Schwartz, Lynne Sharon 1939–
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon 1939–
PERSONAL: Born March 19, 1939, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Jack M. (a lawyer and accountant) and Sarah Sharon; married Harry Schwartz (a city planner), December 22, 1957; children: Rachel Eve, Miranda Ruth. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1959; Bryn Mawr College, M.A., 1961; graduate study at New York University, 1967–72.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—Peter Matson, Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.
CAREER: Writer, editor, translator, and educator. Writer (magazine), Boston, MA, associate editor, 1961–63; Operation Open City (civil rights-fair housing organization), New York City, writer, 1965–67; Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York City, lecturer, 1970–75; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, writing seminars faculty, 2003–. Taught fiction workshops at University of Iowa, 1982–83, Columbia University, 1983–84, 1985, 2000, 2004, Boston University, 1984–85, Rice University, 1987, University of California at Irvine, 1991, and University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1994.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, National Book Critics Circle.
AWARDS, HONORS: James Henle Award, Vanguard Press, 1974, for "Lucca"; Lamport Award, Lamport Foundation, 1977, for short story "Rough Strife"; American Book Award nomination for first novel, 1981, for Rough Strife; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986; New York State Foundation for the Arts fellowship; PEN/Faulkner Award nominee, 1990, and Harold Ribalow Award, 1990, both for Leaving Brooklyn; PEN/Renato Poggioli Translation Award, 1991, for Smoke Over Birkenau.
Rough Strife (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
Balancing Acts (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
Disturbances in the Field (novel), Harper (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2005.
Acquainted with the Night (short stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
We Are Talking about Homes: A Great University against Its Neighbors (nonfiction), Harper (New York, NY), 1985.
The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories, Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.
Leaving Brooklyn (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.
The Four Questions (children's book), Dial (New York, NY), 1989.
(Translator) Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia), 1991.
A Lynne Sharon Schwartz Reader: Selected Prose and Poetry, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1992.
The Fatigue Artist: A Novel, Scribner (New York, NY), 1995.
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1996.
In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Face to Face: A Reader in the World, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.
(Translator) Natalia Ginzburg, A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2002.
In Solitary (poems), Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 2002.
Referred Pain: And Other Stories, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2004.
(Translator) Silvana Gandolfi, Aldabra; or, The Tortoise Who Loved Shakespeare, Arthur A. Levine Books (New York, NY), 2004.
The Writing on the Wall: A Novel, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2005.
(Editor) The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Work represented in anthologies, including Best American Essays, Anchor Annual Essay Collection, Best American Short Stories, 1978, Best American Short Stories, 1979, Banquet, Penmaen Press (Great Barrington, MA), 1979, O. Henry Prize Stories, 1979, and Imagining America, 1992. Contributor of stories, articles, translations, and reviews to literary journals and popular magazines, including Threepenny Review, Salmagundi, Michigan Quarterly, Ontario Review, Harper's, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Ploughshares, Redbook, and Chicago Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Lynne Sharon Schwartz's short stories and novels examine the subtleties of human relationships. In her first novel, Rough Strife, she documents in extreme detail the development and growth of a long marriage from the wife's point of view. Following the premise that "the unexamined life is not worth living," Schwartz creates characters who seek a complete understanding of themselves and the world around them. Her other novels, including Disturbances in the Field, Balancing Acts, and The Writing on the Wall: A Novel, also portray dynamic, intelligent female characters whose searches for fulfillment are affected by events beyond their control. "She writes of those things that constitute our lives," commented James Kaufmann in the Los Angeles Times, that "show us how what we do and what's done to us slowly accumulate to make us what we are."
Although Schwartz knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer, she did not begin taking her work seriously until she was over thirty. While working on her Ph.D. at New York University, she realized the time was right: "Suddenly it dawned on me: I was a little over 30, and if I was going to write, I'd better write," Schwartz told Wendy Smith in a Publishers Weekly interview. Realizing that she no longer had to live "the way it was done" she told Smith, she abandoned her graduate studies and concentrated solely on fiction writing. Though she considered herself a short story writer, her publisher urged her to first write novels because they tend to sell better than collections of stories. Schwartz's first attempt produced Rough Strife, an expanded version of a prize-winning short story. Schwartz related the key objective of all her writing to Smith: "Beneath all the layers of dailiness, the commonplace that I write about, I really try to get at these things that nobody wants to look at."
In Rough Strife, Caroline recounts the ups and downs of her twenty-year marriage to Ivan. Through courtship, marriage, careers, and rearing children, Caroline and Ivan retain their commitment to one another. They transcend personal differences, arguments, and infidelities to make their relationship survive. Lore Dickstein wrote in Ms. that though Caroline's retreat into feminism in face of her conflicting roles as wife, mother, and professional seems forced, Schwartz nevertheless has "written an American 'Scenes from a Marriage.'" Dickstein added that "the author traces the slow and subtle changes … between Caroline and Ivan, and it all rings true: the crises and dull spells, the falling in and out of love with the same person, the struggle of creating an enduring partnership." Katha Pollit stated in the New York Times Book Review that though the "relentless focus begins to seem claustrophobic," Schwartz "registers the fluctuations of marital feeling with the fidelity of a Geiger counter."
