Prose, Francine

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PROSE, Francine

Born 1 April 1947, Brooklyn, New York

Daughter of Philip and Jessie Rubin Prose; married Howard Michels, 1976; children: two sons

Novelist and short story writer Francine Prose received her B.A. in English from Radcliffe College in 1968 and a master's degree in English from Harvard University in 1969. Since then she has maintained an academic career, teaching creative writing at a number of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Utah, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In addition to writing fiction, Prose has published "profiles," travel essays, short pieces, and reviews in a variety of literary journals, including the New York Times Book Review, Mademoiselle, the New York Times Magazine, and Gentleman's Quarterly. She has also cotranslated two works of fiction by Ida Fink, the Polish-born Israeli Holocaust writer (A Scrap of Time and Other Stories, cotranslated with Madeleine Levine, 1988; and The Journey, cotranslated with Johanna Weschler, 1992).

Prose's first novel, Judah the Pious (1973), which she began during an extended visit to Bombay in 1971, was published when she was twenty-five years old. Prose received the Jewish Book Council Award for this novel, a mythical Hasidic tale set in a legendary Poland of the past. The story, likened to Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale," and Isak Dinesen's "Seven Gothic Tales," revolves around Rabbi Eliezer of Rimanov's appeals to the king for religious tolerance for Jews in Poland. His appeal is granted, but only as a result of a wager won by telling the tale of another legendary figure, Judah ben Simon, and the magical stories surrounding him. Steeped in allegory, in Hasidic oral legend and miraculous tales of wonder, this first novel situates Prose in a long tradition of Jewish storytelling, well since scripture, which shapes and defines much of the writing of American Jews into the 20th century. Judah the Pious thus sets the stage for the kind of mythic and magical fantasy and storytelling style characterizing Prose's fiction written during the decade of the 1970s. During this distinct literary period, her fiction is marked by a preoccupation with fantasy, with mystery and miraculous occurrences, with remote and exotic settings, and with a legendary-since-distant past.

Although this period of fantasy arguably defines Prose's early writing—(other works in this period include the novel The Glorious Ones, 1974, about a wandering troupe of 16th-century commedia dell'arte players; Marie Laveau, 1977, in which prophetic dreams, magical spells, and curative powers surround the life of a 19th-century New Orleans mulatto woman; and Animal Magnetism, 1978, a fantastical novel of hypnosis and imaginary medical practices set in 19th-century New England)—her preoccupation with the supernatural, with the stuff of miracles and imaginary desire, inform, to one extent or another, the entire corpus of her fiction.

In, for example, the deftly crafted short story "Electricity" (in Women and Children First, 1988), Prose weaves an extraordinary story of a miraculous occurrence throughout an ordinary story of a divorced young woman's return with her young child to her parents' home in Brooklyn. In this story, marked by the very real difficulties for American women of maintaining marriages, raising children, and defining their role out of gender-determined guidelines in the rapidly changing patterns of the end of the 20th century, Prose introduces a miracle that changes her protagonist's vision of herself and of her place in the world. The protagonist, Anita, returns home defeated and embarrassed by her husband's desertion, to find that her father, who in her childhood was always a nonobservant Jew, has become a Hasid, a member of a mystical Jewish sect that believes in the miraculous powers of the rebbe, the teacher and leader of the Hasidic movement. To Anita's bewildered and unnerved surprise, her father—who, in the midst of her own marital upheavals, her sister's feminism, and her mother's outraged objections, attends a Hasidic shul—will not travel on the Sabbath, follows rigid Jewish law in all its specificity, and dances Hasidic dances of celebration in their basement. In an attempt to explain his "conversion," Anita's father tells her a story of his own rescue from some thugs on the subway by the miraculous powers of the rebbe, who, through the power of belief, can make lights blink, a universal message of help.

For Prose, the ordinary is always imbued with the fantastical, the stuff of everyday life an occasion for stories. Many of Prose's stories have been published in literary journals and magazines, including Redbook, Antaeus, TriQuarterly, North American Review, Commentary, Antioch Review, and Yale Review, and have been anthologized in collections such as Gates to the New City: A Treasury of Modern Jewish Tales, edited by Howard Schwartz (1983), and America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers, edited by Joyce Antler (1990).

Other Works:

Household Saints (1981). Hungry Hearts (1983). Bigfoot Dreams (1986). Primitive People (1992). The Peaceable Kingdom (1993). The Angel's Mistake: Stories of Chelm (1997). You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-Vavniks (1998).


Pearlman, M., ed., Inter/View: Talks with America's Writing Women (1990).

Reference works:

CA (1979). CANR (1991). Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Source-book (1994).

Other references:

Hudson Review (Summer 1973, Summer 1974). NYTBR (25 Feb. 1973, 12 July 1981, 6 Mar. 1983, 25 May 1986, 27 Mar. 1988, 5 Apr. 1992). PW (13 Apr. 1992). Sewanee Review (Winter 1984). Yale Review (Oct. 1992).