Week Forty-Two: “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick and “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel

 

 

 

“The Shawl” Cynthia Ozick

 

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.”

 

Thus begins Cynthia Ozick’s short (just five pages) yet riveting story, “The Shawl.”

“Ozick wrote it, she says, in a way she has never written anything, before or since. “I’m not a mystic, I don’t believe in any of that. I’ve been on the side of rationalism. I had an experience, just the first five pages – I hate to say it, it’s the kind of absurd thing that I mock – that I wasn’t writing it, that it was dictated. Just for those five pages.”

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope you will consider reading Ozick’s award-winning short story, which was chosen for The Big Read by The National Endowment for the Arts.

At less than 2000 words, here is “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick.

 

Should you prefer to hear the story read aloud, check out this instalment of Yiddish Story Time, introduced by Leonard Nimoy:

 

 

Major Characters in the Book

Rosa Lublin
As a young woman, Rosa is raped by a German soldier, confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with her niece, Stella, and her infant daughter, Magda. Almost four decades later, Rosa lives in Miami, haunted by the memory of her daughter’s death. “Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. … Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel.'”

Stella
Teenage Stella’s theft of the shawl leads to her cousin Magda’s death. As an adult, Stella provides Rosa with financial support, but she cannot understand her aunt’s inability to let go of the past. “Stella liked everything from Rosa’s junkshop, everything used, old, lacy with other people’s history.”

Magda
A baby hidden in her mother’s shawl, Magda survives infancy in a concentration camp in Nazi German-occupied Poland but is murdered by a guard at fifteen months old.
“The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa’s bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat. You could think she was one of their babies.”

Simon Persky
A retiree whose wife is hospitalized in a mental institution, Simon is a comic character in a tragic situation. His persistent kindness begins to break through some of Rosa’s barriers. “Two whole long rows of glinting dentures smiled at her; he was proud to be a flirt.”

How The Shawl Came to Be Written

The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl.

“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.”

“I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

—Excerpted from Cynthia Ozick’s interview with former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia¹

 

. . .A bit about Cynthia Ozick . . .

 

cynthia-ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, (born April 17, 1928, New York, N.Y., U.S.), American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and intellectual whose works seek to define the challenge of remaining Jewish in contemporary American life. By delving into the oldest religious sources of Judaism, Ozick explored much new territory.

 

Ozick received a B.A. in English in 1949 from New York University and an M.A. in 1950 from Ohio State University. Her first novel, Trust (1966), is the story of a woman’s rejection of her wealthy American Jewish family and her search for her renegade father in Europe. It has echoes of Henry James in its juxtaposition of American and European settings. In subsequent books, such as Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick struggled with the idea that the creation of art (a pagan activity) is in direct opposition to principles of Judaism, which forbids the creation of idols. The psychological aftermath of the Holocaust is another theme of her work, especially in Levitation: Five Fictions (1982) and the novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Shawl (1989). She often drew upon traditional Jewish mysticism to expand upon her themes. One of her recurring characters is Ruth Puttermesser. In 1997 Ozick published The Puttermesser Papers, a short novel consisting of narratives and false memories of the aging Puttermesser, who in one story brings a female golem to life in order to save New York City, with disastrous results.

 

Ozick’s later works turn away from the theme of the sacred and the profane. Her novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is, in part, a meditation on the nature of writing. Heir to the Glimmering World (2004; also published as The Bear Boy) tells the story of a young woman hired as a nanny in the home of two Jewish-German academics exiled to New York City in the 1930s. Diction: A Quartet, a collection of four short stories, was published in 2008.

 

Many of Ozick’s essays have been collected in Art & Ardor (1983), Metaphor & Memory (1989), Fame & Folly (1996), Quarrel & Quandary (2000), and The Din in the Head (2006).

 

 

 

“The Watch” by Eli Wiesel

 

Can we return to the past? Get beyond the past?

When we survive horror, does time heal us?

 

Eli Wiesel interviewed by Oprah Winfrey

If you would like a second optional piece to pair with Ozick’s “The Shawl,”  we suggest “The Watch,” by Elie Wiesel.

The shawl had great symbolism in Ozick’s tale. What will the watch represent, in Wiesel’s?

 

HERE is “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel.

 

  1. What sort of feelings does the protagonist have towards the people of the town in the beginning of the story? The end of the story?
  2. What does the watch symbolize, if anything?

 

 

. . .A bit about Eli Wiesel . . .

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. He was fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished, his two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945. elie-wiesel

After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel as Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He is President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. Elie Wiesel has received more than 100 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning.

A devoted supporter of Israel, Elie Wiesel has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia. For more than fifteen years, Elie and his wife Marion have been especially devoted to the cause of Ethiopian-born Israeli youth through the Foundation’s Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment.

Teaching has always been central to Elie Wiesel’s work. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. He is a member of the Faculty in the Department of Religion as well as the Department of Philosophy. Previously, he served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than sixty books of fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two volumes of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, and most recently The Sonderberg Case.

