Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg 1941–
Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg 1941–
PERSONAL: Born March 25, 1941, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Irving (a clothing manufacturer) and Edith (Levine) Fromberg; married Neil Jerome Schaeffer (a college English professor), October 11, 1970; children: Benjamin Adam, May Anna. Education: Attended Simmons College; University of Chicago, B.A., 1961, M.A. (with honors), 1963, Ph.D. (with honors), 1966. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY 11210. Agent—Timothy Seldes, Russell & Volkening, Inc., 50 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Novelist and poet. Wright Junior College, Chicago, IL, instructor in English, 1963–64; Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, assistant professor of English, 1964–67; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, assistant professor, 1967–73, associate professor, 1973–75, professor of English, 1975–, Broeklundian Professor of English, 1985–. Guest lecturer at University of Chicago, Cornell University, University of Arizona, and University of Maine. Has given readings of work at Yale University, University of Massachusetts, University of Texas, University of Houston, and other universities.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Poetry Society of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edward Lewis Wallant Award, 1974, and Friends of Literature Award, both for Anya; National Book Award nomination, 1974, for Granite Lady; O. Henry Award, 1977, for "The Exact Nature of the Plot"; Lawrence Award, Prairie Schooner, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984–85; Centennial Review award for poetry, 1985.
The Witch and the Weather Report (poetry), Seven Woods Press, 1972.
Falling (novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1973.
Anya (novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1974.
Granite Lady (poetry), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1974.
The Rhymes and Runes of the Toad (poetry), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1975.
Alphabet for the Lost Years (poetry), Gallimaufry, 1976.
The Red, White, and Blue Poem, Ally Press, 1977.
Time in Its Flight (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.
The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field (poetry), Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.
The Queen of Egypt (short fiction), Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.
Love (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.
The Madness of a Seduced Woman (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1983.
Mainland (novel), Linden Press, 1985.
The Dragons of North Chittendon (children's novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1986.
The Injured Party (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Buffalo Afternoon (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
First Nights (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
The Golden Rope (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
The Snow Fox (novel), Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of critical articles to numerous periodicals, including Centennial Review, Modern Fiction Studies, Great Ideas Today, London Review of Books, and New York Times.
ADAPTATIONS: The film rights to The Madness of a Seduced Woman have been purchased.
SIDELIGHTS: Although highly respected for both her poetry and shorter pieces of fiction, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is perhaps more widely known for her novels. As Elizabeth Ward observed in the Washington Post Book World, Schaeffer is "a born storyteller, with a rare ability to transport the reader bodily into her various fictional worlds, all criticism suspended. [She has a] genuinely original voice, at once light, versatile, stylish and informed by a sharp eye and ear for the life-giving detail." Sybil S. Steinberg added in Publishers Weekly that reading Schaeffer's novels "is rather like falling into a time warp and experiencing events through total immersion in the mind of the protagonist. So carefully does she build character, so meticulously does she convey details of time and place and social mores that one wonders with each new novel if the author is writing autobiography in the guise of fiction."
Schaeffer's first novel, Falling, was very well received by critics, and its author was hailed as a novelist with much promise. In Falling the reader watches a young Jewish graduate student, Elizabeth Kamen, as she slowly rises from a near-suicidal existence to a hopeful future; a Time reviewer called Falling "the blunt but quietly humorous story of a New York girl who lifts herself out of depression by her own pantyhose." Wayne C. Booth stated in the New York Times Book Review: "I love this novel—first reading, second reading, browsing…. [Elizabeth's] 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." And Pearl K. Bell wrote in the New Leader that Schaeffer "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…. Falling is at once poignant, hilarious and luminous."
In Falling, as in many of her subsequent works, Schaeffer effectively and dramatically uses the narrative voice to draw the reader deeper into the plot. As Cynthia MacDonald explained in a review for the Washington Post Book World: Schaeffer "is a fine storyteller. You care about her characters and want to know what is going to happen next…. Description functions as a part of character so it is never extraneous, never like those paste wedding cake decorations, something to remove before eating." In his review of Falling Booth remarked that the reader remains "engaged with remarkable intensity in this young woman's fight for a life of her own; somehow … 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, in acceptance of all that has been done against her and all that she has done to destroy herself."
