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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, 1940–2011

The American Jewish novelist Susan Fromberg Schaeffer died last Friday in Chicago. The cause of death was complications from a stroke.

Perhaps best known for Anya, her 1974 “Holocaust novel,” Fromberg Schaeffer ought to be better known for her variety, the diversity of her talents, her refusal to plow the same postage stamp of earth over and and over again. She wrote twelve novels, and only rarely wrote about the same subject twice. She wrote about the rural culture of 19th-century New England, Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S., a woman who murdered her romantic rival, the Vietnam war, Greta Garbo and her West Indian housekeeper, a lecherous poet who drives two of his wives to suicide. And in addition to six volumes of poetry, she also wrote autobiographical novels about academic women who battled depression and professional discontent.

Fromberg Schaeffer spent her entire working life in the university. After earning all three degrees at the University of Chicago (her 1966 PhD dissertation was on form and theme in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, “the most intellectual novelist to write in English since James Joyce,” as she described him), she took a teaching job at Brooklyn College, where she met her husband Neil J. Schaeffer (author of a 1999 biography of the Marquis de Sade). They had two children, a boy and a girl, and remained married until her death.

The daughter of a wholesale clothier, Fromberg Schaeffer was born in Brooklyn on March 25, 1941. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and on Long Island. Her family had emigrated from Russia two generations earlier. Although she was bashful about describing herself as a Jewish writer (“I’m not trying deliberately to write on Jewish themes,” she said in an interview), she wrote two Jewish-themed novels — Love (1980), a multigenerational saga of a Jewish immigrant family, and Anya.

Anya was one of the first fictional treatments of the Holocaust to find anything like a popular audience. Before its appearance, Edward Lewis Wallant in The Pawnbroker (1961) and Saul Bellow in Mr Sammler’s Planet (1971) had summoned the Nazi war against the Jews to serve as the dramatic background to a survivor’s struggles with postwar American freedom. (Her most direct predecessor, Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva, which also sought to filter the mass destruction through the consciousness of a single girl, had disappeared from American literature by 1974.) Anya is a story of enduring the Holocaust, from assimilation in comfortable circumstances in Warsaw to the burden of surviving death in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, narrated from within the events. Fromberg Schaeffer’s advantage was the very distance from Jewish tradition that she was so honest in acknowledging. As Alan L. Mintz said in his astute review for COMMENTARY, Fromberg Schaeffer’s “universalist perspective” gave her the resources to

illuminate a neglected and troubling aspect of the Holocaust: the fact that vast numbers of Jews, many more than we like to think in our idealizations of the six million, faced the extermination camps with little idea of why they were there and even less of the role they were being forced to play in a millennial Jewish drama.

This is not in any way to fault Fromberg Schaeffer, nor to minimize her achievement. She was candid about not being an observant Jew. And though Wayne C. Booth compared her early in her career to Cynthia Ozick, she represented a different Jewish literary strategy entirely. Where Ozick abandoned the religion of art for Jewish learning, Fromberg Schaeffer remained unshakably committed to the literary ideal. She lived by writing.

At least that’s how I came to know her. While an undergraduate at Santa Cruz, I founded a literary magazine with Raymond Carver that was called Quarry. An ad soliciting manuscripts in the New York Review of Books brought in nearly as many envelopes as John Payne dumps before the bench in Miracle on 34th Street. Among them were poems by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer — not quite good enough to publish, but good enough to ask for more. She gladly complied with our request, and complied again after the next encouraging rejection, and again after the next. She never gave up. And over time I came to admire her a great deal. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer was probably not a great novelist, but she was and is the kind of writer upon whom a living literature depends — hard-working, indefatigable, utterly devoted to the life of words.

Update: Here is a tender and grateful personal memoir by Fromberg Schaeffer’s former student Edward Byrne, who blogs on American poetry at One Poet’s Notes.


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