Susan Fromberg Schaeffer Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 6) - Essay

Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.