Schaeffer's second novel, Anya, explores the plight of a Jewish woman trying to survive in a turbulent era. The book begins in the 1930s and takes Anya through the Nazi massacre of Jews in Poland up to the present day in America. As such, maintained Judith Thurman in a review for Ms., Anya "is one of the few 'Holocaust' novels to begin long enough before the war to give us a full, material sense of what was lost." D.A. Parente similarly believed Anya is unique because it transforms the "reader into a totally involved participant." In a Best Sellers review Parente wrote: "Anya, the narrator, becomes of course our most intimate acquaintance and those to whom she is the closest … are portrayed in depth…. This novel is a thoroughly worthwhile experience on all levels—moral, psychological, social, historical, and artistic…. It is perhaps, however, the final tribute to Mrs. Schaeffer's artistry that she has created a life experience so realistic and convincing that we can only believe at the end that it is a reproduction of a historical life."
In the Washington Post Book World, Mary Richie similarly commented that in Anya, "A writer of remarkable power … has taken on the biggest moral questions, made us see the Holocaust anew as if we had never heard of it." Continued the critic: "Anya unfolds before us like a superb film, so detailed it seems many minds and hands must have gone into decorating the set, clothing the performers, and detailing the dialogue. It is like a makimono, those narrative scrolls to be unrolled slowly from one ivory cylinder to another so that the panoramic story is experienced image by image, as it was envisioned. It is a vision, set down by a fearless, patient poet, a fabulist who knows that whatever is created never dies, that it is truly good to see and tell."
Just as with Falling, many reviewers have credited Schaeffer's powerful characterization aided by the use of a convincing narrative voice for making Anya especially moving. Thurman believed that "the compelling horror of the [Holocaust] 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." Thurman commented further: "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."
Another of Schaeffer's historical novels, Time in Its Flight, is a family saga set in nineteenth-century New England that covers several generations over more than a hundred years. As Clifton Fadiman wrote in the Book-of-the-Month Club News magazine, in Time in Its Flight "Schaeffer contrives to turn time backward in its flight, to give us the feeling, the shape of a whole stubborn Yankee rural culture. This she manages not merely through vivid details of manners and dress, but by an extraordinary photographic genius. These are real voices, dozens of them, using the idiom of their time and place, but always colored by a precise notation of individuality. In a way we do not read this book. We hear it, or overhear it."
Webster Schott, however, remarked in the New York Times Book Review that 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." "Schaeffer has a teeming imagination, and scatters ideas, anecdotes, and descriptions with a prodigal hand," Lynne Sharon Schwartz commented in Saturday Review. "Unfortunately, only a portion of these contribute to any formal design or movement. Similarly, Schaeffer's attempt to render a photographic reality of affectionate family life yields tedium." In contrast, a reviewer for the New Yorker wrote that "the abundant dialogue and reminiscences are entertaining and informative. Articulate women abound … and Mrs. Schaeffer manages to keep her characters and readers curious about what the future has in store for them."
As Cynthia MacDonald observed of Time in Its Flight, however, Schaeffer's saga is perhaps too all-encompassing to be entirely successful. Explained the critic in the Washington Post Book World: the author's "ambition is to incorporate a whole world, take it into the body of the novel and into each character. Much of the ambition is realized, much in the novel is wonderful, but there is too much. More shaping, more order, more discarding were needed. Yet I would say read this book; Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is a good enough writer to make even a flawed book worth reading."
Schaeffer's fourth novel, Love, is the story of two generations of Jewish families, the Lurias and the Romanoffs, beginning with events in Russia and ending with a new life in America. Susanne Freeman wrote in the Washington Post of Love that the novelist "takes us trudging through Russian snows, dancing through Jewish weddings, noshing in Brooklyn kitchens. She gives us childbirth, divorce and nightmares that come true. She serves up murder, pogroms and talking dogs. This can all be pretty steamy stuff—the thick soup of family life in a story that spans a hundred years—but Schaeffer is too clever for that. Family sagas are her specialty, and she knows just how to spoon them out—in short dream passages as thin as broth, followed by meatier scenes, just dense and sweet enough to make us wish for more."
Love also met with mixed reviews similar to those of Time in Its Flight. Dorothy Wickenden, for instance, remarked in Saturday Review that "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." Nevertheless, critics once again praised Schaef-fer's skillful use of the narrative voice. For example, Lore Dickstein remarked in the New York Times Book Review that "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, and ironic comment."
