If a measure of a great novelist is her moral register, the span between the lowest notes of human cruelty and the highest notes of human kindness that she can hit, Paula Fox’s greatness can probably be traced to her strange childhood. At birth, she was left by her mother at a home for foundlings like a piece of baggage, later to be reclaimed and shipped around to Queens and Cuba and Florida, to California, New Hampshire, and Montreal. The mother appears directly in The Widow’s Children, Fox’s bleakest and most sharply-etched novel, and she haunts the rest of Fox’s books in the form of their fictive worlds’ indifference—often their outright hostility—to the plight of the individual. The typical Fox protagonist is isolated at the most radical level, bounced around by the world, more acted upon than acting.
If abandonment had been Fox’s only experience of childhood, we might not be reading her now. Between the ages of five months and five years, though, she was raised by a Congregationalist minister, Eldon Corning, in the town of Balmville, New York. Fox’s memoir of her childhood,Borrowed Finery, is remarkable for many things—for the extremity of her picaresque existence, for the fairy-tale cruelty of her mother, and for the fact that the book was written at all. Fox had suffered a serious brain injury in Jerusalem in 1996 and went to work on Borrowed Finery when she was barely able to walk; she reported climbing the stairs to her study on her hands and knees, as if she were lost in a desert and the food she craved was writing. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book is the profusion of Fox’s memories of her first five years. She finds forty pages of vivid detail and incident, much of it about her “uncle” Eldon—his respectful kindness to her, his love of writing and history, his pained coexistence with his sister. Her portrait of her better parent is three-dimensional and luminously loving. Although she lost him when she was six, a good parent is never really lost.
In both her work and her life, Fox was recognizably her mother’s child. (Strikingly, she, too, gave away her first child, and didn’t see her again for more than fifty years.) In the words of her husband, Martin Greenberg, “She was a vivid startling presence always. When she came into a room, it was a happening. A mind so quick, so keen, so lively; a bright-hard mind, humorous and murderous in its unrelaxing critical energy. She was no gentle soul.” Indeed, she wasn’t. But her spirit was large and partook of her uncle Eldon’s as well. She especially loved children and animals, was attuned to them, respected them. As passionately as she judged foolish or cruel people, she championed the weak or the troubled. She was tall and beautiful and grand, but she had instinctive sympathy for anyone in servitude. She quoted long passages of Yeats from memory, solemnly, like a person whose life had been saved by literature, but she could also be completely silly. She liked a martini, a cigarette, an incorrect joke.
Delayed by her chaotic upbringing, two early marriages, and the work of child-rearing, Fox didn’t publish her first novel, Poor George, until she was forty-three. But the book was a knockout— laceratingly keen of eye and ear, trenchantly engaged with its social moment, and heralding, in the relationship between its title character and a rootless adolescent boy, one of the great motifs of her oeuvre: the encounter of human isolation with human kindness. After the publication of Poor George, Fox became extremely prolific. Much of her output was what she called “books for children”—she hated the term “young adult”—which earned her a National Book Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. She also produced seven other books for adults, including one of the best novels ever written by an American, Desperate Characters.
No novelist has rendered the real texture of married life— the longueurs, the accommodations, the doubts, the vacillations between tenderness and repulsion—better than Fox did in Desperate Characters. But she went much farther than that. In tracking, hour to hour, the responses of a conservative husband and a liberal wife to the wife’s being bitten by a stray cat, Fox mapped the desperation in a marriage onto the desperation in American society at large. Nothing really happens in the book besides the cat bite and its practical consequences. And yet the book is about everything. At the deepest level, it’s about meaning— whether meaning, in life or in literature, is even possible. The book is short, but its depths are dizzying.
By her own modest account, Fox didn’t consciously invest her novels with the wealth of signification that can be found in them. She wrote by instinct and without illusion—without the illusion of control, without even the illusion of disillusionment, which itself is a kind of control. She wrote with the short, intense focus of a girl who, from an extraordinarily early age, had had to look carefully at what was right in front of her, to listen closely, and to remember everything. Clear, close focus was an art of survival, and it became the genius of Fox’s writing.