Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl

The ShawlThe Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps Cynthia Ozick’s most famous book, this 1989 collection of two linked short stories about the Holocaust and its long aftermath is a triumphantly involuted and gorgeously self-lacerating traversal back and forth between the author’s mutually incompatible commitments—her iconoclasm, her zeal to smash whatever looks like an idol, a toy set up between human beings to seduce them out of their responsibilities; and her imagination, the autonomous trope-forging human faculty of which she is master, that magical power that dazzles the landscape with graven images.

The first story is “The Shawl”; its indelible opening sentence: “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” Stella is the teenaged niece of Rosa Lublin, and together with Rosa’s baby, Magda, they are confined in a Nazi concentration camp. Rosa has, with the aid of the titular shawl, concealed Magda from the guards; the shawl keeps the baby occupied and quiet. Rosa has suspected that Stella is envious of Magda (whose blue eyes and blonde hair make her look Aryan: “You could think she was one of their babies”), even that she wants to eat her—and this perversely comes true when Stella, claiming to be cold, takes the shawl. This causes Magda, who has just begun walking, to wander out in search of it. When a guard sees her, he murders her by throwing her against an electrified fence. This is all told in a brief and hallucinatory eight pages, spare in language but lushly metaphorical, a prose-poem of human hell.

After this, we come to a longer story called “Rosa.” It takes place thirty years later, in Miami Beach. Rosa, now “a madwoman and a scavenger,” has smashed up her New York junk shop and gone to live—on Stella’s money—with the rest of the elderly New York Jews in the Florida sun, even though they are mostly not Holocaust survivors, and she is not as well-off as they are, living as she does in one squalid room. But she has something in common with them: her emptiness.

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.

Through her memories and conversations and letters—mostly to her dead daughter, Magda, whom she imagines as alive and flourishing—we piece together her story and its implications.

Rosa was the daughter of a cultured, well-to-do family in Warsaw. Her parents were secular, assimilated, and immensely educated; her father “knew nearly the whole first half of The Aeneid by heart,” while her mother, she writes to Magda, “wanted so much to convert” to Catholicism. When they are forced by the Nazi occupation into the Warsaw ghetto, Rosa reports to her fancied daughter that they were humiliated and enraged:

…imagine confining us with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and hordes of feeble children! […] …we were furious because we had to be billeted with such a class, with these old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions, phylacteries on their foreheads sticking up so stupidly, like unicorn horns, every morning.

She summarizes her own life as an ugly fairy tale:

Her own home, her upbringing—how she had fallen. A loathsome tale of folk-sorcery: nobility turned into a small dun rodent.

And she moreover writes to Magda, whom she imagines as an utter success, that “you can be a Jew if you like, or a Gentile, it’s up to you”—in other words, one imagines the Ozick of the essays quite sternly insisting, precisely the choice that history did not give to the Jews.

(Rosa angrily denies the suggestion from Stella that Magda was in fact the issue of Rosa’s rape by a German soldier, claiming instead that Magda’s father was a son of her mother’s friend who’d married a Gentile. Given Rosa’s fixation on her decline in social status, her reduction from cultivated Pole to despised Jew, her probable re-imagination of the Nazi rapist as an elite Gentile lover has immense pathos. “You are pure,” she tells the Magda of her imagination, unwittingly echoing the ideology of the real Magda’s murderers.)

Behind Rosa’s cultivated contempt for European Jewry lies Ozick’s contempt for Europe’s cultivation: its idolatrous imaginings that led the Gentile to make a thing of the Jew and then to destroy that thing. Though, to be sure, Rosa’s disgust with American Jewry—she asks a resort owner, “Where were you when we was there?”—for its complacency, for its evasion of the catastrophe and of history, may be Ozick’s own, not less intense for being self-disgust. Just as Rosa’s fury at a professor who keeps writing her amusingly unctuous, jargon-filled letters requesting to study her for his theories of “Repressed Animation”—to the effect that those who survived the camps attained a state of Buddhist non-attachment—is Ozick’s own, an excoriation of the so-called social sciences’ incorrigibly dehumanizing tendencies.

But in Ozick’s system of thought (how many contemporary American writers have a system of thought?), Rosa is guilty of something far worse than elitism or internalized anti-Semitism: she is guilty of idolatry. (Michiko Kakutani writes well about this in one of the early reviews.) For she worships both her imagined Magda, and the dead Magda’s sole legacy—the shawl. When she writes to the hated Stella asking her to send the shawl to Florida, Stella writes back:

Your idol is on its way…You’re like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross, a splinter from some old outhouse as far as anybody knew, or else they fell down in front of a single hair supposed to be some saint’s.

Rosa’s mother’s attraction to Catholicism—and Rosa’s own—is no idle allusion: what is Catholicism in the iconoclastic imagination but idolatry itself, idolatry systematized, elaborated into a Moloch cannibal state like the one that claimed the Jews of Europe?

So Ozick condemns Rosa, but she also is Rosa. Rosa’s fancies, her imagination, her literary gift are the life and the fire of this so magnificently written book. Go back to “The Shawl” and read Magda’s death scene, which should be too awful to turn into art; here is a sentence from the scene, almost Shakespearean in its mixed-metaphor verve, its triumphant troping (or turning: “a lie against time,” to quote Ozick’s old nemesis, Harold Bloom):

She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot…

Poetry not just after but even during Auschwitz: by what right does Ozick commit such an impiety? By right of the imagination. The judge stands arraigned; the iconoclast takes the hammer to herself. Her readers gather the glittering shards.

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