The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick


ozick4Regular 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.”

“And during?”

“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.


14 Responses to “The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick”

  1. john h Says:

    I don’t know what it is about Ozick but I’ve never been able to get into her books. I just recently tried “Heir to the glimmering world” and only made it about 70 pages or so–my usual cut-off point for quitting. I’ll admit I’m not a patient reader. “The Shawl” sounds short enough that it might be just about right for me.

    By the way, Kevin, I wanted to tell you about a book I read recently. It’s called “The book of getting even” by an American, Benjamin Taylor. The reason I mention it is because of our mutual interest in William Maxwell. Maxwell appears as a fictional character in this book. I don’t know if the author knew Maxwell or why he selected him as a character but there he is, thinly enough disguised to be recognizable by anyone. This was quite a good book by the way. Maybe not so much for it’s overall narrative arc–it’s only 160 some pages–but for the writing and perception. Thought you might like to know.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do think it is easier to approach Ozick through her short stories than her novels — and she has certainly got more attention for the stories. Even then, I would say dictation is probably an easier place to start. I remember all four stories with great affection. There is no doubt The Shawl is a more powerful book; for some, perhaps too powerful.

    Thanks for the point on Benjamin Taylor. I get intrigued when authors introduce other authors or settings into their work (it was Roth and Fante both mentioning Winesburg that sent me to Anderson). I’ll track to Taylor down — might he have known Maxwell from the New Yorker?


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I see from the Random House site that Taylor is also editing The Letters of Saul Bellow, due out next year. While Bellow is a bit hit and miss for me (although when I like him, I reallly like him), that would be another recommendation. And the publisher blurb seems to indicate that the book you mention is an American “road” novel, a subset that also interests me.


  4. workingwords100 Says:

    This novella gives you an idea of the haunted lives of survivors. They just blocked things out.

    I know a lady who jogged along a major ave here in New Orleans, before it was even fashionable to job. She spent most of the day running or walking a lot. I saw her in the mornings when I took the streetcar (trolley) to school and later when I came home in the afternoon.

    Later, someone wrote an article about her. She survived one of the camps.

    I saw her again in 2007. She also survived the katrina.
    And she was still jogging, but more slowly now.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    An interesting observation, Isobel. Ozick does explore a similar notion of what it takes to survive — and what price that extracts on the individual.


  6. Julie Says:

    I’ve wanted to read Ozick for such a long time… your post certainly increased my interest, but I also have to say that I’ve always been sort of scared of opening her books. I really couldn’t explain that feeling. The best remedy, I guess, would actually be to try…


  7. Kerry Says:

    Enjoyed your review, Kevin.

    “The haunted lives of survivors” is absolutely the right phrase. Ozick explores that aspect so thoroughly, it is hard not to be disturbed by the magnitude of the suffering of one individual. Such things cannot be multiplied, and yet they were.

    Isobel, interesting anecdote. Thanks for sharing.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Julie: I’d repeat my advice from above. The stories in Dictation probably do a better job of showing why she is regarded as one of the best short story authors writing today and are very accessible. The Shawl would be a better starting point in exploring her considerable reputation as telling the story of the Jewish experience. Both are quite short so the time investment is not huge.


  9. Trevor Says:

    This was my jumping off point for Ozick, and it made me a quick and fast fan. Sad to say, though, that I haven’t read anything else by her yet! I have Heir to the Glimmering World, and apparently I’m waiting until I have some time to really soak it in. The Shawl was brilliant, though. Hard to imagine someone not being affected by it, for better or for worse.


  10. Trevor Says:

    By the way, nice tribute to Trewin.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for noticing the Trewin comment, Trevor.

    I was hoping you would comment because the Rosa novella did remind of the Cuban emigre book set in Florida that you reviewed a few months back — and I’ve forgotten both the title and author and can’t find my copy. A number of similarities about oppressed survivors came to mind (and I admit I am not a big fan of Florida) when I read this and I want to go back to it. Information and a link to your review would be much appreciated by both me and, I think, other visitors here who might want to explore those similarities.


  12. Trevor Says:

    I hadn’t thought of the similarities before, Kevin, but they are definitely there. The book is Guillermo Rosales’s The Halfway House. Here is the link.

    I’m also not a big fan of Florida, and these books showcase a bit of the feel of Florida that I don’t like. But I loved both of them and look forward to any comparisons people draw.


  13. anokatony Says:

    I’m a gret admirer of Cynthia Ozick, place her well above both Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow. Perhaps Holocaust stories too easily achieve pathos. Has their ever been a poorly written Holocaust survivor story?


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m pretty selective on what Holocaust material I read, anokatony, so I can’t comment on your question — although I think the very fact a survivor chose to write a story would be enough to stop me from criticizing it.


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