April 2, 2008
Cynthia Ozick: The Shawl
Cynthia Ozick is one of those writers I’ve heard of – I remember seeing her novel The Puttermesser Papers around about ten years ago – but she never floated to the front of my awareness until Nico made a comment on my blog a few months ago. He recommended The Bear Boy (also titled Heir to the Glimmering World) and, almost as an aside, “of course her masterpiece The Shawl.” So when I was in Edinburgh over Easter, with its more comprehensive bookstores than back home, and saw The Shawl, I had to have it.
The Shawl (1989) is a slim book by any standards – 70 pages in this UK edition – and comprises two linked stories. The first, ‘The Shawl’, is just seven pages long, but packs a punch inversely proportional to its length. It shows a woman Rosa, and her baby daughter Magda, and Rosa’s teenage niece, Stella, locked in a tragic alignment in a Nazi death camp:
Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell. How they walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up the shawl. Sometimes Stella carried Magda. But she was jealous of Magda. A thin girl of fourteen, too small, with thin breasts of her own, Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms.
Stella’s desire – her need – for Magda’s shawl will lead to the baby’s death. (To say as much is to give away no more than the back cover blurb does.) It is a vivid, brutal story, quite breathtaking in its almost impressionistic portrayal of events, thoughts, and feelings – the sights and smells of terror – all muddled up together in “the coldness of hell.”
‘The Shawl’ was published in 1980, and Ozick might have left well enough alone, but she took the risk in 1983 of publishing a sequel, a much longer (58 pages!) story called ‘Rosa’. This could dilute the potent effect of ‘The Shawl.’ Fortunately it only enriches it, makes something more humanly round-edged from the sharp points of the first story.
‘Rosa’ takes us into the contemporary – anyway, 1970s – life of Rosa, the mother in ‘The Shawl,’ and it shows us with light and humour as well as with darkness and sobriety how she cannot escape her past, still mourns for her dead child, and in still locked in combat with Stella, who took Magda’s shawl and still has it. At least, she cannot escape the past unless she accepts the offer of Simon Persky, a fellow Polish emigrant, whom she meets one day in the laundromat, while carrying out the daily tasks of her half-life of retirement in Florida:
It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty ribcages.
What Rosa has left behind was her furniture store – “she smashed it up herself” – and she spends her time trying to get the shawl back from Stella, writing her letters and dealing with requests from an academic who wants to study Rosa for a paper on clinical social pathology. She resists, just as at first her self-destructive urge makes her resist Persky’s approach in the laundromat. But he is persistent, and charming:
“Your name?” her companion said.
“A pleasure,” he said. “Only why backwards? I’m an application form? Very good. You apply, I accept.” He took command of her shopping cart. “Wherever is your home is my direction that I’m going anyhow.”
“You forgot to take your laundry,” Rosa said.
“Mine I did day before yesterday.”
“So why did you come here?”
“I’m devoted to Nature. I like the sound of a waterfall. Wherever it’s cool it’s a pleasure to sit and read my paper.”
“What a story!” Rosa snorted.
“All right, so I go to have a visit with the ladies. Tell me, you like concerts?”
“I like my own room, that’s all.”
“A lady what wants to be a hermit!”
“I got my own troubles,” Rosa said.
“Unload on me.”
‘Rosa’ is pitched perfectly from start to finish, and a perfect antidote to those, like me, who sometimes sigh at the thought of another Holocaust fiction, and proves that this large subject can hold an endless number of stories: and also that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics. It reminded me at times of Philip Roth’s discursive energy – the character of Simon Persky is somewhat Rothian, or even Bellovian – and I was interested to read in a recent interview with Ozick that she loves Roth: “I am a recent convert to his greatness.” Well, me also. Oh, and to Ozick’s greatness too.