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Schwartz, Lynne Sharon

SCHWARTZ, Lynne Sharon

Born 19 March 1939, Brooklyn, New York

Daughter of Jack and Sarah Slatus Sharon; married Harry Schwartz, 1957; children: Rachel, Miranda

Lynne Sharon Schwartz grew up in Brooklyn, the subject of her most important work to date, Leaving Brooklyn (1989), which she describes as a novel about an adolescent girl's transition from youthful self-preoccupation to adult consciousness of the greater world beyond. She graduated from Barnard College (1959), received an M.A. in literature from Bryn Mawr College (1961), and did further graduate study in comparative literature at New York University between 1967 and 1972. Schwartz worked as associate editor for the magazine the Writer from 1961 to 1963, and as a writer for Operation Open City, a civil rights-fair housing organization in New York City from 1965 to 1967. She was a lecturer in English at Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1970 to 1975.

Schwartz's other major works include three highly acclaimed novels and two collections of short stories. Her fiction is remarkable for its sharply delineated portraits of the everyday life of the urban middle class; skillfully piercing through the surface of the comfortable, familiar worlds of her characters, she exposes the dreams, anxieties, and absurdities that lie beneath. The rich images with which she paints her characters' foibles and eccentricities have led critics to compare her to the painter Goya or to Flannery O'Connor. Yet while she often deals with idiosyncrasies of personality and behavior, Schwartz strives to portray the universal motivations that channel human desires. She succeeds unusually well in depicting the complex emotional and psychological underpinnings of the "dailiness of life," as one reviewer noted, while at the same time exploring the moral and philosophical dilemmas that confront her characters. Her work is distinguished by its broad intellectual range as well as by its clear style, graceful elegance, and wit.

Much of Schwartz's writing probes the contradictory pull between security and risk, order and change, the "safety of rules and traditions" and the "thrill of defiance." This theme is prominent in Leaving Brooklyn, a novel about Audrey, a 15-year-old girl coming of age just after World War II. Narrated by the protagonist, now a mature writer struggling to understand and accept her own history, the story concerns discovery of her physical differences—a "wandering" eye that gives her a special "double vision"—and her seduction by her eye doctor, a seduction in which she is a willing participant. By telling "the story of an eye, and how it came into its own," Schwartz reveals the development of her own "I," as the girl Audrey begins to "see" the truths beneath Brooklyn's surface comforts, its rules, and its order, and to distance herself from the conventions of her parents, immigrants once removed, and of Brooklyn. "Leaving Brooklyn" becomes a metaphor for reaching beyond custom, convention, and rules, for risk taking, experience, and passion.

In Disturbances in the Field (1983), the comfortable, upper-middle class lives of Victor Rowe, a painter, and his talented, well-educated wife, Lydia, a chamber pianist, are suddenly split apart after the deaths of two of their children in a school bus accident. Unable to respond to her husband's emotional needs in the wake of the tragedy, Lydia sets in motion the "disturbances" of the title—when "something gets between the expressed need on the one hand and the response on the other." This unsettling, compelling story is told crisply and compassionately: through the accumulation of detail, character, and event, Schwartz compiles a stunningly realistic portrait of an intelligent, but ultimately ordinary woman seeking to find meanings in the terrible loss that wrenched the "placidity" from her life.

Rough Strife (1980), Schwartz's first novel, is a chronicle of the emotional dynamics of a marriage over 20 years; Schwartz, in Katha Pollitt's words, "registers the fluctuations of marital feeling with the fidelity of a Geiger counter." The attention paid to detail and to exposing the jumbled, contrapuntal realities beneath the surface of what appears to be a successful conventional relationship predicts the course of much of Schwartz's later fiction.

The theme is realized most vividly in Schwartz's masterful short story collection, Acquainted with the Night and Other Stories (1984). In the title story, a successful 47-year-old architect, given to insomnia, confronts terrifying demons of his past, his psyche, and even beyond, something more "cosmic"—as he seeks sleep in the middle of the night. The characters in the 15 other stories of this anthology also wrestle with the terrors, illusions, and fantasies that compose their reality. For Schwartz, true knowledge is based on an understanding of night—the hidden fears, secrets, and reversals of life—as well as of day.

The characters in the stories collected in The Melting Pot and Other Subversive Stories (1987) also confront "the unending cycles of light and darkness" that shatter complacency. Nuances of shifting relationships, marriage, and divorce are once again illumined; Schwartz also writes poignantly, and with great good humor, of other subjects—a middle-aged woman undergoing a hysterectomy; another reflecting on the life and death of her opinionated, tempestuous father; a homeless family finding shelter in a Manhattan TV studio. She is particularly concerned with the impact of dream and memory on consciousness: exploring the present, she reaches back to "subversive" impulses—among them, tradition, illusion, and fantasy—that guide contemporary lives. Here, as in Leaving Brooklyn and other stories, the daughter of Americanized Jews must confront the meaning of that heritage.

While much of Schwartz's writing defies categorization and she is willing to experiment—The Fatigue Artist (1995) includes a series of graphics of an empty swimming pool—she belongs very much to a group of politically oriented Jewish women writers that includes Grace Paley, Rosellen Brown, Cynthia Ozick, and Erica Jong. She is emphatically not an autobiographical writer in her fiction—the long 1996 essay in Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books is another matter entirely—but her life inevitably informs her work.

In The Fatigue Artist, Schwartz examines and satirizes both traditional and nontraditional medical practice as well as the profound effect a chronic illness (in this case the virus known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) can have on the person who has it. The novel was particularly well reviewed by Oregon poet Floyd Skloot, a sufferer of the same disease. A new novel, In the Family Way, was published in late 1999 and a book of essays, Only Connect is due in 2000.

A widely respected teacher of writing, Schwartz has taught at the graduate level at Washington University in St. Louis, Columbia University, and the University of California at Irvine, as well as in such workshops as Bread Loaf. Schwartz has been widely anthologized in The Pushcart Prize III; The Best American Short Stories and many other prize-winning anthologies. Essays, satirical pieces, and translations have appeared in Harper's, the New York Times, Threepenny Review, Ladies' Home Journal, Dance magazine, and the Best American Essays, 1998, among others.

Schwartz is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. Leaving Brooklyn was nominated for the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was a Literary Guild Selection and the winner of Hadassah magazine's Harold U. Ribalow award. Her first novel, Rough Strife, was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway First Novel award and a National Book award and received the Great Lakes College Association Honorable Mention.

Other Works:

Balancing Acts (1981). We Are Taking About Homes: A Great University Against Its Neighbors (1985). The Four Questions (text for paintings by O. Sherman, 1989). Smoke Over Birkenau (by L. Millu, translated by Schwartz from Italian, 1991). A Lynne Sharon Schwartz Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1992).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

CA (1982). CLC (1985). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

American Book Review (Nov./Dec. 1989). Hudson Review (Spring 1984). NYTBR (6 Nov. 1983, 26 Aug. 1984, 24 Nov. 1985, 16 Apr. 1989). Newsweek (14 Jan. 1985). Sewanee Review (Spring 1985). WRB (Sept. 1989).

—JOYCE ANTLER,

UPDATED BY MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

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