Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 11)
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is that rarity: a fine novelist and poet. Where others pad slim and fragile volumes with material better kept from a candid world, this prolific author fills a 144-page book in which each poem exemplifies intelligence heightened and transmitted through vivid imagination, brilliant imagery, and remarkable formal integrity. How she can sustain such power, poem after poem, makes one marvel at her craft. Granite Lady comprises an immense range of subjects in an exceptional variety of treatments. She dramatizes growing up with fear, from the child's point-of-view; growing old and the state of senility; the quiet horrors of death, before and after the grave; the terrors of loss,...
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[Alphabet for the Lost Years] has two distinct parts although formally there are three sections in the volume. The first and more successful contains meditations on objects and emotions from the Arch to the Zzz of bees and sleepers. The focus on abstractions gives this alphabet an intellectual detachment that mutes the "cry of the human" heard in much contemporary poetry. No first-person pronouns here, and yet there is a mind at work and anguish, however disguised, in poems on Dementia, Hate, Jealousy…. The language is spare, the short lines grouped in couplets or triplets. But their control is balanced and occasionally upset by dependence on sound effects…. The second half of the book collects more...
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Time in Its Flight is built around the marriage of Edna, a spirited Boston teen-ager of quite original attitudes, and the morose but passionate John Steele, a dedicated Vermont country doctor.
Set in the latter half of the past century, the book is a chronicle of the burgeoning Steele family in its passages through joy and adversity, births, illnesses, and death, with accompanying probes into the meaning of time, change, mortality, and other imponderables. When these large themes are embodied in action or event, the results are admirable, but they are too often pursued in an expository, didactic manner.
Schaeffer has a teeming imagination, and scatters ideas, anecdotes, and...
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"Time in Its Flight" illustrates Tolstoy's idea about happy families. They are boring.
Not that Susan Fromberg Schaeffer intends it. She livens things up with epidemics, marriages, a suicide by hanging, insanity, a murder trial, philosophy via daguerreotypes, reports of the American Civil War and 20 or 30 deaths. None of this helps much. Mrs. Schaeffer, who did better with "Anya" and "Falling," is a prisoner of her romantic fatalism….
"Time in Its Flight" will satisfy if you need to kill time or want to know how the rural rich once lived in America. But it's a poor intellectual companion. It's capriciously organized and confusing without purpose. Susan Schaeffer's heroes speculate...
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Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 22)
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer 1941–
American novelist, poet, short story writer, and critic.
Upon publication of her first novel, Falling, Schaeffer was lauded by such critics as Wayne C. Booth. Anya, her next novel, established Schaeffer as an esteemed writer on the horrors of the Holocaust. Critical reception of her subsequent work, however, has been varied. Schaeffer won an O'Henry Award in 1977 for "The Exact Nature of the Plot."
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
I love this novel—first reading, second reading, browsing—but I can't make ["Falling"] sound as good as it is. If all plot summaries distort, and if all happy endings threaten corn, what can one do about a story that begins with Elizabeth, a fat, sloppy, unloving, miserable student who attempts suicide and that then turns her into a good poet, a superb teacher, a generous daughter and a happy wife? Well, what one can do with old-fashioned stuff like that is precisely what Susan Fromberg Schaeffer shows us in "Falling."
Since the material is in part made of suicide and despair, of mindless cruelties by lovers and parents, it would have been easier to follow Sylvia Plath, say, and show how a young, gifted, reasonably cheerful young lady can move from comfortable promise to suicide. But in all Bildungsromanen it is the journey and not the goal that mainly matters, and here the journey is marvelous indeed.
The journey is not only convincing, it is for the most part very funny. I can't think of any other treatment of "the way those young people live now" that has made me laugh so much. The males in Elizabeth's life, for example, are almost all splendidly awful. (p. 56)
A special intellectual energy is added to [Elizabeth's childhood] memories by weaving them with the sessions in her psychoanalyst's office and with confirming episodes from the present. I had though I would never again want to...
