in place, she writes, to protect ourselves and others from such impulses as wanting to infringe upon free speech.
Fox, like many who survive great hardship and still retain that zeal for life, never wants for experiences she can turn into stories and essays. She lives a literary life in New York City and has traveled a lot. Read her book to see what it was like to live on the Upper West Side in the early 1960s, when you could look out your window and spot a murder taking place or when you could be writing at your desk in Brooklyn and a bullet shatters your office window. Her husband Martin called her a “perilous voyager.”
Perhaps so, but peril and travel certainly make for good thinking and beautiful writing in Paula Fox’s hands. I find myself grateful to her for persisting and grateful to W.W. Norton for giving us this new book of her work.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.
Cape Ann (Mass.) Beacon