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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer 1941–

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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.)

Wayne C. Booth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

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 read any fiction, funny or solemn, that included a wise analyst. But the gentle shrewd probing succeeds here because of Elizabeth's sharp ironic fury against the guru and against herself.

We are engaged with remarkable intensity in this young woman's fight for a life of her own; somehow, as in the best of Bellow, the very possibility of life in such a world seems at stake. As we catch through her eyes occasional images of beauty and mystery, images that transform the intellectual deciphering into promises of meaning, we come to care very much about whether this sharp-eyed lost woman can find a way to live without self-deception, an acceptance of all that has been done against her and all that she has done to destroy herself. The causes for despair have been made totally convincing: here be dragons enough to flesh out anyone's full existentialist wailing. Everyone in the novel is, after all, falling. And we fear that for Elizabeth all ambiguities about that word falling might be removed: this secular comedy could turn into a simple descent into hell.

But forgiveness comes, and with it a final dream that yields unambiguous acceptance, without simplifying the many kinds of falling…. (pp. 56-7)

None of this is protected, be it said, with so much as a momentary lapse into fashionable stuff about "you're only reading a novel," about the author's clever awareness of narrative wheels within wheels. This author stands firmly behind what she tells. In short, it is the stuff we are told is no longer possible, serious fiction. Except maybe for Cynthia Ozick, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is the finest new talent we've seen in a long while. (p. 57)

Wayne C. Booth, "Elizabeth's Fight for a Life of Her Own," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1973, pp. 56-7.

Pearl K. Bell

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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.∗

Judith Thurman

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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 participants in the dissolution. The dismantling is sudden, but we are not left with a bare stage. The old density is replaced by a new one, equally believable. What does change—and this is done internally in the writing as well as by description—is that there is a new and terrible suspense between the successive moments, as if time had been imploded and all the anxiety of a normal lifetime, all its uncertainty, were compressed into the space of a few years. (p. 46)

What Susan Fromberg Schaeffer resolutely and in a way bravely refuses to do is mystify what Anya has experienced, to treat her with the kind of deference we so often reserve for people who have seen "the other side"—or to assume that such a vision has, in some way, hallowed them. There is no attempt made to use the Holocaust as a metaphor, to make sense of it. We are left with the conviction that for most of the victims of political crimes, like most of the victims of bad motorcycle crashes, there is only a brutal, hopeless, and ongoing incompletion of existence—as if, Anya says, the "film which has recorded the story of my life was spliced one-third through to an irrelevant reel by a maniac…."

And that, perhaps, is what is most important about Anya. We are moved by her not only or mostly because she is a woman, a student, a mother, a Jew, a victim. We are moved because she has been so fully revealed to us. If she is left grappling with the meaninglessness of so many deaths, we, at least, have the understanding of one unretouched life. (pp. 46-7)

Judith Thurman, "Unchanged by Suffering?" in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. III, No. 9, March, 1975, pp. 46-7.

Judith Gies

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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.

Garrett Epps

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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 haunting Borgesian fable which explores the frightening, seductive power of the images in our minds….

The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field is evidently intended as a companion to The Queen of Egypt…. Like its counterpart, this book of verse is a thoroughly literary, uneventful volume. Schaeffer ostentatiously salutes T. S. Eliot …, [William Carlos Williams, and W. H. Auden]. But this book has no grand theme to match those of these masters, and Schaeffer calls upon this erudition largely to describe the events which take place in the "little field" of the title, which seems to be her own back yard.

In this little field, "is there an inch / Without living creatures?" Well, no, but these creatures are domesticated and diminished. There is a "little lamb," some "little moles," a "little worm," some "little sheep" and "little seeds." A woman watches the scene, and her "little cloud-breaths / Rise up to the others" and "little bells / Play so in the yard."

Improbable as it seems, the only creature that bestrides this small dreamy landscape with energy, purpose and dimension, is felis domestica, the common housecat, to which, as a species, the author seems quite devoted….

Schaeffer has evidently been reading the real Bible for use in this one, and the result is distressingly elephantine, like a combination of King David and Erma Bombeck.

When she is not writing about cats and little animals, Schaeffer draws much of her imagery from dreams….

Some psychologists theorize that dreams are a way of discharging tensions and sensory images that build up during waking hours and would otherwise overwhelm the dreamer. Perhaps these two fragmented, incomplete books fulfill the same function for the prolific Schaeffer: finding herself with nothing to write about, she had to use her literary faculties nonetheless.

Garrett Epps, "The Writer in Her Own Backyard," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), February 3, 1980, p. 12.

Ivan Gold

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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 an] easy enough read, and often entertaining, but one suspects there is less here than meets the eye.