The idea behind Schaeffer's next book, The Madness of a Seduced Woman, germinated for almost twenty years before the author wrote a novel concerning, as she once explained, "the spectacle of a body gone to war with the mind." While doing research for Time in Its Flight, Schaeffer came across five newspaper articles describing the murder trial of a woman accused of killing another woman after discovering they were both engaged to the same man. Following the shooting, the young woman attempted suicide, but failed and was put on trial for her crime. As the author recalled to a contributor to Publishers Weekly: "I thought then: what an awful fate, that no matter what she did to herself she was destined to go on living. And that led me to speculate about any usual person finding happiness in life, especially one with an obsessive determination to change the nature of reality. And the seductive possibility of being able to visualize a better world than the one you were given by birth or inheritance."
Julie Greenstein wrote in Ms. that The Madness of a Seduced Woman, "set at the turn of the [twentieth] century in New England, possesses the subtle allure of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Beautifully constructed and intelligently written, Madness is a Gothic tale of romance, passion, and oddly enough, feminism." Mary Kathleen Benet commented in the Times Literary Supplement that Schaeffer "has written not so much a novel as an example of the sort of novel women really ought to be reading." And Edmund White remarked in his Nation review that "at the heart of the novel beats the fibrillating pulse of an obsession…. Many books (trashy ones) blandly accept the genre of romantic fiction without a pause—they repeat every cliche. But serious books, such as this honest, intelligent novel, re-examine the cliches by observing even the most hackneyed situations with a deeper, more powerful vision." The Madness of a Seduced Woman "is much more complex and satisfying than its romantic plot suggests," Rosellen Brown likewise stated in the New York Times Book Review. "Schaeffer's earnest exploration of questions of mind versus body, family history versus personal freedom, does distance her novel from the common run of good reads about the travails of beautiful wantons. But in the end, the story of Agnes, who 'would love the world if she didn't have to live in it,' is an absorbing, wonderfully inventive psychological tale of a woman imagined as we would never dare, or want, to be."
Schaeffer's novel Mainland tells the story of Eleanor, a forty-six-year-old college professor who, after undergoing cataract surgery, takes a look at her seemingly happy marriage and family and decides she is no longer content with her life. After embarking on an affair with her Chinese chauffeur, Eleanor begins to undergo a slow transformation and finds real happiness at last. As Susan Allen Toth asked in her review for the New York Times Book Review: "Who wants to read another novel about an upper-middle-class New York City wife, unhappy despite (or because of) her prosperous husband and bright, healthy children?… In bare outline, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Mainland sounds tediously familiar. But this short, lilting novel offers many delightful surprises, not only in its underlying optimism but in its fresh, funny and often poetic prose." While Alice Kavounas reported in the Times Literary Supplement that "it's debatable whether the author intended Mainland to be more than the enjoyable read it is," she also pointed out that Schaeffer "keeps the pace of the narrative lively" and "endows her central character with [a] special brand of self-deprecating wit."
Schaeffer takes on a difficult subject and an unconventional one for a female writer in Buffalo Afternoon. It is the story of Pete Bravado, an Italian-American youth who becomes a combat soldier in Vietnam. Narrated by both Bravado and Li, a Vietnamese girl who eventually mothers the American's child, it is a haunting tale told without the cloud of politics. Buffalo Afternoon received mixed reviews from critics, Elizabeth Becker writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the novel is inferior due to its lack of political analysis. Schaeffer "tells Bravado's story as if documents such as 'The Pentagon Papers' did not exist; as if Gen. William C. Westmoreland had not written 'A Soldier Reports' to give his side of the story; as if there were no way to get at the answers behind the war." Conversely, Nicholas Proffitt in the New York Times Book Review hailed the book as "one of the best treatments of the Vietnam War to date, and all the more impressive for the fact that its author never heard a shot fired in anger or set foot in that country." Proffitt, who served as a Newsweek correspondent in Vietnam, found Schaeffer's prose "evocative, often haunting," but cited in particular "the details that ultimately convince. All the Vietnam material is authentic." Jack Fuller in Chicago's Tribune Books also praised Schaeffer's "rich rendering of realistic detail. She is anything but a minimalist. Her stories proceed through the accumulation of vivid incident and description, through the presentation of conversation and internal states of mind. Hers are not tight, shapely narratives. They sprawl like a landscape, like the passage of time." Yet Fuller also noted that Schaeffer slips as she takes Bravado into a lengthy hallucinatory episode at the end: "so long and elaborate that it violates the basic terms of the relationship she has established with the reader." She returns the reader to more solid footing by the end of the novel, causing Fuller to conclude: "It is a relief to return to the daylight world, but a shame to have left it at all."
