Cynthia Ozick: The Shawl

I have apparently been grossly negligent in my reading. Many times people have recommended I read something — anything — by Cynthia Ozick, but I figured I’d get to it . . . later . . . maybe when I had read everything else I already had to read. It’s not that I had anything against Ozick, but there is so so much to read already. But I was in the bookstore and saw that one of her most famous works, The Shawl (1989), was a mere 70 pages. Not such a burden to undertake.

The Shawl

Did I say burden? This was no burden. And the benefit was extremely high, a highlight in an already good year of reading. I began it late one night as a bit of reading before bed, and I finished it the next morning before I did anything else.

The Shawl in book form is actually composed of two short stories (well, it says one short story and one novella) first published in The New Yorker: “The Shawl” (May 26, 1980) and its sequel “Rosa” (March 21, 1983). Both short stories went on to win the O’Henry Award, the prestigious annual short story award.

“The Shawl” nearly prevented me from sleeping. It took me only about ten minutes to read, but there is a lot of power packed into that short space. Much like the best short-short works of Chekov, here Ozick draws us in emotionally and physically in a short time and then, in just a few sentences, drains us. It was a wonderful experience.

Okay, a little about the events. It’s a Holocaust story involving three females: Rosa, a twenty-something mother; Magda, Rosa’s just-walking fifteen-month-old daughter; and Stella, Rosa’s teenage niece. The three are being herded into a concentration camp.

Rosa did not feel hunger; she felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road.

Because the child would otherwise be killed, Rosa hides the skinny Magda in a shawl which she carries next to her own depleted body.

Such a good child, she gave up screaming, and sucked now only for the taste of the drying nipple itself. The neat grip of the tiny gums. One mite of a tooth tip sticking up in the bottom gum, how shining, an elfin tombstone of white marble gleaming there. Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then the right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead. She sucked and sucked, flooding the threads with wetness. The shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen.

The shawl takes on a mystical quality — it is both sustaining and hiding Magda. It’s a powerful story, and definitely stands alone despite its short length and the subsequent sequel. If I possessed the skill to write it (I don’t, of course — few do), I don’t think I possess the courage. Thankfully, Ozick has both. And speaking of courage, it was pretty risky of Ozick to attempt a sequel; it easily could have diluted the power of the initial story. Thankfully, “Rosa,” which also could stand on its own, adds without detracting.

“Rosa” begins around thirty years after “The Shawl.” Rosa has survived (“Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. As long as they didn’t have to say human being.”). This story takes place in Miami, Florida, where Rosa has moved to after destroying her shop in New York City. Stella, the niece, has, to an extent, managed to forget what they went through, and she wants Rosa to do the same. But Rosa cannot do that.

“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we — we’re less than cats, so we got three. The life before, the life during, the life after.” She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”

“And during?”

“This was Hitler.”

“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.

“You wasn’t there. From the movies you know it.” She recognized that she had shamed him; she had long ago discovered this power to shame. “After, after, that’s all Stella cares. For me there’s one time only; there’s no after.”

Persky speculated. “You want everything the way it was before.”

“No, no, no,” Rosa said. “It can’t be. I don’t believe in Stella’s cats. Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie.”

“But it’s over,” Persky said. “You went through it, now you owe yourself something.”

“This is how Stella talks. Stella — ” Rosa halted; then she came on the word. “Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory.”

The shawl itself, of course, surfaces again to become central to the story, but this time in a different, completely unexpected way. Wonderful that these two masterpieces have been complied into one masterpiece, short but tremendous.

It continues to surprise me how many things I’ve read, even over just the last year, that reference directly or indirectly the Holocaust. Even more surprising is how from that horrendous history so many individualized works can be produced without making the event trivial or overdone (though some of the individualized works are just that). Here is yet another example of how this history refuses to be washed away by the characters or by literature.

8 thoughts on “Cynthia Ozick: The Shawl

  1. Most interesting thoughts on a book that I have not read, but have every intention of visiting. You are doing a good job of investigating American women writers — personally, I prefer Ozick to Robinson, but suspect I am in the minority opinion there. Then again, most of my opinions are in the minority. Oh well. What I particularly like about Ozick is her ability to frame a story in a way that allows the reader to approach it from a number of different perspectives — it is kind of like looking at a well-cut diamond in that you can adopt a number of observation points and they all work. Whereas with Robinson I feel that I am being forced/directed into one interpretation — and since it is one that I am not comfortable with, I find myself resisting the book.

  2. Trevor says:

    You are doing a good job of investigating American women writers.

    That’s because I have done such a bad job up to now. By the way, speaking of American women writers, I finished Jayne Anne Phillips new book about a week ago and she has my interview questions in hand and said she thinks she’ll be able to get to them in the next week or so, probably allowing me to post it on February 20 – so there’s another American woman writer I’ll have investigated! It’s been a great experience!

  3. _lethe_ says:

    What a great review, this book goes straight onto my TBR list.

    I have Ozick’s collection “Levitation”, but read so long ago that I hardly remember a thing about it. As it happens, Jayne Anne Phillips (“Black Tickets”) is Ozick’s neighbour on my bookshelf.

    Also, I’m halfway through “Gilead” and think it’s beautiful so far.

  4. Trevor says:

    The great thing about this book is that it can move from your TBR list to your R list very quickly. I’m excited to hear your thoughts when you get through it – and Gilead!

  5. Isabel says:

    Pithy review, but well done.

    I hope to find her works soon.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks Isabel! I consider being pithy a great compliment!

    I don’t know much about Ozick’s other word, just a bit about Heir to the Glimmering World and The Puttermesser Papers. I’m anxious to get to know Ozick better.

  7. John Self says:

    When I hear the word ‘pithy’ I always think of the episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil has been assaulted by an irate guest, and is trying to laugh it off as though it’s a private joke between them, to try to avoid looking bad in front of the other guests.

    BASIL: (recoiling in agony from the punch but smiling gamely) Ha-ha-ha-ha!
    GUEST: Did I say something amusing, Mr Fawlty?
    BASIL: …Well, more pithy, I suppose.

    Anyway, nicely done, Trevor. I don’t have much to add except to urge Kevin and others to read these stories as soon as possible.

  8. Trevor says:

    Thanks for giving me another image when I think of “pithy” John. I also have my own that comes to mind when I hear the word, but it’s much less fun. A law professor once used the word to describe Oliver Wendall Holmes, a famous U.S. Supreme Court justice who really had a way with words. For example, it is from him that we have the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine when examining evidence procured in violation of the constitution. I’m glad to now have a comical context!

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