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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1941. Education: Simmons College, Boston; University of Chicago, 1958-66, B.A. 1961, M.A. 1963, Ph.D. 1966. Career: Instructor in English, Wright Junior College, Chicago, 1964-65; instructor, 1965-66, and assistant professor of English, 1966-67, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. Assistant Professor, 1967-71, associate professor, 1972-74, since 1974 professor of English, and since 1985 Broeklundian Professor, Brooklyn College. Awards: Wallant award, 1975; O. Henry award, 1980; St. Lawrence award, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; Centennial Review award, for poetry, 1985. Agent: Janklow & Nesbit Associates, 598 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10022-1614, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Falling. New York, Macmillan, 1973.

Anya. New York, Macmillan, 1974; London, Cassell, 1976.

Time in Its Flight. New York, Doubleday, 1978.

Love. New York, Dutton, 1981.

First Nights. New York, Knopf, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

The Madness of a Seduced Woman. New York, Dutton, 1983;London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984.

Mainland. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, HamishHamilton, 1985.

The Injured Party. New York, St. Martin's Press, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1986.

Buffalo Afternoon. New York, Knopf, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989.

The Golden Rope. New York, Knopf, 1996.

The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat. New York, Knopf, 1997.

Short Stories

The Queen of Egypt. New York, Dutton, 1980.

Uncollected Short Stories

"In the Hospital and Elsewhere," in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), Winter 1981-82.

"Virginia; or, A Single Girl," in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), Fall 1983.

Poetry

The Witch and the Weather Report. New York, Seven Woods Press, 1972.

Granite Lady. New York, Macmillan, 1974.

The Rhymes and Runes of the Toad. New York, Macmillan, 1975.

Alphabet for the Lost Years. San Francisco, Gallimaufry, 1976.

The Red, White, and Blue Poem. Denver, The Ally, 1977.

The Bible of the Beasts of the Little Field. New York, Dutton, 1980.

Fiction (for children)

The Dragons of North Chittendon. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1986.

The Four Hoods and Great Dog. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

*

Critical Studies:

Jewish American Women Writers by Dorothy Bilik, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995.

* * *

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's novels, spanning sixteen years, are basically mainstream fictions that employ stream of consciousness, radical time shifts, and other modernist techniques, but only incidentally. Apparently she believes that the traditional form is adequate to her purposes, and she is right in so thinking. Schaeffer is mainly interested in exploring and illuminating the shapes of her characters' lives through presentation of the mundane details of their existences. Although she sometimes has her characters move through the larger contexts of historical times, and although she often offers elaborate explanations for behavior, her main strengths as a novelist are her ability to evoke the real quality of quotidian life and the particularities of emotional states.

Falling, Schaeffer's first novel, contains all her strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It is the story of Elizabeth Kamen, a graduate-school Jewish intellectual who suffers several near mental breakdowns, who has unfailingly bad judgment about the men in her life, and whose life is largely determined by her family background. In this and subsequent novels, the lives of characters are traced through their often harrowing childhoods which permanently stamp their personalities. As a child, Elizabeth had stolen a quarter to buy a doll, which her mother and grandmother demolished then hung on the wall to remind Elizabeth of her "crime." This and other accounts, including events from her present life, are woven together in sessions with her psychiatrist. The aim is to arrest her falling and to get control of her life which, like others characters' lives, suffers from various kinds of slippage. But the human condition is to fall because, as Elizabeth's mother says in Elizabeth's dream. "There is no bottom, there is only this falling," only motion and journey, as opposed to stasis and goal. Elizabeth's mother also asks, "Can you swim, Elizabeth?" "Yes, Mother, if you hold, I'll kick."

