E(sther) M(asserman) Broner Essay - Critical Essays

Broner, E(sther) M(asserman)


Broner, E(sther) M(asserman) 1930–

Broner is an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor. Much of her fiction is written from a Jewish, feminist perspective. An innovative writer, Broner experiments with style and narrative voice in "Journal/Nocturnal" and with the epic form in A Weave of Women. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

James R. Frakes

I find much to admire in Mrs. Broner's "Journal/Nocturnal"—wit, honest poignancy, psychological accuracy, a daring attempt to combine the ancient subject of adultery with contemporary issues—but I sense a distortion of organic shape, an over-extension of emotional drive.

Mrs. Broner has further tortured the reader's response by choosing a most unusual format. The story is printed in two columns, one headed "Journal (the eye's mind)" and the other "Nocturnal (the mind's eye)." The "Journal" is written in the first person by an over-civilized wife and mother as a kind of open diary. The "Nocturnal" is told in the third person as secret revelation—presenting a problem in reading skills that not even McLuhan has considered.

Neither tricky nor self-indulgent, this device is nonetheless irritating and harmful to Mrs. Broner's striking talents, best illustrated in such more traditional short stories as "The Enemies" (an Arab salesman in a Jewish neighborhood infiltrated by Negroes), "The Schva" (a black woman's salty report of what it's like to be a guest at Jewish parties), and especially in the six-part "The New Nobility," which crackles with truth about the new concepts of honor and honesty of those under 30.

James R. Frakes, "Density Clarified: 'Journall Nocturnal'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1968, p. 56.

Adele Z. Silver

The title story in [Journal/Nocturnal and Seven Stories] could have been written only on an American college campus within the last few years. It is the story of an antiwar professor, called the Husband, and his unhappy Wife. He is heartsick over Vietnam, immersed in protest activities; she stuffs envelopes like a good helpmeet, but her heart is concerned with its private pains. Their friend, the Guest, not only is remote from protest politics but intellectually supports the war. The Guest moves in and wages his own guerrilla battles in the Wife's bedroom. He does even better than the Vietcong….

Whether the Wife is attracted more by the Guest's sexual agility or by his political rigidity is never made clear; both seem to refresh her equally. This new twist—the protesting professor as cuckold—could be rich material for a satirist, but E. M. Broner does not use it with any irony….

The topicality of the plot and the irritating namelessness of its characters smother the story's real artistic interest, the parched soul of the Wife. She is empty—"Her mind and days are full of unoccupied benches"—until the Guest invades her like a dybbuk. Then she is guilty, lustful, restless, separated finally from reality. The passages in "Nocturnal" where the Wife, in a third-person anguish, explores her spiritual unease are Mrs. Broner's successes. She has a supple style and handles poetic images more naturally than...

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Elizabeth Dalton

[The title story in "Journal/Nocturnal"], which is the best in the book, is formally extremely interesting, using a number of alienating devices to distance and control material that could conceivably, if handled otherwise, have produced the sudsy emotion of [a sentimental novel] about a woman's breakdown. The language is precise, grave, and rather formal; the division of the page also distances and stylizes, as though the story were looking at itself, with an effect of slight depersonalization, reproducing the heroine's sense of alienation and unreality. At moments of emotional crisis, the language often becomes consciously literary and artificial, and the result is a kind of tense and concentrated elegance of expression.

What is most impressive about "Journal/Nocturnal" is its translation of the public atmosphere generated by the war—the hatred and impotence and poisoned feeling—into a private emotional conflict. The allusions to contemporary events and figures—Saigon and Hue, Fanon and Bly, SDS and Dow Chemical—do not seem modish and reportorial, but rather like gravely approaching heralds of some inevitable disaster. (p. 72)

Elizabeth Dalton, "Books in Review: 'Journal/Nocturnal and Seven Stories'," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 47, No. 4, April, 1969, pp. 69-74.

