Tuesday, March 31, 2015

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

"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.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Israeli books: Five Selves explores five inner lives

“...recommended to readers who enjoy interior prose and psychological literary fiction.” -- from my review of Five Selves by Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein in New York Journal of Books. My additional remarks and excerpts from the book that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

Israeli books: Five Selves explores five inner lives

Five Selves, a book of five short stories and the first fiction book by Israeli humanities scholar Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein published last month by British publisher Holland House Books, explores the psyches of five characters, three of whom are nameless and female, while the two with names are male. Perhaps the three female protagonists represent different sides of the author, or maybe not.

In my New York Journal of Books review I recommend Five Selves “to readers who enjoy interior prose and psychological literary fiction.” All five characters are ill at ease in their social environments. Some seem to be temperamentally outside the mainstream, introverts in an even more extroverted society (Israel) than America, though the first one we meet is in mourning and the last is hospitalized after a traffic accident and suffering from amnesia, extreme conditions that tell us little of what they are normally like.

The first character has the most personal voice of the five and like the author is an academic who has lost her father. Going straight from the shiva to an overseas scholarly conference, in her bereavement she lacks the strength to shake loose her clingy, also mourning, misery-loves-company host and explore the foreign city on her own. Back in her hotel room she recalls her father in his final illness:

“Unconscious, surrounded by endless tubes, he seemed like a complete stranger, and it was impossible to recognize the man that he was. His vital, sharp expression was replaced by a deep coma, and my attempts to trace the familiar features were futile. It seemed to me that a terrible mistake was taking place here, and we were all gathered around the bed of another old man, a stranger, to witness his death. By his body you could tell he had reached a very old age—apparently he ate very little in his last years since he was skinny, and the tone of his face was grayish, almost silver, creating the notion that he was already in the process of passing to another world. Wrapped in a hospital robe, tubes and needles piercing his thin body, the dreary light of the hospital didn’t bother him at all, and he was entirely indifferent to the loud whistles of the machine inserting oxygen into his lungs.”

The characters in the other stories include a young woman who identifies more with her immigrant grandmother than with her Sabra mother, a rigidly neurotic teacher, and a boy who must overcome an irrational fear of dogs. The young woman and the teacher are old-school and at odds with their more modern peers, while the boy has a clearly defined disorder which he gradually learns to overcome in what is the most hopeful of the five stories.

But from the hopeful end of the penultimate story we are cast into the despair of the last one whose protagonist like the first character’s father lies helpless in a hospital room:

“If I could, I would escape from this place, abandon these oppressive lights lacking the slightest compassion, penetrating me, ignoring the pain they cause, attempting to illuminate without mercy what should be left in the dark. Even if they can be endured for a minute, this beam of light leaves me breathless, suffocated by a desire to throw myself into the darkness.”

For a fuller discussion of Five Selves see my NYJB review.