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The Löbmann Family, German, 1916. (Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Liz Lawley via Flickr)

Picking up a book with the lush title The Empire of the Senses, you probably wouldn’t guess that it was a historical novel about German Jews in the early 20th century. Given the inevitable conclusion of any such story in the Holocaust, a title with words like “darkness” or “shadow” or “fate” might seem more appropriate. But in her richly appointed debut novel, Alexis Landau deliberately defies such expectations. Life at any time and place, her title and her prose seem to say, is full of sensual beauty, if you choose to live it that way and write about it that way. And her book functions as a kind of extended séance, conjuring up the look and feel of experiences from the glamorous—a decadent party in Weimar Berlin—to the arduous—a field hospital on the Eastern Front. Here, for instance, is Lev Perlmutter, the novel’s hero, visiting a miracle-working rabbi in Lithuania:

They entered into a plain room with one window looking out onto a courtyard. The air was cold and blue. It seemed as if no one was here, but behind a wooden desk sat the wonder-rabbi. He had black hair, a black beard sprinkled with white, and gray uncertain eyes. His long bony face reminded Lev of an El Greco painting, along with his delicate hands and tapered fingers and papery white skin. A slight flush animated his cheeks, which only made the rest of his face appear paler.

Realism, for Landau, means careful accumulation of visual and tactile detail: In scene after scene, settings and objects and people are described in meticulous and usually attractive terms. The empire of the senses, we come to realize, is not a place or even an epoch but a way of writing. This style, which as James Wood has pointed out descends ultimately from the once-innovative realism of Flaubert, is beautiful in a conventional way—as opposed to the very different kind of beauty found in, say, Dickens or Bellow, where language is stirred up and made turbidly metaphorical.

The advantage of Landau’s style is that it is cinematic—we can see everything as if on a screen, and indeed it would be easy to imagine The Empire of the Senses adapted as a movie. The disadvantage is that it is seldom surprising: When she describes a scene, it is usually by enumerating details that seem to belong there already. Take, for instance, a moment midway through the book when Lev, now returned from service in the war and acclimated to civilian life, goes for a haircut:

The green quiet of the room settled over them. Lev listened to the faint buzzing of the fly, the fan whooshing overhead, the scissor blades sluicing through hair, the scratchy sound of the razor gliding down lathered chins, and the razor then dunking into the soapy water, tapping melodiously against the porcelain bowl.

These details, each one crisply captured, are all already latent in the simple mention of a haircut: They are what we ourselves would imagine if we thought carefully about what a haircut sounds like. Description, for Landau, expands into a catalog rather than contracting into a metaphor, and this expansion is what creates the fictional illusion of realism. As a way of writing about the past, it works from the surface downward: If we can imagine what life looked like then, Landau suggests, we can imagine what it felt like.

In the tradition of sweeping family sagas, The Empire of the Senses follows the fate of the Perlmutters over two generations, from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 until the late 1920s. Accordingly, the novel divides into two parts. The first is centered on Lev Perlmutter, a prosperous and highly assimilated Berlin Jew, as he enlists in the German Army and serves on the Eastern Front. He feels compelled to join up, in large part to prove that his Jewishness is no obstacle to his patriotism—a feeling shared by many German Jews of his generation. In particular, he needs prove himself to his wife, Josephine, a Christian from an aristocratic family whose disdain for him has never been concealed. War gives him the chance to prove himself as a man, in ways traditionally forbidden to Jews: “Jews don’t hunt, he remembered his mother saying. Nor do they ride horses, sail, swim, fight in duels, or drink. And he remembered thinking: What do Jews do then? All the valiant heroic activities were reserved for gentiles.”

But Lev is far from a martial figure, and he ends up stationed behind the lines, doing administrative work at an outpost in Mitau, a village in Lithuania. There he is forced to reexamine his Jewish heritage when he encounters the Jews in the German-occupied village—particularly Leah, a beautiful woman whom Landau describes in perhaps excessively enraptured detail (e.g., “her breasts were two luminous orbs”). Leah clearly represents a kind of passionate Jewish homecoming, in sharp contrast to the pale, fussy, sexually withholding Josephine, and their relationship proceeds in tandem with Lev’s return to his Jewish roots.

When, inevitably, Lev has to return home, the memory of Leah looms over his postwar life, which seems shrunken and artificial by contrast. The Empire of the Senses really comes into its own in its second half, when the canvas broadens from Lev himself to include Josephine, and their children Franz and Vicki, as full-fledged characters. Now Landau can explore the glamour and danger of Weimar Germany, in its many forms: Josephine undergoes the new-fangled treatment of psychoanalysis, Franz gets caught up in the Nazi brownshirt movement, and Vicki delights in the freedom of the flapper. Landau’s thorough research provides a sturdy basis for these inventions, only occasionally becoming obtrusive.

For German Jews, the period Landau writes about was an Indian summer. Never were they more prosperous or seemingly accepted; under the democratic Weimar regime, Jews made great strides in law, academia, medicine, and business. Yet there are plenty of signs of trouble on the horizon, from the “Jewish census” conducted during World War I to make sure Jews weren’t slacking in their military duty, to the postwar street battles involving young members of the SA, the Nazi militia. Knowing what is to come, the reader feels the full portentousness of the scene where Lev and family, driving home from a trip to the country, stop over in Nuremburg, a Nazi stronghold, and see a spectacle in progress: A young woman is having her head shaved as punishment for relations with a Jewish man.

To the Perlmutters themselves, however, the meaning of the scene is hard to interpret. Indeed, it brings to the fore the basic cleavage that divides the four of them into two hostile camps. While Lev responds with fear and dread (“witnessing such a disgrace brought bile into his throat, made him want to retch on his shoes”), Josephine brushes it off as a trivial, meaningless episode, “as if witnessing a half-dead bird twitching on the side of the road before speeding by, already on to the next thought.” It doesn’t seem to occur to her that she, too, could be attacked for marrying a Jew—perhaps because she is so detached from Lev, now that she is romantically obsessed with her unorthodox, and impeccably Aryan, analyst.

For the younger generation, Jewishness proves to be just as important a dividing line. Vicki, who has fallen in love with an ardent young Zionist named Geza and is contemplating aliyah, is learning to embrace the Jewish heritage she had grown up knowing little about. Franz, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to conceal his Jewishness, now that he has been swept up in the Nazi movement. His motivation, however, is less ideological than romantic: Despite himself, he is in love with his best friend, a cold and sadistic brute, and Nazism offers him a way to camouflage and sublimate his homosexuality.

The novel moves slowly, more interested in evocation than narrative suspense, but by the end of the second half Landau has built up to a fraught climax. Will Franz allow Vicki to marry Geza, thus exposing his own Jewishness for all to see, or will he use violence to stop them? Will Lev find a way to reunite with Leah after so many years? And how will all these characters fare during the cataclysm that is about to destroy their world? The resolution Landau offers is not exactly sunny, but it is not nearly as terrible as it might have been—and as it was for the majority of real-life Perlmutters. Even so, the destruction of their world makes Landau’s evocation of its fleeting beauty all the more poignant.

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