Sounds of Defiance: The Holocaust, Multilingualism, and the Problem of English

By Alan Rosen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Cracking Her Teeth
Broken English in Cynthia Ozick’s
Fiction and Essays

Thirty some years after directing The Pawnbroker, Sidney Lumet directed Cynthia Ozick’s The Blue Light, a stage adaptation of Ozick’s stories, “The Shawl” and’Rosa.”1 The distance between film and play was not far. In both cases, the protagonists were Jews who had lost children in the Holocaust and who, having immigrated to America, were ambivalent at best about the life they were compelled to live out. They differed radically however in their view of the Europe they had left behind. Whereas Nazerman rejected Europe as the standard bearer of culture, Rosa fetishizes it. Like Arendt, Ozick’s heroine believes that European culture, bearing the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, continues to transmit the most formidable teachings expressed in the most sublime idiom.2


Rosa’s Mother Tongue

Predating the stage version by a decade, Ozick’s two stories on which the play is based are better known. “Rosa” was first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1983; “The Shawl” had previously appeared in the same magazine some three years earlier.3 The stories were eventually published together in book form, titled The Shawl,in 1989.4 Strikingly, in the book there is, as far as I can determine, a single change from the original magazine texts: Ozick added as an epigraph the final two lines of Paul Celan’s renowned poem, “Todesfugue.”5

One of the most interpreted of literary responses to the Holocaust, Celan’s poem elliptically represents persecutors and victims in a symbolic concentration camp setting. The addition of lines from such a well-known literary work clearly mobilizes a whole set of associations. For my purposes, however, the epigraph engages the story in two specific, and related, ways. First, when Ozick quotes from the poem, she includes only the original

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