Michael André Bernstein, Writer and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, died May 25, 2011 at the age of 63, bringing to an end a prolific, thirty-six year career as teacher, a scholar-critic, a poet and a novelist. His work in all these domains was distinguished by a highly original critical vocabulary and personal vision of the intersection of literature and history, culture and morality.
Born in Innsbruck Austria on August 31, 1947 and raised between Europe, Canada and the United States, Michael was a multilingual intellectual whose endeavors as a professor and as a writer of poetry, fiction, and criticism manifest a unique ability to synthesize the subjects about which he was so broadly learned: history, literature, art and politics.
He distinguished himself as the first Canadian to be accepted by Princeton University without even having completed high school. Over his four years at Princeton he achieved the highest GPA in the history of the university and was named valedictorian for the class of 1969. He completed his doctoral degree in romance languages and literature at Oxford University in 1975 and was immediately hired to teach at UC Berkeley, an institution he loved and where he spent his entire academic career.
He published widely in the United States and abroad, and was honored repeatedly for his exceptional contributions to the world of letters. Among the many prestigious awards conferred on him, he was proudest of receiving the Koret Israel prize in its inaugural year (1989), being named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1993, and being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.
He was a regular contributor to The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and The LA Times Sunday Book Review. In every critical arena to which he turned his attention, he reframed the discussion, posing questions and laying out answers that seemed, after the fact, foregone conclusions.
His books of literary criticism are rich with original historical, political, psychological and social analyses which resonate beyond the halls of academia and have drawn the attention of an array of critics and cultural figures, politicians and fine artists. He published a volume of poetry, Prima della Rivoluzione, in 1984. His prolific contributions to literary criticism include The Tale of the Tribe: Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic (1980), Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero (1992), Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, (1994) and Five Portraits: Modernism and the Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing (2000).
Bernstein’s first novel, Conspirators, was selected as one of the three finalists for the 2004 Reform Jewish Prize for fiction, was named one of the 25 best novels of the year by the Los Angeles Times, and was shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. It has been translated into Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish. He was working on a new novel at the time of his death.
As a teacher he was beloved for his course in which, year after year, he taught the entirety of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. He was a magnetic lecturer whose humanity and humor informed his analyses of authors such as James Joyce, Robert Musil, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and Gustave Flaubert. He had a gift for bringing to bear his staggering breadth of knowledge without pretension or jargon.
In his private life Michael was a loyal friend, always offering the benefit of his full attention and generous imagination in conversations both in person and on the page, ready to engage wholeheartedly with the intellectual and artistic productivity of those he cherished. His competitive spirit found its way happily, weekly, onto the tennis courts of Berkeley. He was a devoted and proud father to his three daughters: Anna-Nora Bernstein, from his first marriage, and Amitai and Oriane Sachs-Bernstein, from his marriage to Dalya Sachs-Bernstein, his widow, who survives him in sorrow.