For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and soon after, Marion and Elie Wiesel established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.²

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

¹ The Big Read, NEA website

² The Eli Wiesel Foundation

 

 

 

Advertisements

Week Thirteen: Mothers Writing Letters: “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin and “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

the-awakeningloawharton

 

In honor of Mothers Day, here are rich stories about mothers and the theme of letters sent. In both “Désirée’s Baby” and “Roman Fever,” a mother (or soon-to-be mother) sends an epistle which will change the course of events of the characters’ lives.

 

“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin

 

The author Kate Chopin, often compared to Guy De Maupassant,
set her short stories in in the bayous and backwaters of New Orleans—a lush Creole world surrounded by Louisiana plantations prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still “lawful,”

covers_desirees-baby

image:enotes.com artist unknown

Chopin boldly and intentionally inventories the differences among the mixed inhabitants:
negro, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white . . .

. . .what effect does color have when a mother gives birth in old NOLA?

Here is “Désirée’s Baby,” a slight and deceptively simple story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893. Let us know your thoughts.

You can read it here.

 

Vocabulary Terms:

La Blanche –“the white one”

quadroon –a person of ¼ African-American descent

creole –a descendent of original French settlers in Louisiana; the term comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning “a child of the colony

high yellow– a term for very light-skinned persons of African-American descent. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.

miscegenation: Interbreeding between members of different races; marriage or cohabitation between members of different races, especially in the U.S., between a black person and a white person.

 

A bit about Kate Chopin . . .

 

Kate Chopin’s biography:
Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis into a prosperous Irish-American family and her upbringing, with its convent schools and debutante balls, was conventional for a young woman growing up in the post-civil war period. At nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker from New Orleans. After her husband experienced setbacks in business, she lived with him on a plantation near Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatish”) , an area that provides the setting of the stories later collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). From her experiences there she absorbed a rich mixture of stories and dialects from the intermingled French and black cultures.katechopin
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children and began her literary career, soon placing stories and regional sketches in popular magazines such as Vogue. Much of her later work is remarkable for its frank depiction of woman’s sexuality, a subject rarely broached in the literature of the era, and Chopin became the subject of controversy after the appearance of The Awakening. The negative reception of that work caused Chopin to suffer both professional and social ostracism; her work was removed from libraries and Chopin was obliged to drop her membership in several St. Louis clubs. The scandal surrounding The Awakening effectively ended her active career as a writer, and she published little until her death five years later.

 

For more on Racial Distinctions:

The Strange History of the American Quadroon by Emily Clark pertains more to the Revolutionary War era but the information on Quadroon culture is worthwhile.

An article in the Huffington Post explores it

For more on Kate Chopin:

The International Kate Chopin Society

 

Works Available Online

“The Story of an Hour” (1894)
“A Pair of Silk Stockings “
Desiree’s Baby (in collection with other stories)
Desiree’s Baby (this story only)
“Regret,Century 50 (n.s. 28) (May 1895): 147-49.  (Page images at MOA)
“Ozeme’s Holiday,”  Century 52 (n.s.30) (Aug. 1896): 629-31 (Page images at MOA)
“I Opened All the Portals Wide” (poem; Century 58 (July 1899): 361-362 (Page images at MOA)
“Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)

The Awakening 

Bayou Folk (1894) at the University of North Carolina includes the following stories:

A Night in Acadie (1897) at the University of North Carolina contains the following stories:

 

“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton

 

The author Edith Wharton adeptly depicts the seething emotions under the starched and corseted members of her society which inevitably surface.
Wharton portrays families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts at the height of the social ladder; there are also the ‘arrivistes’ who come from old names and old money, earning their fortunes more recently; often richer than the aristocrats.
They entertained themselves by going to the theater and opera, by attending lunches and house parties, and by traveling abroad . . .
Sometimes it’s when travelling abroad that the true passions of the aristocracy are finally exposed.
And it’s while traveling abroad that we are first introduced to two mothers: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley:
The two women simply dine together on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome. What could possibly be revealed on such a lovely day?


Here is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton.

 

A bit about Edith Wharton . . .

EdithWharton

Edith Wharton moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Not long after, in 1913, after her affair with Morton Fullerton had ended, she divorced her husband of more than 20 years. (source: North Country Public Radio)

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into a tightly controlled society at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.¹

 

For information on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home:

http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

Additional Reading:

Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson (2012)

My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price (2012)

 

Novels

Novellas and novelette

 

Short Stories

Non-fiction

As editor

 

 

Bonus material: A letter from Bette Davis to her daughter:

 

bettedavisandchildren

 

To round out our week on the theme of mothers, letters written, and regrets, here’s one from Hollywood icon Bette Davis to her daughter.

The actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. After surgery she experienced a number of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, published a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their rumored troubled relationship and painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her own memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter:

Dear Hyman,

You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.

There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”

Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.

I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.

You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.

The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.

In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.

I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.

As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.

Ruth Elizabeth

P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.²

 

¹Information from the official website for The Mount, Wharton’s home.

²Letter seen in Letters of Note by Shawn Usher (Public Library)Chronicle Books (May 6, 2014).