Sue Kaufman Kaufman, Sue (Vol. 8) - Essay

Kaufman, Sue (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kaufman, Sue 1926–

An American novelist and short story writer, Kaufman writes of the plight of the American housewife in a male-oriented society. Her best known novel is The Diary of a Mad Housewife. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Sue Kaufman's Falling Bodies … reminds you of how much a novelist's work can have in common with a bricklayer's: the awful distance between the stuff in the hands—bricks, mortar, dialogue, detail—and the idea of the edifice. Miss Kaufman works hard to render upper-middle-class Manhattan life: lists and letters, private school scenes, mums at the playground, endless conversation in dialect from a Colombian maid. And she succeeds. By a third of the way through I'm there, but unsure why I'm there. Her gift is for comedy, with a special endowment for the description of pompous and somewhat deranged husbands (as in Diary of a Mad Housewife)…. But the novel wants to be something more: in the person of Emma Sohier there's an effort to mix comedy with a chronicle of a genuinely "rough year" and heavy questions about her life. It comes to little, and as if she doubted the worth of the enterprise, the author pitches the book into farce at the end. Too bad; I was all set to care. This is a muddled book by a writer with a good eye but not much, it seems, in mind this time around. (p. 128)

Richard Todd in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1974.

"Under the Trees" is the richest and most affecting piece in Sue Kaufman's "The Master and Other Stories." And for an ironic reason: Mr. Morgan [the protagonist] is, in fact, almost the only person in the book who remains unplaced. Nearly all of the other characters in this collection have hardened into their roles long before we meet them. They are victims, mostly—victims of unfeeling mothers, weak fathers, selfish friends or lovers. Their sense of themselves as victims colors every thought and act. Like those tiresome fellow-passengers on airplanes who manage to bring any topic around to their own diseases, these people see all of life through a haze of affliction. Some of the stories end with a momentary lifting of the haze, but the effect is dimmed because we have long since lost hope for the heroes.

There are three characters in this book for whom we do hope. First, [Mr. Morgan]…. Second, the new mother in "Icarus," sifting her way delicately but unerringly through a handful of memories to discover the cause of her so-called post-partum depression. And third, the son in "The Jewish Cemetery"—a self-possessed man who finds himself weeping at a graveside for reasons far more complicated than the death of an uncle. These three are creatures of possibility. Unlike the flat, crabbed victims in the other stories, they give us a sense of layers unexposed, mysteries unsolved that we ourselves (we imagine) might solve if we consider them long enough on our own. We are reminded that even the most ordinary situation can suddenly take a quarter-turn and assume a whole new meaning….

What Sue Kaufman tells us in "Under the Trees" is that we take reassurance from the assigning of a person to an identifiable place—however superficial, or even false, that place may be. (p. 7)

Anne Tyler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1976.

[Sue Kaufman writes] within the conventional boundaries of the modern story, creating a story which is straightforward, direct, dramatic, economical, and solidly built around a single central point, a single dominant mood. The teller of this kind of tale aims at a firm yet quiet and shadowy authority, the focus of attention being maintained by a clear, clean, unselfconscious prose. The stories [in The Master] are various, set in memory or in the present, freely ranging in place. In each case the author is an exact master of the vanishing art of literary decorum—the rule that all things, language, rhythm, imagery, the whole sensuous affective surface should derive from the characters and context of the story…. Kaufman's special reserve of strength is in the precise evocation of a particular sensory world. Here she has such authority and authenticity that it follows that the events of the story must have happened just that way to precisely those people. In [this] the art is, then, to disguise itself and to stress the reality of the story…. Kaufman [makes] this strenuous and difficult way look easy and graceful. (p. 107)

George Garrett, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.