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

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.

“Lublin, Rosa.”

“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.


  1. Thanks for letting me know about her. I had never heard of her, but her work is strong, just looking at the selected quotes you included.

    I hope that you found more treasures in your trip to Scotland.

  2. Oh, didn’t I just, Isabel! Ten books in three days, I think was the final tally. Walter Abish’s How German Is It, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, Italo Svevo’s A Perfect Hoax and others I’ve forgotten already. Nothing dramatically obscure, just titles I can’t get in my own bookshops at home.

  3. Ooh! The others I’d heard of, indeed often toyed with buying, but I’d never heard of the Svevo. I thought he was limited to A Life, As A Man Grows Older, and Zeno’s Conscience. Apparently not.

  4. John, wonderful. I feel it’s an almost necessary ‘homage’. Here in the US it just came out ‘Dictation’, a quartet (inspired by Henry James’s secretary). I’m grabbing everything I can by Ozick. I’m happy that you reviewed that volume extensively. You know, she was very daunted after the writing of The Shawl, some would think she was a survivor herself, others that it seemed fake. In fact she was inspired by a big book were, in passing, it mentioned how some babies were thrown into the electric wires, just like that image of the baby flying like a moth. Impressive! But that’s the usual conflict between experiencie, narration, testimony and so on… We do know that in Latin America, with the Rigoberta MEnchu controversy. I’m happy that you liked Ozick. “The cannibal galaxy” should entice you too…

  5. Thanks Nico, and for the background info too. I shall certainly be seeking out more Ozick. She’s not widely published here, but The Cannibal Galaxy is easily availabe in an imported edition. Dictation looks like a beautiful volume – do let us know what it’s like.

    (I’ve never heard of the Rigoberta Menchu controversy, by the way 😳 )

  6. Just revisiting this post as I see nico mentioned Ozick’s new US-published volume of stories Dictation. I recently discovered in the London Review Bookshop that the four stories in this volume are included in the UK edition of Ozick’s Collected Stories. As the former was priced at almost £20 in the imported edition that I saw, and the latter, which includes Ozick’s other collections of stories too, is a tenner, it seems unarguable good value. I snapped it up.

  7. Thanks, John, for leading me to the right book, John! I started this late last night and finished it before I did anything else this morning. My thoughts will be going up soon, perhaps as soon as Thursday (I’m awaiting an interview from Jayne Anne Phillips to go along with my review of her new Lark and Termite, and if it comes today or tomorrow, my thoughts on The Shawl will go up next Monday).

    I have Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World and might just have to move it up the list of what to read next.

  8. Cynthia Ozick is one of those writers to have passed me by somewhat, one short story aside which was impressive but hasn’t echoed down the years (probably my fault, that). I will rectify that fact at some point, largely due to the above comments. Yet more books to buy! But what would we do otherwise, eh?

  9. I’m pleased you (presumably) liked it Trevor, and look forward to reading your thoughts. For anyone wondering about Heir to the Glimmering World, its UK title is The Bear Boy.

    Lee, it’s very hard to know whether a recommendation will click with a specific reader, but I’d say that if you’re a Roth man, you’ll love Ozick. And maybe even if you’re not.

  10. Well, a Roth man I most certainly am (did you see the Roth-centric cage-rattling retort to all the Updike eulogies in the Guardian t’other day?) so that settles it. Thanks!

  11. Thanks for that link, Lee — those of us on the other side of the Atlantic can’t buy the physical paper and navigating the Guardian website is a major challenge.

    I do have a problem with this piece. It seems to say that there must be an “either/or” in contemplating Roth and Updike, rather than a “both/and”. In one sense they are similar — both wrote brilliant novels, both wrote clunkers. In another they are very different — the worlds they describe are very different parts of America. I learn more from Bech than I do from Zuckerman, but that probably says more about me than it does either author. And I would have to admit that Bech confirms impressions that I already have while Zuckerman goes to different places. Certainly some of the eulogies were over the top (and always will be — wait until Roth dies) but I don’t think that is a rationale for putting down a very good author.

    As for Ozick, read her and read her some more. She is a very, very good writer who deserves more attention.

  12. Quite. I imagine it was a ‘get 800 to 1,000 words down on Updike whilst people are still ambulance chasing’ piece. Great photo of Roth, though, and any reasoning behind discussing these guys is fine by me. As the comments underneath the piece underlined, it was a nonsense of an argument, but it got people talking. Not that ‘X is better than Y’, rather that Updike was in some way lesser a writer due to his ‘suburban’ bent. This line of reasoning, that diverse subject matter and a reluctance to scrutinise a ‘limited’ field equates to writerly appeal, would have vast numbers of great authors consigned to the dustbin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s