Leah Napolin

In [Her Mothers,] the story of Beatrix Palmer, who "would know only heroic women," Broner has created a bitter, fearless, and uproariously funny work about the birth, nurturance, and rebirth of all women, about the shaping and misshaping of the people we are. It's a gentle book and yet a savage one, written in white heat as if demons were tweaking her funny bone. (p. 105)

Beatrix becomes a writer and researches the lives of women, both eminent and obscure … whose words inspire, but whose lives are abject lessons in self-defeat, or object lessons in survival. Survivors, Beatrix decides, will be her true mothers.

Beatrix picks and chooses carefully among her historical mothers … to capture the magic that controls destiny. But she fails tragically in relating to her own daughter. With the predictability of a genetic code, our parents maim us, we maim our children. When Lena runs away, Beatrix pursues her.

In episodic, kaleidoscopic fashion we follow Beatrix's journey….

The search takes Beatrix to Israel, land of Biblical matriarchs. As heroic role-models, the matriarchs are profoundly disillusioning. Broner's re-creation of the Genesis tales of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah is an outrageous, salutary marvel. Surely some demon must have perched upon the author's hand as she wrote of the Old Testament as the "Old Testicle."…

The gift for laughter and outrage allows Broner not only to put the wrongs of the past in perspective, but to reorder values determining the future….

At the end it is Lena who finds Beatrix, who seeks her out living in a Florida retirement home, who demands the final confrontation in this love-hate relationship. In a swimming scene of elemental terror, there emerges in Beatrix a momentary impulse to drown this demon flower child, and she almost does, but the tale ends on a note of reconciliation. Broner saves her best, which is very good indeed, for a moving and powerful climax. As only the greatest of brujas [sorcerers] can do, she has vanquished her demons. (p. 106)

Leah Napolin, "Demons Tweaking Her Funny Bone," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. V, No. 1, July, 1976, pp. 105-06.

John Leonard

"A Weave of Women" is an astonishment. E. M. Broner seeks nothing less than to achieve, in a kind of epic poem, a recapitulation of the rhythms of female consciousness. It is circular and sinuous and ceremonial. I know of nothing else quite like it….

Her 15 women do their weaving in a stone house in the Old City in Jerusalem in 1972….

We meet the women as a group before we are introduced to them as individuals, with their private stories. But even at the beginning, each voice is distinct, so that when it is finally matched with its story the effect is of intensification, proof, exegesis, a circle within the circle, almost a series of jazz riffs. The men, necessarily, are less distinct, they are peripheral to the circle, and often storyless. But they are particularized: the Arab student, the kibbutznik, the silk salesman, the despairing brother and the orthodox fanatic. They belong to the geography of the novel, not to its ideology.

And what a geography it is. One thinks: Of course, everything would have to start all over again in Jerusalem, with ideas of God and Africa and pure light…. Not the least of her many accomplishments is this sense of place, of fact and grit, on which the mysticism drapes itself….

Any novel as ambitious as "A Weave of Women" is equally vulnerable. As the women sit around inventing their ceremonies, it is possible for the reader to nod off or to...

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Jane Larkin Crain

[A Weave of Women] is set in modern Israel. In episodic fashion, through a combination of allegory, biblical allusions, impressionistic sketches of character and action, and a bit of straightforward storytelling, it deals with the exploits and tribulations of 12 women gathered together in a commune in the Old City of Jerusalem….

As Mrs. Broner's irksome enterprise proceeds, she demands that the reader accept a vision of Everywoman as shackled by the chains of cultural oppression, with an emphasis on the particular degradations she finds inherent in Jewish traditions…. Gynecologists, politicians, police move in and out of the novel, stick-figures in the author's overwrought fantasies about...

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E. M. Broner's A Weave of Women is an extraordinary novel, an original and beautiful work, musical in its conception, dreamlike in form, terrible, wonderful and haunting. (p. 481)

Each of the women has a different tale to tell, and the Leitmotifs for each run through the novel, woven into it like figures in a tapestry. (pp. 481-82)

Interwoven with the women's tales of crimes against them are their tales of present woes. They are at war with the sexism that is inherent in both the political and religious institutions of the state. They demonstrate against the government for its desire to close the home for wayward girls and they are beaten and jailed. But always they return to...

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