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Mark (Jay) Mirsky Biography

york jewish fiction american

Nationality: American. Born: Boston, Massachusetts, 1939. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A. (magna cum laude) 1961 (Phi Beta Kappa); Stanford University, California (Woodrow Wilson fellow), M.A. 1962. Military Service: Served in the United States Air Force Reserve, 1962-68. Career: Schoolteacher, Boston, 1962; staff writer, American Heritage, New York, 1964; lecturer in English, Stanford University, 1966. Lecturer, 1967-70, assistant professor, 1970-74, associate professor, 1975-80, director of the M.A. program, 1978-84, and since 1980 professor of English, City College, New York. Founding member of the Board, Teachers-Writers Collaborative, 1967, and Fiction Collective, 1974, both New York; editor, Fiction, New York, 1972-91. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference grant; National Endowment for the Arts award, for editing, 1980, and senior fellowship, 1981; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1982.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Thou Worm, Jacob. New York, Macmillan, and London, CollierMacmillan, 1967.

Proceedings of the Rabble. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1970.

Blue Hill Avenue. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1972.

The Red Adam. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1989.

Short Stories

The Secret Table. New York, Fiction Collective, 1975.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Swapping," in Statements 1, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. NewYork, Braziller, 1975.

"The Last Lecture," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1976.

"Last Boat to America," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Summer 1981.

"Child's Alphabet," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Summer 1982.

Other

My Search for the Messiah: Studies and Wanderings in Israel and America. New York, Macmillan, 1977.

The Absent Shakespeare. Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Editor, with David Stern, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classic Hebrew Literature. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990.

Editor, Diaries, 1899-1941 by Robert Musil, translated by PhilipPayne. New York, Basic Books, 1998.

* * *

A catalogue of Mark Mirsky's fictional liabilities in his early work is short and bittersweet: he reworks worn material; he cannot resist dreamworld and fantasyland scenes; he is too delighted with royal-purple prose and "experimentalism"; finally he breaks himself up with broad ethnic humor that often offends. Yet he has such large talent that he skillfully turns each of these faults to advantage even when he does not transcend them.

His first volume of fiction seemed partly to be a parodic mélange of Aleichem, Singer, and Malamud. The inversions of Yiddish, the barrage of exclamation and interrogation points, the spread-finger resignation of the Jewish immigrant, all knotted and clotted the young writer's style and suggested the bar mitzvah school of cheap Catskill entertainment. Thus, the "Introduction" begins:

"I've got the whole state of Jewish affairs right between my fingers! What? You don't understand? Take a seat. Don't worry, it won't break. A bit cracked but it's had a rest. Watch out! Watch out for that pile of books. Knock one over, my whole place is on your head. Pages, dust, dirty yarmulkes. Eh! Let it fall."

In spite of such false starts, Mirsky knows and loves his "material" and manages to move us to both laughter and pity in this collection of tales about East European immigrants struggling to remain Jews in their new homeland. The familiar figure of the schlemiel hero is brilliantly renewed in the collection's finest story, "The Shammos from Aroostook County." Five years later, Mirsky returned to the struggling Jews of the old towns near Boston with Blue Hill Avenue. Although he labeled his tale "vaudeville," he writes here with more control, except for an inappropriate slapstick ending. Four of the characters are superbly drawn: Rabbi Lux, who is "a little too good, too pious for much of Dorchester"; the rabbi's wife, once timid and passionate, now a loving, lunatic protectress; Simcha Tanzenn, a canny, lisping politician who collects on favors rarely delivered; and a demented Jewish mother, who uses the telephone like a mortar and wills her war-lost (and worthless) son back to safety. Mirsky's latest treatment of Jewish traditions, The Secret Table, is more serious in tone and, despite some obscurity of form, marks another fictional advance for the author in portraying his fierce bookish forebears. The first novella depicts the search through memory of thirty-year-old Maishe for the womb-security now lacking in the decayed streets of Blue Hill Avenue: the companion novella, "Onan's Child," builds upon Genesis to explore, through Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, and Onan, the terrible contradictions of man's nature and Jewish history. In both stories, past and present, subjective and objective worlds, the Jew and the universal man, are blended into a believable, densely-textured reality.

Mirsky's second novel, Proceedings of the Rabble, may be his most ambitious. Anticipating Robert Altman's film, Nashville, in an urban locale, Mirsky uses the evangelical right-wing political crusade of William Starr to portray the murderous impotence moving American democracy toward rage, outrage, and self-destruction. Despite the straining interior-cinema technique employed, Mirsky's apocalyptic ending matches the final upheaval of West's The Day of the Locust.

The first clue that The Red Adam is a modern fable lies in its title; a close second is the name of its narrator, Job. But this Job goes much further than his biblical counterpart, who tried to understand the mind of Job: Job Schwartz attempts to become God by creating a man in his own image. In his novels, Mirsky renews such staple items of contemporary American fiction as megalomania, violence, sexual sickness, and the Jew as representative sufferer, so that they still serve to tell us about ourselves.

Frank Campenni

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about 5 years ago

A dedicated teacher, a brilliant writer and a beautiful man.