Jewish books: The Empire of the Senses probes Jewish identity in Weimar Germany

Posted on March 31, 2015


Alexis Landau’s cinematically descriptive, character-driven debut novel explores ethnic identity via an intermarried family in WWI and Weimar era Germany, i.e. before anti-Semitism became official state policy legally codifying ethnic definitions.” — from my New York Journal of Books review in which I praise the book as “handsomely written” as well as a “powerful and compelling novel.” My additional remarks and excerpts from the book, which appeared in a different and now defunct publication, begin with the next paragraph.

Jewish books: The Empire of the Senses probes Jewish identity in Weimar Germany

Where does acculturation end and assimilation begin? How do overlapping ethnic/religious and national identities on the one hand, and majority and minority cultures on the other, shape our individual identities? These are some of the issues Alexis Landau explores in the setting of an intermarried family in Germany in the second and third decades of the Twentieth Century (before the Nazis took power) in her debut novel The Empire of the Senses, which was published earlier this month by New York based publisher Pantheon, an imprint of Random House/Bertelsmann.

In my New York Journal of Books review I praise the book as “handsomely written” as well as a “powerful and compelling novel.” I also point out a few historical errors which can be viewed as rookie mistakes. The wealth of detail with which Landau describes Berlin in this period is impressive, but her knowledge of eastern Europe’s political geography between the wars is less reliable.

The family whose story the novel relates is the Perlmutters: Lev, the Jewish German husband and father whose family immigrated to Germany from southern Poland (then part of Austria-Hungary) when he was two; Josephine, the aristocratic Christian German wife and mother; and their children Franz and Vicki. The first third of the novel takes place during the First World War and describes Lev’s army service in Latvia with the occasional scene of Josephine and the kids back home in Berlin. The final two thirds takes place in Berlin in 1927-28 when Lev and Josephine’s marriage is in trouble and the young adult children each identify with his/her opposite gender parent.

Although the temporal setting predates Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933 and the Holocaust in the early 1940s, Landau foreshadows these with place names. When in 1914 Lev asks a fellow soldier where he’s from the man replies Dachau, the suburb of Munich where the famous concentration camp would be built 19 years later. When Vicki enjoys walks along the Wannsee lakefront in the 1920s knowledgable readers will associate the spot with the January 1942 Wannsee Conference where Nazi officials planned the Holocaust.

Later historic events are also called to mind by the activities of Nazi thugs in the 1920s, as when Lev, Josephine, and Vicki witness a young gentile woman having her head shaved for associating with a Jewish man.

“Lev glanced over at Josephine, standing on the other side of Vicki. She held her head high, staring impassively ahead, as if surmising the sunset or some other benign natural phenomenon. How did she not feel shattered by this? She, who had also committed the sin of loving a Jewish man, now gazed stonily at the poor girl. Perhaps she’s afraid too, Lev thought, and she’s trying to put on a strong front for Vicki, as I am. Or perhaps she’s oblivious to the implications of this, thinking it unfortunate but impersonal, as if witnessing a half-dead bird twitching on the side of the road before speeding by, already on to the next thought.”

Landau’s command of figurative language is also evident in this description of Josephine walking home from a bakery:

“Holding the bread to her chest, she made her way home, thinking of those dreamy winter afternoons, when the light looked as it did now, the crystalline blue of the sky slipping into a faded purple, as faint as a bruise.”

Sensory language such as this in part explains the novel’s title, which unfortunately is similar to and reminiscent of the titles of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s art house erotic movies In The Realm of the Senses (1976) and The Empire of Passion (1978). I conclude my NYJB review by recommending The Empire of the Senses to readers of literary historical fiction. See that review for a fuller discussion of the novel.

In an interview Landau said that one of this novel’s minor characters will be the protagonist of her next novel, which will be set in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s. I look forward to reading it and this talented author’s other future books.