After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

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. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

  1. Ozick is one of thos writers about whom I have mixed feelings. The only novel I’ve read by her is Foreign Bodies, her retelling of James’ The Ambassadors (she’s a big admirer of Henry James; so am I BTW). I read it a decade or so ago and absolutely hated it, so I was hesitant to try more of her fiction. When I was doing my massive book sort before my move last year, I was getting ready to gut my Ozick section but then . . . I started reading The Shawl. Only a few pages but . . . I thought, no way am I getting rid of this! Luckily my vintage paperback pairs The Shawl with Rosa, so I can do the whole package when I’m in a mood.
    I think Ozick is known as much for her literary criticism as for her fiction. I’ve just gotten (literally two days ago) a collection of her essays, Quarrel & Quandry. The only thing I’ve read so far is her take on “The Cinematic James,” in which she discusses Jane Campion’s attempt to film Portrait of a Lady (Nicole Kidman the lady). It’s a very astute piece of criticism; I’ll definitely be reading more. I’m also getting ready to give her fiction another go (my long-unread copy of Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World is ripe for a rescued from the back shelf perusal!)

    • Thanks for the information- I know almost nothing about her, apart from a few pieces online from which I gathered some of what you say: the influence of HJ, the lit crit/essays. Like you I’ll have to read more by her.

      • Cynthia Ozick is one of my Top 5 favorite writers. I think she shines most brightly as a critic and in non-fiction, but everything she produces is wonderfully observed. She is in her 80’s and still going strong.

        I have to find it, but in one of her essay collections, she had a piece on the simple act of observing the quality of winter light in Stockholm that was the greatest bit of travel writing I’ve ever encountered. I will see if I can find it.

        • I’ve only read this one story, so can’t really say what I think of her in general as a writer, but you’re not the first person, Maureen, to praise her non-fiction. I shall certainly be reading more of her in future.

  2. I’m actually considering a re-read of Foreign Bodies — with a writer as talented as Ozick, it couldn’t be as bad as I remember! (perhaps I just missed the point!). On the other hand, I also have a recently acquired copy of Ozick’s latest, Antiquities, which looks promising . . . .

  3. I’ve heard of Ozick and have seen quite a few US readers praising her work over the years, but she’s not a writer that particularly appeals to me, if I’m honest. It’s the bleakness I’m wary of, especially given the subject matter of The Shawl, the companion piece to Rosa. Still, it’s interesting to see your take on this story here, especially within the context of this anthology.

  4. I’m intrigued by this one, and in many ways because of the time it was written. I does sound as if it shows the viewpoints and perspectives of people who were still relatively close to wartime events. Now, we’re so far away from that time that we think differently about them. That’s what’s so good about fiction – it can capture the attitudes and feelings of the time it was written.

      • Hello Everyone,

        I have been thinkng a lot about this Ozick long story, and it reminded me very much of a film called “Reign Over Me” in which a dentist who had lost his entire family on 9-11 has become frozen in time, living as a recluse, playing video games, and obsessively re-doing the linoleum in his kitchen over and over (in process when seven years earlier (film set in 2008) when he lost them. The flooring replacement had come to symbolize for him the last event that ties him to his wife). The two characters reminded me so much of each other.

        In the “Reign” film, which came out in 2010, there is a much more conscious understanding of PTSD and its manifestations as a condition, and not something a person may or may not “snap out of,” which would be more common in 1980. Growing up, I don’t recall much of any consideration of the suffering of Viet Nam war veterans, but many were acting out.. As example, landlady’s boyfriend was battlefield medic (helicopter) in Viet Nam and he said that he spent his first 5 years after returning from his draft deployment semi-functional, a liquor salesman by day, and drunk every night, with binges every weekend.. all a self-medication for the horrible damage and nightmares. And in terms of time passing, this gentleman said it was not until he began attending a church where there was a therapy group (in his 70’s, after retirement) with many other Viet Nam vets, that he could get himself to share his the horrific things he saw and cry with other men. That he had simply soldiered on through his 20’s to 60’s and stuffed it all away.

        I found interesting fact that both characters were “messy” in their pain, and that their condition would come to grate on even the most patient of companions… ! And grate on readers and film viewers as well?

        Finally, just as it seems relevant, I met a cab driver whose daughter had been killed in a shooting in DC, and he noted that his wife took to her bedroom after the loss, essentially stopped living, and he noted that “she took it hard.” He seemed happy to have someone to talk about her and his daughter with during our ride. To me, this man’s wife, as well as the two fictional characters above end up in “stasis,” which can be messy, inconvenient, expensive, and seems to run on its own timetable, without any external logic. But HOW can the person be brought back? Be broken out of the “chrysalis” that has locked them away?

        The lines of my poem on this (I changed specifics) were:

        She stayed a girl of seventeen
        And locked up in a darkened room
        Her mother keeps her company
        Wrapped in a chrysalis of grief

        As he rides

        Anyway, again, something that piqued my thinking. Take care.

        • Maureen: thanks for sharing these thoughts. My father and several of his brothers – my uncles – were visibly traumatised by their experiences in WWII, but of course they never talked about it, keeping all the pain inside, like the people you mention. Shameful, how these young men were allowed to return to their former lives without any help to overcome the emotionally damaging life they’d been forced to lead by their country’s leaders, who then abandoned them when they’d done their duty.

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