Disturbances in the Field focuses on the dynamics of another marriage. Lydia enjoys her relationship with her husband, Victor, her four children, and her career as a classical pianist. Her social life revolves around her old college friends, with whom she discusses philosophy on a regular basis. She has had various extramarital affairs and remains on good terms with one of her lovers, a successful psychotherapist. When two of her children are killed in a bus accident, Lydia's life deteriorates into chaos and pain. She questions her beliefs and loses interest in the things in which she used to find pleasure. Some critics have expressed irritation with Lydia, a heroine whose life seems too idyllic. Carole Cook, writing in Commonweal, regarded Disturbances in the Field as "the execution of an entire, unique world out of a generous accumulation of detail, character, and incident." Furthermore, Cook continued, though "the novel cannot explain reality, it can nonetheless embody its frustrations and limitations."
In Balancing Acts, Schwartz examines a different kind of relationship: an intergenerational one. Alison is a precocious thirteen-year-old who sees in seventy-four-year-old Max an escape from the constraints of her traditional suburban upbringing. Max is a retired circus performer and widower who resents Alison's intrusion into his life because he wants to grow old peacefully. Alison befriends Max in hopes of emulating his unconventional lifestyle. Bill Greenwell praised the novel's portrayal of personality conflict in the New Statesman: "Lynne Sharon Schwartz handles the clash of Max and Alison beautifully, with one thumbing her nose at the conventions of adolescence, the other snubbing a senility into which he seems expected to lapse." Judith Gies wrote in the Saturday Review that "one of them learns to accept life and the other to relinquish it." Gies added: "Each is looking for transcendence."
Schwartz's The Fatigue Artist: A Novel has some autobiographical elements. Its protagonist is a novelist, Laura, who—like Schwartz—has suffered from Chronic Fatigue Symptom (CFS), a vague, mysterious illness that brings on bouts of exhaustion, aches, and other symptoms. CFS forms "the backdrop for the book's narrative, which really deals with a woman's struggle to come to terms with loss, middle-age and loneliness," explained Beth Weinhouse in the New Leader. Laura's CFS has set in just after the violent death of her husband, a policeman who was shot on the job. The malaise of the illness mingles with her struggle to make a normal life again. Spending long hours in bed, she muses on the lukewarm quality of her marriage, the meaning of her various affairs, and the nature of illness. Traditional doctors are on no help to her, and she eventually puts her trust in a "witch" who acts as a kind of therapist. As Laura's understanding of her own feelings deepens and her sense of control is reestablished, her weariness slowly leaves her.
Reviewers were generally enthusiastic about The Fatigue Artist. Donna Seaman, a Booklist contributor, found that "there's an incredible intimacy to Schwartz's prose, that precious feeling of connectedness you experience only with the very closest of friends." Seaman went on to write: "Schwartz sustains that mood on every beautifully rendered page so that we become deeply involved with and fond of her heroine." Weinhouse declared: "Her novel compellingly and entertainingly recounts the story of modern urban life, where exhaustion, violence, stress, and loneliness are commonplace, but not invincible." A Publishers Weekly commented on the author's "painstaking, literary prose and her sensitive exploration of the themes of illness and healing create a resonant picture of a woman confronting the chaos of contemporary life with humor and intelligence."
Schwartz's next novel, In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy, was more comic than The Fatigue Artist. Set in an apartment building on New York's Upper West Side, the book centers on Roy, a psychotherapist, and the extended family that shares the building with him. The group includes his first, second, and third wives and their various parents, children, and lovers. "Schwartz … masterfully orchestrates," asserted the Publishers Weekly reviewer, "providing enough outrageous situations and ironic twists to keep the reader chuckling appreciatively throughout." Library Journal contributor Amanda Fung also approved of In the Family Way, writing: "The dialog is in-your-face and intimate. Schwartz … successfully tells the story of people in search of love and sexual gratification through humor and short scenes that accurately portray relationships in contemporary society."