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The astonishing thing about Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's superb first novel, Falling …, is that she emerges in triumph from a risk that most young authors would not even consider worth taking. Stubbornly fixing her penetrating sights on material that anyone in his right mind knows has been done to death—Jewish life in Brooklyn, graduate school, attempted suicide, psychoanalysis, and scrabbling in the family dirt for the Holy Grail of the self—Mrs. Schaeffer has managed to establish a marvelously original claim to these tattered topics. She is a writer of uncommon talent and honesty, blessed with a natural command of humor and perception, and she has crafted one of the most engaging and genuinely funny books I've read in years. (p. 15)
Mrs. Schaeffer chronicles [the stumbling metamorphosis of her heroine Elizabeth] with an unerring grasp of the contradictory details necessary for the universal mosaic: families and individuals, parents and children, life and death. Falling is at once poignant, hilarious and luminous. Beneath its unassuming plainness, the obligato of Elizabeth's eccentric, realistic sensibility resonates strongly on every page. (p. 16)
Pearl K. Bell, "From Brooklyn and the Bronx," in The New Leader (© 1973 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 16, August 6, 1973, pp. 15-16.∗
The Holocaust, like the Devil, always seems to dominate the fiction in which it appears. It upstages the other characters, the human beings who lived through it. They are impersonalized by suffering the way characters in pornographic novels are impersonalized by sex—or else they are mystically redeemed by it—which is, too, a loss of identity.
This impersonalization never takes place in Anya. The compelling horror of the events does not distract us from the real business of the book—of any fiction—to create an awareness of character which grows, changes, and deepens. Anya's power as a novel is its extraordinary specificity. Its focus is the woman herself—who she was, what happened to her, and because of that, what she became.
I have read few books that are more tangible. The reality is solid—it bears the full weight of one's trust. The story is told in the first person, with a depth of vision that seems to be memory, that imitates memory, but is really something much less passive and more interesting: an author in possession of someone she has fully imagined. Anya is also one of the few "Holocaust" novels to begin long enough before the war to give us a full, material sense of what was lost. We are taken back to Anya's childhood in the upper-middle-class society of Vilno, Poland….
[When] the war comes, we have become so much a part of the order that we are real...
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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is both a poet and the author of several novels, and her first collection of short fiction [The Queen of Egypt] … is further proof of her versatility. Nevertheless, the line between prose and poetry is often thin, and the connections in the best of these stories, as in the best poetry, are as often communicated by what is left unsaid as by what is said.
These pieces … range from the traditional to the surrealistic. Occasionally, as in the title novella, Schaeffer strains too hard, and the effect is irritating rather than innovative. But in "Destinies," the other novella, and in several of the stories, the author combines imagination and craft with memorable results. (pp. 39-40)
"Destinies," like most of the other stories here, is about the strange connections that make up our lives….
Schaeffer's use of the grotesque is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Jane Bowles, but the chill is generally mitigated by the author's fine sense of the absurd. Although uneven, the collection is worth reading for Schaeffer's rare and eclectic imagination. (p. 40)
Judith Gies, "Books in Short: 'The Queen of Egypt'," in Ms. (© 1980 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VIII, No. 8, February, 1980, pp. 39-40.
The Queen of Egypt [is] a work of narrative as pure as any I have ever read. By pure narrative I mean stories in which nothing happens, or which are about nothing; tales, parables, or vignettes which have no referent or resonance in the waking world. In that sense, this book is a series of dreams and uneventful dreams at that.
In "Destinies," for example, the central character nurses a hopeless love, drops out of graduate school and goes to work as an editor in a New York publishing house….
[The events of "Destinies"], we are told, stretch over the seven decades from 1939 until about 2009. They are narrated with a good deal of literary huffing and puffing: allusions to Kierkegaard, Kant, Shakespeare, Thomas Pynchon, Dostoevsky and Isak Dinesen, and sentences like "coincidence, the only deus ex machina we have, and which is undoubtedly a very small nasty animal covered with warts, is about to take a hand."
But the actual happenings … are roughly what would fill one decade of New York literary life; the story, which would take perhaps three minutes to tell over lunch, stretches to 50 labored pages. It is a bloodless, thoroughly artificial tale, skillfully told—the daydream of a writer who has nothing to say.
Dreams, and images from dreams, haunt all the characters in "The Queen of Egypt," and elsewhere this approach works much better, most notably in "Why the Castle," a...
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["The Queen of Egypt"] contains two novellas ("Destinies" and the title piece) and eight stories, some reasonably successful and others self-consciously brilliant.
"Destinies" follows the progress of one Marcel Donovan from the cradle, through a brilliant college career, thence into the worlds of homosexuality and publishing…. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer manipulates, in limited compass, great spans of narrative time (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't), and her insights into the workings of the author-editor relationship, not often afforded us in fiction, are worth having.