However, as a narrative Falling suffers from a peculiar stasis. The story is a series of vignettes or anecdotes that do not make up a single, satisfying narrative framework. This is not principally due to Schaeffer's abandoning traditional narrative technique; rather, the episodes are disjointed and without flow. As in other novels, characters are introduced only to show up later, after the reader has forgotten them; adding to the diffuseness that characterizes the entire novel. Yet the strengths of Falling remain. Schaeffer's skill as a poet saves many of the scenes; vivid images and descriptions help give the novel a heightened sense of life.

In Anya Schaeffer again concentrates on the incidental, even minute aspects of dailiness that are presented with the quality of a personal diary. The novel chronicles the life of Anya, a young Jewish woman in Poland, from the mid-1930s up to the present. Though the novel is partly set during the holocaust years, it is not really about the holocaust (descriptions of life before the Hitler years are among the most compelling in the novel), but about Anya whose life intersects, but is not principally affected by, social events of the time. Schaeffer almost always selects family history as more determinative of character and personality than culture or history. Again, life is the accretion of small things. Anya says, "If you are going to learn a person's life, then, like learning a language, you must start with the little things, the little pictures, the tiny, square images, like rooms, that will grow into a film." To this must be added all of Anya's personal history, from naive, happy student to tough survivor in contemporary America. And Anya always draws on her former lives for strength, so the reader—more so than in Falling—experiences a more multi-dimensional character. It should be added that at the time Schaeffer was writing Anya, American-born Jewish novelists were more concerned with American social history than with the formation of a "Jewishness" as a response to the death camps and the World War II years. One thinks immediately of Bellow, say, as opposed to a writer like Cynthia Ozick. Now, of course, the holocaust has become an almost fashionable subject.

Love again details the potent, permanent effects of family and married lives, as opposed to culture and history. Esheal Luria is abandoned at the age of ten by his widowed mother after he has been rejected by his stepfather. He is rescued by a mysterious "zenshima" (witch) whose memory haunts him through adulthood and is in part responsible for his wanting, from childhood, "to find an American woman and take care of her." Despite the fact that the novel is a saga of two Jewish immigrant families, the ultimate determinant is, as Luria's wife Emily puts it, the fact that we are "only a new step in the continuing dance … of the genes." Resembling at times an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale, Anya gains its strength through evocative detail, even the oddities of life lived away from the sweep of events. Emily's mother speaks for Schaeffer: "I remember all those things, but now I don't like to save odd things. They take you over, all those books, cards, litter and pictures. They keep accumulating and it becomes a chore to sort them out and they pile up until they overwhelm you and then you get rid of them all."

As though trying to escape the influence of Emily's mother's words, The Madness of a Seduced Woman is Schaeffer's attempt to understand a single life as compounded of personal history, woman's biology, psychiatry, and community standards. The novel is based on an actual murder trial in Vermont early in the century in which Agnes Dempster is tried for the murder of her rival and pronounced insane, largely on psychiatric testimony that Agnes's insanity resulted from "the madness of a seduced woman." However, Schaeffer does not accept this judgment and painstakingly examines her motives (reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates) as seen through the speculations of lawyers, friends, and her father. No firm conclusions are reached, except that no life may be understood exclusively by objective or subjective means. This process of examination is often numbing, especially since Agnes's life is more complicated than understood. Schaeffer, in this novel, does not allow the character's life to speak for itself; analyses and comment are often substituted for dramatization and the tale itself as an adequate vehicle for meaning.

Mainland, is in many ways a return to her more lighthearted first novel and to a less complex tale, whose theme is maturity. Eleanor, the main character, is a famous writer and professor, basically happy but almost obsessed by the moralistic voices of her dead grandmother and mother. The novel, comically delightful, avoids the diffuseness of much of her earlier work. The theme is expertly handled and the characterization fully realized. Before the novel's end Elizabeth realizes that her adulterous affair was necessary, so she forgives herself, realizing along the way that the dialogues in her head are only carry-overs from childhood and that "maturity" is a false ideal. Schaeffer demonstrates here that a less ambitious theme does not necessarily preclude a higher art.

—Peter Desy

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