One of the most difficult things to teach the students in the World War II class I helped with last semester was the perversive, virulent anti-Semitism in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. They were familiar with some of the tropes in Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, but they just didn’t get it. I wish I could have handed them Alexis Landau’s The Empire of the Senses. While the novel is also an interesting study in love and sacrifice, I think its characters also serve to illustrate the experience of German Jews between the world wars.
The first third of the book focuses on the Perlmutter patriarch, Lev. He has joined the German army just at the beginning of the first World War after his wife subtly pressures him. He is not happy about it. He’s only signed up because he hopes to recapture some of the love they had when they first married. Until this point, Lev has lived a sheltered life. He’s got a good job and is carving out a place in the upper middle class for himself in spite of his Jewishness. He’s very assimilated, but no one lets him forget that he was born a Jew in Galicia. Lev is stationed at Mitau in a fairly cushy job for the Eastern Front. While killing time avoiding being killed, Lev meets and falls in love with Leah. Lev never gives up his assimilated values, but he does feel at home with Leah and the other Jews of Mitau in a way that he never was in Berlin with his German family. The end of the war breaks up Lev and Leah*. Her husband might still be alive. Even if he’s not, some member of the Red Army would no doubt be happy to kill Lev. Lev and a friend desert and make their way to back to Germany.
The last two-thirds of the novel jump ahead to 1927. Lev has settled back into life with his family in Berlin, but he thinks about Leah constantly. Most of the action, however, focuses on Lev’s children. His daughter, Vicki, is determined to enjoy herself in the decadent nightlife of the city. She isn’t entirely charmed by the bisexual hedonism of her friends. When she meets Geza, she’s only a little reluctant to give up the life of a flapper to join the budding Zionist movement. His son, Franz, wrestles with his desire for men. Though he feels he can’t do anything about his desires, he tempts himself by joining all-male nature retreats. Eventually, he ends up in the Sturmabteilung, mostly because he has a serious crush on a man who has no scruples about manipulating Franz. (He has to lie about his parentage and use his mother’s semi-aristocratic maiden name to join.)
The Perlmutters can easily be read as a microcosm of the German Jewish experience. Lev is assimilated—as much as anyone allows him. He’s torn between all his family obligations. He has to support his fragile wife and appease his mother. Vicki’s story is at least partially about an ethnic Jew rediscovering her heritage. Through Franz, we see how Nazi anti-Semitism grows out of prejudice, slander, and dissatisfaction.
This is far from the only layer to The Empire of the Senses. Leaving aside any larger metaphors, this book is very much about the things we may or may not be willing to give up for love. Lev’s lost love is still alive and living in New York. But is he willing to break up his family? Josephine needs someone to take care of her. His children are used to a certain standard of living. As for Vicki, her love wants to move to Palestine and live on a kibbutz. Not only would she have to learn Hebrew, she’d have to adapt to a life completely different from her carefree existence. Franz never gives himself the chance to consider living with his love, a bartender he meets by chance.
When I read historical fiction about Jewish characters in Germany and Europe between the wars, I’m usually gripped with fear for them. I have a clock counting down to 1935 in my head as I read and I yell at the characters to get out before it’s too late. That didn’t happen to me with The Empire of the Senses. Rather, I felt that tragedy would strike before the Nuremberg Laws through the characters’ own actions. Who would chose to sacrifice for love? Would anyone be happy?**
* If it happens in the first third of the book, it’s not a spoiler to reveal it in a review.
** How do you feel about spoilers now?