In her 2005 novel The Writing on the Wall, Schwartz writes of Renata, a woman who works for the New York Public Library and witnesses the collapse of New York's Twin Towers during the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The tragedy brings back to the forefront old memories of the past deaths of her twin sister and father. Furthermore, she and her boyfriend Jack now have custody of the baby of Jack's assistant, who died in the attack. As the story ensues, the reader learns of Renata's many traumatic experiences, including her mother's mental breakdown and the kidnapping of her niece, who was being raised by Renata. As a result, Renata is emotionally incapable of trust or commitment to Jack or to anyone else. She also begins to believe that a mute teenager she has found on the streets of New York may actually be her missing niece. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, noted that the author "evokes in electrifying detail the deep shock felt" following the September 11th attacks, adding that the novel "is also a richly nuanced love story." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "With Renata's complex balance of intellectual skepticism, emotional fragility and street smarts, Schwartz continues to show herself a rigorous novelist." In a review for the Library Journal, Reba Leiding commented: "Schwartz weaves together a contemporary event … with one woman's remarkable personal tragedy."
Schwartz's other publications include the short story collections Acquainted with the Night and The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories. Smith remarked in Publishers Weekly that these stories "demonstrate that Schwartz can juggle the minutiae of daily life and serious philosophical themes as easily in a 15-page story as she [does] in [her] novels." In a review of The Melting Pot, the New York Times Book Review's Perri Klass remarked that "whether she is being sharp and satirical or affectionately comic … Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes cleanly and with compassion. Her voice is strong, even as her stories are varied, and her images are compelling."
In addition to her works of adult fiction, Schwartz has written a children's book and some nonfiction work. The Four Questions is an illustrated children's book that explains the significance of the Jewish Passover celebration and the symbolism of the Seder meal. Schwartz's text appears in both Hebrew and English and is illustrated by Ori Sherman's drawings of animals. The book explains Jewish history, including the slavery and plagues they endured that led to their exodus from Egypt, as it pertains to the rituals of Passover. The Four Questions was well-received by children's book critics. David Gale, writing in the School Library Journal, called it "an elegant, accessible retelling of the Four Questions," and a Publishers Weekly contributor, noting Schwartz's background as a novelist, wrote that her attempt "to bring a simple, yet sophisticated poetic countenance to the story" is often successful.
We Are Talking about Homes: A Great University against Its Neighbors is an account of Schwartz's landlord-tenant dispute with Columbia University following a fire in her New York City apartment building—a building owned by the university. When Schwartz and her neighbors were displaced following a minor fire in 1983, she suspected that Columbia intended to renovate the building for its own use, leaving its former tenants out in the cold. Schwartz "provides a reasonably balanced account" of the tenants' housing predicament, noted Slewyn Raab in the New York Times Book Review. In another nonfiction work, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, Schwartz reflects on her life as a reader, which began at age four. Highly personal, the book is also an intelligent meditation on the value of reading. According to Seaman: "She segues confidently from personal memories to moral inquiries and questions of aesthetics, muses over the value of reading randomly and indulgently rather than dutifully, and celebrates the sensuous aspects of time spent with a book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 31, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1996.
Booklist, June 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of The Fatigue Artist: A Novel, p. 1731; April 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Ruined by Reading, p. 1409; September 15, 1999, review of In the Family Way, p. 234; May 1, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of The Writing on the Wall, p. 1570.
Commonweal, November 4, 1983, Carole Cook, review of Disturbances in the Field.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1996, review of Ruined by Reading; April 1, 2005, review of The Writing on the Wall, p. 383.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Amanda Fung, review of In the Family Way, p. 235; April 1, 2005, Reba Leiding, review of The Writing on the Wall, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1983, James Kaufmann, review of Disturbances in the Field, p. 4.
Ms., June, 1980, Lore Dickstein, review of Rough Strife.
New Leader, October 9, 1995, Beth Weinhouse, review of The Fatigue Artist, p. 18.
New Statesman, March 12, 1982, Bill Greenwell, review of Balancing Acts.
New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1980, Katha Pollitt, review of Rough Strife, p. 14; November 6, 1983, Carolyn See, review of Disturbances in the Field, p. 14; November 24, 1985, Selwyn Raab, review of We Are Talking about Homes: A Great University against Its Neighbors, p. 18; October 11, 1987, Perri Klass, review of The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories, p. 15; April 16, 1989, review of "The Four Questions,"p. 26; April 30, 1989, Sven Birkerts, review of Leaving Brooklyn, p. 16; July 30, 1995, Anna Shapiro, "No Place like Bed," p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1984, Wendy Smith, "Lynne Sharon Schwartz,"p. 68; May 8, 1995, review of The Fatigue Artist, p. 287; March 11, 1996, review of Ruined by Reading, p. 47; August 23, 1999, review of In the Family Way, p. 44; March 27, 2000, review of Face to Face: A Reader in the World, p. 66; April 4, 2005, review of The Writing on the Wall, p. 40.
Saturday Review, June, 1981, Judith Gies, review of Balancing Acts.
School Library Journal, August, 2004, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of Aldabra; or, The Tortoise Who Loved Shakespeare, p. 122.
Smithsonian, December, 1996, Kathleen Burke, review of Ruined by Reading, p. 137.