I came back to Eliot’s three short lines periodically while reading Winter Kept Us Warm, Raeff’s follow-up to her Flannery O’Connor Prize–winning story collection The Jungle Around Us, which University of Georgia Press published last year. There’s much here that she retreads: global lives conjoined or constrained by upheaval (often war), quiet and observational narrators trying with varying degrees of success to penetrate their own isolation, descriptions of place that demonstrate the author’s love of sensory detail and the geographical particular.
Whereas the characters in her collection are largely tethered together by intangibles — themes, chiefly — in Winter, Raeff writes brilliantly about characters that orbit each other for years on end, evolving and regressing in different corners of the world in ways that parallel their far-flung counterparts (with whom they’re sometimes in love). Ulli, a young German working as a barroom translator; Isaac, a lanky, multilingual American soldier stationed in Berlin; and Leo, his brash, fragile comrade-in-arms with a time-bomb heart condition, make the sort of foils that feel perfectly plausible, ripped from memory. Their shared concern about the future belies a host of differences and points of contention that dictate the strength and tenuousness of their connections: Ulli’s memory of Russian soldiers seizing and raping the women in her neighborhood, Leo’s secret love affair with a prisoner of war named Bidor, Isaac’s unrequited ardor for Ulli, who ultimately weds Leo.
When they first convene by happenstance in the bombed-out German capital, Ulli declining drinks the men offer her before ultimately ceding to curiosity, their fate as a trio feels predestined, but subtly so, the way a first meeting with a lifelong lover can seem so ordinary in retrospect, the tide having risen gradually before we were swept out to sea. So it is with this initial dalliance, which grows into a love triangle and constellation of friends who measure their lives not with coffee spoons but in relation to one another.
Raeff establishes this chosen family incrementally, cementing its importance without sentimentality or flash. Winter Kept Us Warm builds steadily, with much show, little tell. The characters’ actions evince their interiority, and Raeff plants details seamlessly, each particular lending to the impact of the whole: Isaac’s willingness to teach Ulli Russian through the night, Leo’s attempts to avoid the gay bars that lure him like magnets after he’s moved with his new wife to New York, Ulli’s loneliness as she chain-smokes and listens to Billie Holiday records in their Johnstown apartment.
In a novel so concerned with war, migration, and loss, one passage in particular rings false, colored though it is by Isaac’s worldly optimism. As a hopeful spring begins to thaw the cold that drove the trio inside their Berlin apartment, he’s tasked with interrogating Europeans in a displaced-persons camp to determine which were collaborators. When he decides to give a questionable interviewee the benefit of the doubt, and, therefore, his freedom, he discusses the ramifications with Ulli:
“His guilt will follow him whether he is wasting away in prison behind the Iron Curtain or whether he is comfortable in a cozy little house in America,” he said, and she knew this was true.
It’s a rare moment of comforting reassurance in a book that concerns itself chiefly with that which is liminal and gray, the moral limbos that can trap moments in amber. This presumption of conscience, of an eventual reckoning, feels unearned, as platitudinous as the belief that Americans who prize their financial bottom line over the deaths of the uninsured or line up at the border to shoot thirsty, dust-covered refugees on sight have a hidden, empathetic heart. It isn’t shocking that Isaac says this so much as that Ulli — the saddest and weariest of them all — would believe it.
It’s pitiful that a story so much about the perennial, evergreen nature of violence — the passage of time measured by trauma, like rings on a tree — remains so relevant. The world fixates on World War II for its atrocities, for the swiftness with which evil mobilized and metastasized, and it’s comforting to count every single one of the 72 years since its horrors were extinguished. But greed, corruption, prejudice, and bigotry can creep through the dark for years before lunging in ambush. Wouldn’t guilt, if it welled up in someone’s soul, even at a delay, cause them to fight to prevent future massacres? Wouldn’t the guilt of an entire generation (among them Ulli, Leo, and Isaac) provoke loud, vociferous protest at the prospect of the repetition of that bloody history? What good is one bad man’s belated misery if it doesn’t ripple outward? What kind of solace is that?
Raeff’s latest speaks to the present. There’s nothing dated or quaint about the three individuals around which she centers her story, and the lack of period embroidery — no archaic brand names, beauty rituals, or descriptions of old-timey radios — keeps it streamlined. The characters don’t spend 304 pages pontificating about the nature of good and evil, but like anyone living through history they try to make sense of the world, one failure and one victory at a time.
After Isaac joins Ulli in the Morrocan city of Meknes, they speak as lovers weighted by resignation:
“Remember how you used to say that happiness was overrated?”
“That was when I was young and believed that one had to be tortured and miserable in order to do great things,” Isaac said.
“And you don’t think that anymore?”
“Perhaps what I think now is that greatness is overrated.”
Later, in the story’s present, an elderly Ulli lies on Isaac’s bed in the Moroccan hotel she owns and “[shakes] off the memory of a happiness that had once been, for there is nothing more painful than the memory of happiness.”
Happiness, greatness: these are labels ascribed to things that feel much bigger than their component parts, too vast and unwieldy to funnel into a single word. Raeff revisits this theme obsessively, and the reader goes down the same theoretical rabbit holes her traumatized characters navigate. During a section of the book where pain is imminent and Leo struggles more and more to suppress his homosexuality, a lonely man at a Greenwich Village gay bar says to him, “You seemed like a man who wanted to be happy.” When Leo asks whether that’s not true of everyone, the man replies, “I have come to the conclusion that unhappiness is so much easier, and most people, frankly, are lazy and scared.”
This is the book’s central premise, one whose plausibility depends on the day, the weather, or the latest presidential tweet: the fight for happiness is worthwhile, even when it’s exhausting. In this author’s nimble hands, the struggle for love, safety, and meaning feels palpable as the reader watches each character scour various routes toward those ends, only some of which prove fruitful. Raeff’s great achievement is having assembled a cast so recognizably flawed that it’s easy to root empathetically for their contentment, even as she calls the potential for contentment into question by suggesting that inherent morality — human goodness — may be a lie we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. What would surrender to that disconcerting cynicism look like? Perhaps the cold comfort of a numbing blanket of snow. But even then the thaw will inevitably come, and, despite ourselves, those miniscule tubers of hope will once again break through and reach for the sunlight of a better future, no matter how dismal its chances.
Brooklyn-based writer Linnie Greene’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Millions, Joyland, Pacific Standard, and Hobart.