Regular visitors to this blog will know that American author Cynthia Ozick is a favorite. Her four story collection, Dictation, a quartet, was one of the first books reviewed here. An enthusiastic review of Heir to the Glimmering World followed a few months later. Knowledgable readers were probably wondering why I was overlooking her masterpiece, The Shawl, and in fact I wasn’t — a review was simply waiting the appropriate moment and that moment has now arrived.
First published in 1980, The Shawl, is a powerful story of only eight pages. Three years later, Ozick returned to the same characters and subject — only in a setting more than 30 years later and an ocean and a continent away — with the novella, Rosa, an admittedly risky tactic. The author succeeded magnificently. Cost conscious readers may question buying a 70-page volume; you can rest assured that you will get full value from this incredible piece of writing.
The Shawl is set on the trek to and inside a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Rosa, her infant daughter Magda and Rosa’s niece Stella are the three human characters but the dominant image is that of the shawl in which Magda is not only wrapped but from which she draws all her sustenance:
Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then 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.
Magda actually survives to become a toddler in the camp, but again it is the shawl that is the source of life and protection. Children would be taken away and disposed of, so each morning when roll-call is announced Rosa wraps her in the shawl and tucks her against the wall. Until one day Stella is cold and wraps herself in the shawl, Magda wanders and the inevitable murder takes place. When you read the closing sentences of the story, it is not hard to understand why the later novella demanded to be written.
Rosa is set in Florida in 1977. By now, Rosa is “a madwoman and a scavenger” who lives in a Miami “hotel” (better described as the permanent last residence of lost souls and the demented). She had lived in New York, running a second-hand shop until the pressure of her memories caused her to destroy the place — the newspapers said it was with an ax, but she said it was simply with whatever was at hand (“Part with a big hammer,….part with a piece of construction metal I picked up from the gutter”). She avoided incarceration only when Stella agreed to ship her out of state. While Stella is now supporting her, the two are not getting along any better. And Rosa hates 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 rib cages.
There is a glimmer of hope in this existence as Stella is supposed to be sending, finally, Magda’s shawl. It is while she is experiencing the expectant anxiety of this that Rosa comes to the attention of Simon Persky, another Polish refugee but from the pre-war years (“My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,” she tells him several times). He wants to pick her up and his efforts bring forward Rosa’s tensions to provoke a flood of painful memories and, because of his persistance, some needed explanations:
“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we — we’re less than cats, so we get 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.”
“This was Hitler.”
“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.
“You wasn’t there. From the movies you know it.”
I certainly wasn’t there either and it is true that it is from the movies (and the books) that I know it. And I will admit that there are times when the sheer volume of Holocaust film and literature makes it seem too daunting to pick up another volume.
That does not apply with these two pieces — The Shawl and Rosa tell a story with tenderness to underline the pathos, with understanding to offset the tragedy. They do it in prose that is as accomplished as any that you will read anywhere. They deserve their reputation as masterpieces.