"The Exact Nature of Plot,"… is not about plot at all, but about the penchant the novelist-narrator's characters have for making appearances while she is trying to describe them….

The last two stories, set on an island off the coast of Guatemala, are clotted sagas imitative of Garcia Márquez or Borges. It is mystifying why a North American writer would want even to attempt these, except as an example of what the jacket blurb calls Miss Schaeffer's "astonishing range."

Ivan Gold, "Short Fictions: 'The Queen of Egypt'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1980, p. 15.

Dorothy Wickenden

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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.

Schaeffer knows what ingredients insure a novel's commercial success. Love captures Jewish family tradition, celebrates the lives of the hardworking and the obscure, and is punctuated with wry anecdotes about daily domestic crises. Still, Schaeffer's glimmers of wit aren't enough to sustain one throughout this overwritten and carelessly edited novel. (pp. 70, 72)

Dorothy Wickenden, "Book Briefs: 'Love'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 70, 72.

Lore Dickstein

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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 understood."…

Mrs. Schaeffer has constructed this novel in large sections of flashback interspersed with narratives written in the voices of the characters, a device she has used in previous novels. Although many of these first-person accounts sound very much like verbatim transcripts of tape-recorded interviews, they are quite wonderful in the way they foretell and retell the story and they save the novel from mediocrity. Only in these sections can one hear distinctly individual voices, a quiet chuckle, an ironic comment…. [At the end of the novel] the entire dramatis personae present themselves in a series of short sketches. It is a stunning finale to an otherwise unimaginative novel. (p. 30)

Lore Dickstein, "Trouble, Trouble," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1981, pp. 10, 30.

Rochelle Ratner

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

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 becomes almost a parody of itself. The device of a high biblical stance works for a poet such as James Wright, because behind Wright's poems is a solid rooting in the spiritual; the poem's situation is important because the reader has no trouble seeing it as an allegory for something much deeper. Such is not the case in Schaeffer's poems.

Then, of course, there are the fashionable female stereotypes which every best-selling poetry book needs: Bridal Picture, Lady At Night, Lady With Zebra, Woman On Peacock. It's hard to think of anything more contrived than these obvious plays on language…. (p. 10)

The banality of concerns is exhibited still further in The Queen of Egypt, Schaeffer's first collection of short fiction…. I think it's indicative that the worst story in the book is also the one where she attempts to satirize the writer's predicament: The Exact Nature of Plot. Near the beginning she describes an ordinary housewife at work on her first novel….

As the writing process continues, the woman starts to forget the things around her—like the name of the baby, or whether the baby is actually hers, whether she made her husband dinner. Suddenly a strange woman appears before her, who turns out to be her mother….

Finally the story deteriorates into a game of musical chairs, where the mother and supposed husband grab her chair and start typing; the voices and the typing are mechanical. She still worries about having forgotten the details pertaining to her husband and children, but it doesn't matter because she can always look up their names and ages in the novel, which is done now, right on schedule.

The two novellas which begin the book have the same problem of presenting the character in an overly egocentric vacuum…. All the material is fascinating, but Schaeffer simply dangles it before our eyes as bait and doesn't develop any of it.

The second novella, The Queen of Egypt, begins as an interesting probe into the uselessness of extreme wealth and extreme beauty in a 20th century Brooklyn family who pretends to be living in 19th century England. During the first half of the story, relationships—or the lack of them—are intelligently and sensitively established….

The second half, however, is nothing but superficial political farce. I won't bore the reader with details; suffice it to say that here Schaeffer proves that, though capable of sensitivity and depth, her ultimate concern is with the trivial.

One would think that the short story form would give her a chance to make use of the trivial events of life, but the four short stories in section two, roughly fifteen pages each, are surprisingly careful character sketches—albeit each is a study of one character, while those the protagonist relates to are like cardboard figures moved about the stage-set to keep the drama properly paced. The main character in each story thus ends up seeming as self-centered and uncaring as the characters in the novellas do.

The third section, Parables, might better be called 'little mysteries'. With the exception of the first story, On The Nature of Plot, this section contains the most interesting writing in the book. My favorite, The Yglesias of Ignatius Livingstone Island, is an excellent portrayal of characters whose lives are controlled by superstition and family morality codes. Perhaps because this story is set in an environment alien to Schaeffer, she is able to transform trivialities into important symbolic events. The gothic air of mystery is sustained throughout, proving Schaeffer capable of excellent writing once she herself gets interested in the people she's writing about. (p. 11)

Rochelle Ratner, "'The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field' and 'The Queen of Egypt'," in The American Book Review (© 1981 by The American Book Review), Vol. 3, No. 2, January-February, 1981, pp. 10-11.

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