My search for shawl-related reading continued with a novella by Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl, and at just 99p it was swiftly onto my Kindle.
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Now I am not very good at reading books like this these days...
'The Shawl is considered a modern classic - a masterpiece in two acts. The horror and desolation evoked through piercing imagery - first through the abomination of a Holocaust concentration camp murder, second through the eyes of the murdered child's mother, thirty years later, now 'a madwoman and a scavenger' - offers the reader a chilling insight into the empty suffering of a 'survivor'.
There was a phase in my reading life when I covered a great deal of writing about the Holocaust, and very glad I am to have done it too, it felt essential, an honouring of history. But perhaps the protective layers are thinning along with my skin as I get older, somehow it permeates right through and accounts of violence haunt me for days (and nights) so I can only apologise for avoiding the subject nowadays.
In fact, plenty of Holocaust writing, (Primo Levi comes to mind) is written at a slant and still conveys the message, usually even more powerfully. The minimum lodged in the reader's imagination and prior knowledge does the rest. The Shawl, a novella of two halves tells enough and a little more besides.
Polish and Jewish, Rosa and her fifteen-month baby Magda, along with her fourteen-year old neice Stella, are in a Concentration Camp. Magda's Aryan colouring is the only hint that Cynthia Ozick gives about her origins...and as a reader I imagined what may have happened. Starving, malnourished and exhausted and Magda's shawl becomes her comfort, her solace and her consolation. It is a form of emotional nourishment when little else exists, and she is inseperable from it. It is also her hiding place, a place of safety at roll call when Magda can be wrapped up and concealed from the attentions of the guards and clucthed to Rosa's empty breasts. As the baby disappears 'inside the little house of the shawl's windings', it's hard not to think of the associations with death and the winding sheet, but this was 'a magic shawl' and it kept Magda safe and secure in a dangerous environment.
When Stella 'borrows' the shawl Magda is left untethered, exposed and vulnerable, and above all she is noticed, thus the inevitable happens. What happens is permeated through Rosa's shocked eyes, almost in slow motion, as she looks on powerless to save her little one, and left clutching the shawl after Magda's death, it becomes a link with her daughter that sustains Rosa throughout her life.
The second half of the novella catches up with Rosa some four decades later, now living in New York, near to Stella and running a junk shop. When Rosa destroys the shop and its contents and moves to a hotel in Miami, her seeming madness is much misunderstood, and Rosa's attempts to explain herself are heartbreaking in the light of what the reader knows. The power of the shawl to evoke memories of her child and to conjure her up, makes for incredibly moving reading, as do Rosa's letters to the daughter that she keeps alive in her heart and allows to grow up. We understand what those around Rosa can't possibly know and ultimately, despite Rosa's best efforts and those of a semi-willing listener, it remains largely the unsayable and the unspoken, almost a pact between victim and reader.
So there, I survived, and am very glad to have read this remarkable story and also to have read Cynthia Ozick's experience of writing it...
"It began with those very short five pages. We read now and again that a person sits down to write and there's a sense that some mystical hand is guiding you and you're not writing out of yourself. I think reasonably, if you're a rational person, you can't accept that. But I did have the sense—I did this one time in my life—that I was suddenly extraordinarily fluent, and I'm never fluent. I wrote those five pages as if I heard a voice. In a sense, I have no entitlement to this part because it's an experience in a death camp. I was not there. I did not experience it."
As always I track down a Paris Review Art of Fiction interview with Cynthia Ozick, and the interviewer's experience makes me want to try again with her writing...
'I had feared that the rigorous intellect evidenced in Cynthia Ozick’s essays and stories would be matched in person by a severe manner. But what is most disarming about Ozick in person is her gentleness, sensitiveness, and directness, which put the visitor at ease. At as great a length as I interviewed Ozick, or more, she later interviewed me, with interest, sympathy, and encouragement.'
I have sadly given up on more of Cynthia Ozick's writing than I have completed so I would welcome any suggestions about where to start again, and if you have read The Shawl I would love to know your thoughts.