The protagonists of Schaeffer's novel First Nights, are a Swedish actress modeled after Greta Garbo, and the ac-tress's West Indian housekeeper. "'Inspired' by Garbo is not really the right word, though, 'totally based on, down to the smallest detail' might be a better description," argued Robert Plunket in the New York Times Book Review. The actress, Anna, and the housekeeper, Ivy, have nothing in common at first glance, but over the fifteen years of their relationship, the reader views the parallels between them. As Plunket continued: First Nights "is beautifully and gracefully written with many of its stories delightful to read, but it lacks dramatic tension." This, Plunket argued, is due to the Garbo character: "The problems faced by the most beautiful woman in the world are not the sort that trouble the average reader, and it is not until the conclusion of the book, in an ending both effective and affecting, that Anna becomes a real human being." Susan Issacs, writing for the Chicago Tribune Books, had a similar comment, calling the novel "quite long, and there is too much of Anna being the melancholy Swede." Issacs found the ending "satisfying," however, and commented that "Here, Schaeffer draws together all her motifs with elegance and ease. It is a moment of first-rate art, but it is a moment that has been too long in coming." Pam Houston, reviewing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, noted of the novel that there are "moments when I believed First Nights could have been 100 pages shorter and equally successful." Regardless, she praised Schaeffer's efforts, calling the book "honest and wise" and adding that "what it takes on is so huge and all encompassing that I am more than willing to indulge the author's excess. First Nights dances, strong and gracefully, on the philosophical boundaries between words and silence."
Because of her insightful and sensitive treatment of much of her subject matter and the background of many of her main characters, many critics have described Schaeffer as a "Jewish-American writer." As William Novack explained in the New York Times Book Review, changing literary trends in the later twentieth century "reflect … 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." According to Novack, Schaef-fer's Anya in particular is "a perhaps unintentional part of this phenomenon" that "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."
Although many of her characters are Jewish, Schaeffer takes issue with reviewers labeling her as a "Jewish-American writer." As she explained to interviewer Harold U. Ribalow in The Tie That Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers, "Partly the reason I wouldn't call myself a Jewish writer is because I'm not trying deliberately to write on Jewish themes." According to Susan Kress in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, while Schaeffer's "primary concerns are not Jewish themes and Jewish identity…. Nevertheless, her Jewish identity is important …; in her own words, she regards her Jewishness as 'like the wallpaper in every room [she has] ever been in.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 22, 1982.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Ribalow, Harold U., editor, The Tie That Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers, A.S. Barnes, 1980.
American Book Review, January-February, 1981.
Antioch Review, fall, 1981.
Best Sellers, October 1, 1974, review of Anya.
Booklist, August, 1986, p. 1694; May 1, 1996, review of The Golden Rope, p. 1470.
Book-of-the-Month Club News, July, 1978, review of Time in Its Flight.
Chicago Tribune Book World, January 27, 1980, review of Love; May 3, 1981; April 17, 1983.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1986, p. 1154.
Library Journal, September 15, 1974; June 15, 1978, review of Time in Its Flight.
London Review of Books, November 20, 1986, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1983; August 20, 1985.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 15, 1981; June 11, 1989, p. 1; May 30, 1993, Pam Houston, review of First Nights, p. 249.
Ms., March, 1975; November, 1975; February, 1980, review of Love; July, 1983.
Nation, July 9-16, 1983.
New Leader, August 6, 1973.
New Yorker, July 31, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1973, Wayne C. Booth, review of Falling; July 14, 1974, review of Anya; October 20, 1974; March 20, 1975; May 18, 1975; August 13, 1978, review of Time in Its Flight; February 24, 1980, Lore Dickstein, review of Love; January 11, 1981; May 22, 1983; July 8, 1984; July 7, 1985; November 16, 1986, p. 15; May 21, 1989, p. 7; December 15, 1991, p. 32; May 30, 1993, Robert Plunket, review of First Nights, p. 21.
Open Places, fall, 1975–76.
Partisan Review, fall, 1973, review of Falling.
Poetry, July, 1975.
Prairie Schooner, fall, 1977.
Publishers Weekly, April 8, 1983; June 27, 1986, p. 91; March 10, 1989, p. 75; May 6, 1996, review of The Golden Rope, p. 69.
Saturday Review, June 24, 1978, review of Time in Its Flight; January, 1981.
Time, July 18, 1973; December 31, 1973; October 14, 1974.
Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 1984; January 17, 1986.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 7, 1989, p. 1; May 2, 1993, review of First Nights, p. 6.
Washington Post, January 26, 1981; October 17, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, August 11, 1974; November 17, 1974; June 18, 1978; February 3, 1980; June 12, 1983; April 18, 1983.