"The Queen of Egypt" [is] written in a style somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Terry Southern…. [It is...
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Love, part folk tale, part generational saga, follows the lives of two Jewish immigrant families, the Lurias and the Romanoffs, from the turn of the century through 1978. (p. 70)
Love, as might be predicted from the title, contains an abundance of shameless sentiment. It is filled with flatulent imagery ("… deep in my own cells their genes shone like stars in the living sky of flesh …") and lifeless prose ("The engagement party was a beautiful one."). Schaeffer's rapid shifts in time and narrative voice often fail to give her characters' lives the intended kaleidoscopic effect. When she is at a loss for drama, she kills off another member of the family.
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["Love"] is unremitting in its bleakness. There is little of the biting folk humor found in the early works of Bernard Malamud, or even in Irving Howe's nonfictional "World of Our Fathers." Where are the small triumphs of life? There is not one truly happy person or event in the 390 pages of this book.
Why this novel is entitled "Love" is puzzling; little love is found here. In its place is an obsession with the past. Esheal's granddaughter Emily, the ostensible author of "Love," sees the lives of her family as a "dance of the genes" in which she is "only a new step in the continuing dance." Her dead ancestors speak to her "as living people who have refused to go until they have made themselves...
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The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field is [Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's] fifth book of poetry, yet she still seems to have no particular poetic voice. The reader never knows who the speaker is, since she's willing to give almost nothing of herself. Thus, the result is hollow form—and even the form is sloppy: chopped up prose is set in regular stanzas, filled with cliche after cliche. She seems to have no conception of which images work well together….
For the most part, these poems begin with trivialities and attempt to make them crucial…. Her attempt at a high (biblical) language, most blatant in the long title poem, fails because of this same triviality of concerns. Her writing...
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Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 6)
Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg 1941–
Ms Schaeffer is an American novelist and poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
The overwhelming impression left by this rich and brooding novel of wartime Poland [Anya] is of an actual life agonizingly remembered, not of events and characters cut and fitted to the pattern of a story. Although the obliteration of Polish Jews is the horrifying central fact of the book, the central mystery is that of memory and the flow of time. If Anya Savikin, the heroine, had lived in a peaceful age, her memories in middle years would not have been so filled with blood and broken buildings. But her slow sifting of them would probably stir the same feelings of bewilderment and loss. (p. 88)
The author's account of Anya's war years is detailed and obsessive, a daily rediscovery of the same devouring pain. Anya survives because she is strong, because she is attractive, because of her medical skill, and finally again and again, for no logical reason. At the war's end she finds her daughter Ninka. After a time she emigrates to the U.S., remarries, works, eats, flows with the years. Her daughter wants to marry a Gentile. Anya weeps and takes to her bed. The girl marries anyway and moves away. Anya is diminished, but by what? Present time loses its hold. She searches back through her life for solidity. Patiently she begins with pen and paper to rebuild the great warm apartment in Vilno. Author Schaeffer, whose 1973 novel Falling won praise, has achieved something remarkable; time's flow circles back, and Anya's bricks, for a while, stand firm. (p. 90)
John Skow, "So Well Remembered," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 14, 1974, pp. 88, 90.
[Recently] there have been signs of a new trend that reflects a growth in the Jewish-American consciousness. Writers like Cynthia Ozick and Arthur A. Cohen, together with some of their younger colleagues, have begun to produce a literature about Jews which is more identifiably Jewish than anything we have seen until now in the work of American-born authors. This new writing is more concerned with Jewish history, culture and even theology than with questions of how Jews live in American society.
A perhaps unintentional part of this phenomenon, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's "Anya" represents a new stride toward maturity in Jewish-American writing. The novel looks history straight in the eye, engaging it with a stubborn fierceness. It is a triumph of realism in art.
"Anya" is the story of a Jewish woman in Poland from the mid nineteen-thirties through the war years, ending in present-day America. It is not directly about the holocaust so much as the period in which the holocaust occurred, and the personal history with which it intersects. One of the remarkable aspects of "Anya" is the elaborate portraits it draws of life before the holocaust—Anya's wealthy and materialistic family in Vilna; and in its aftermath—her violent journey across an absurd and ravaged Europe….
[Though] Anya suffers, this is not a book about suffering, nor about the horrors of the holocaust; its substance is, rather, fictionalized memory which seeks to dwell on human goodness more than on depravity and evil.
The novel's singular achievement lies in its credibility. Its generally convincing dialogue is aided by a supporting cast of metaphors so stunning that they are occasionally intrusive (the author is a poet, and there are hints of poetry throughout). What makes Mrs. Schaeffer's style difficult at times is its consistent refusal to organize, explain or comment upon events as they occur. There are only the "little things," the relentless pursuit of the smaller fibers of experience.
Our impatience with this kind of prose may have something to do with the other novels about the holocaust we may have read in the past. (There is, of course, no such thing as a "novel about the holocaust"; the event is so huge that anything the human mind can invent is already part of it, has in reality already happened). Most of those novels were written by survivors, who insisted on framing the holocaust in mythic structures. And while Anya, too, is a survivor, the author's own mythology allows for no "meaning," no redemptive suffering, and no lessons whatsoever about history, life or human morality. The event itself, clearly, is large enough to support various versions of its larger, unknowable truth. (p. 36)
William Novack, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.
Almost all of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's poems are too long…, as is the whole volume ["Granite Lady"] of 61 poems for 144 pages. There isn't much shape or development to many of them and their tone is too often limply ennervated: "You are the kite/That searches and floats; the cloud/Forming a pupil in the eye/Of the sky/You have been everywhere, looked/Everywhere" begins her "Elegy for Sylvia Plath." The reader's eyes tend to glaze over, faced with ultimate toneless assertions of poetic truths: "The trees have taken back their benediction/As I watch, they lift their arms up,/Plugging into the sockets of stars" ("Madness"). Mrs. Schaeffer's "surrealism," along with her interest in Sylvia Plath and suicides, seem to me not her real or best subject, which I would name instead as seasons, the weather, life in and around the house: "The carpentering rain/Has been hammering at the house …/If there is a world/Beyond these windows of water/Streaming icicle-thick,/We don't know it." Here in "Lightning Storm" wit and precision of word come together to make a sharply-incised tone towards experience…. There are enough moments … in Susan Schaeffer's poetry to save it from ideology, fashionable gestures or vatic illusions of profundity; to save it for poetry—as in Louise Bogan's capitalized insistence,… to Rolfe Humphries: "I STILL THINK THAT POETRY HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE IMAGINATION: I STILL THINK IT OUGHT TO BE WELL-WRITTEN. I STILL THINK IT IS PRIVATE FEELING, NOT PUBLIC SPEECH." Forty years later such thoughts are still in order. (p. 38)
William H. Pritchard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.
There is a special frustration in encountering a book which is deeply affecting, even exciting, but full of avoidable flaws. Granite Lady too often excites my editorial instincts and instead of reading I am rearranging, or wishing Schaeffer had had a friendly voice at hand to suggest excisions and revisions. The dramatic power of many of the poems commands attention and when she deals with her strongest themes Schaeffer is overwhelming. But in many poems the language is loose, the rhythms slack, the images jumbled together. The evil effect of this (which is further enhanced by the unfortunate typographical design of this book) is that the poems seem to run on too long. Several times I turned the page to be startled that the poem I thought had just ended was still in progress. (This is especially true of a long poem; "Suicide," which seems to go on forever.) Another problem a good editor might have eliminated is Schaeffer's occasional subservience to two of her dominant contemporaries, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. This is most explicit in her "Elegy for Sylvia Plath," but the haunting tones and images of the other two poets break through at other unfortunate moments…. Schaeffer has her own voice and her own vision, both of which are present elsewhere in the book. We can hope she has settled her ghosts in this book and will be completely on her own in the next.
With all that carping out of the way, I can say that this is an admirable book which ought to be read. Schaeffer is at her best when she evokes the fears of small people or children in the face of threatening surroundings. (pp. 61-2)
Some of Schaeffer's best poems create the kind of clarity in unreality that we call surreal….
It may seem perverse to suggest, of a poet and novelist with four books to her credit, that this is an artist about to begin to be on her own. But Granite Lady has the look of transition, of working off some old influences, of gaining finer control of language and perhaps using some favorite cliches for the last time. It is worth reading for the pleasures it offers, and to become familiar with a voice which will surely speak more clearly to us in time. (p. 63)
Thomas Dillingham, in Open Places (copyright 1975 Open Places), No. 20, Fall/Winter, 1975–76.