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Interview: Alexis Landau

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Jewish Book Council's inaugural Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation event featuring debut authors was an excellent opportunity to talk with Alexis Landau, author of The Empire of the Senses, about writing, researching, and possibly extending a fictional Holocaust novel.

Becca Kantor: You recently completed your Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Could you tell me more about your research, and how your critical examination of interwar literature influenced your novel?

Alexis Landau: There were two starting points for the research. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit called Glitter and Doom, which centered on the artists who were working in Berlin in the '20s and '30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. That was always my favorite period in art history. I just loved it. At this exhibit, they had all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the characters and the people who influ­enced the painters. I got so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and some of these people and some of these artists.” That idea was always in my mind since then.

During my Ph.D., my professors kept pressing me: “What’s going to be your critical field of interest?” At that point I was writing short stories and working on a first novel that never got published. I became more and more interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation before the Holocaust, in the interwar period. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it would be allowed for me to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. He was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.”

So I started delving into the work of writers of that time and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off—a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s. The way he would think about his Jewishness was also similar. So that was where a lot of the crossover came.

BK: So much has been written about the Holocaust. You made a more unusual—and very intriguing—choice by focusing on World War I and the political and social climate that led up to World War II. Was this only because of the interests you mentioned before, or were you consciously trying to do something new?

AL: I think it was a combination of both. I definitely started off being more interested in the time period of the '20s because of the art. That was when the artists were most productive, and by the time Hitler came to power a lot of the art was being banned. I also wanted to focus on World War I because to me that was the starting point for everything unraveling.

As I was writing, of course I could have chosen to fast-forward to the 1930s. But I didn’t want to because it’s such a vast and huge undertak­ing to write about the Nazi years. I didn’t feel like I wanted to try to do that. Frankly it’s pretty frightening to write about the Holocaust—the­matically, but also from a personal standpoint. Like, what can I bring that is new to the table, to what’s already been said?

BK: Each of your characters has a distinct perception of Jewish identity. What were your models for these different attitudes?

AL: Lev is kind of a composite of other writers who were Jewish and writing at that time, like Joseph Roth and Irène Némirovsky. They definitely identified as being Jewish but they weren’t religious, they were very secular. They wanted to be assimilated and were assimilated to a certain extent, but not completely, of course. There was always this sense of not belonging fully, which I think I also have experienced in different ways. And so maybe that is some reflection on my own upbringing.

In terms of how Josephine looks at Jewishness, not being Jewish herself, I read accounts of how the Christian majority would view Jews. Obviously she was more sympathetic than a lot of others because she married one. But in terms of the prejudice in her family—in some circles it was more spoken than in others, but it was always there. So I wanted to capture that with her family.

In some ways Franz’s inability to be fully himself in terms of his sexuality was also a metaphor for him not being able to be himself in terms of his Jewishness. There was a lot of writing at that time in which these racial theories were starting to develop. There was a theorist, Otto Weininger, who wrote a very popular book at the time called Sex and Character in 1903. It equated femininity with Jewishness and with weakness, and not with being strong and masculine. So those kinds of preconceptions were floating around. I wanted Franz to kind of grab on to them and feel ashamed of his Jewishness because he thought it was femi­nine, or because he thought it wasn’t the male, German way of being.

Vicki is kind of similar to Lev. She would have been more similar, but because of who she falls in love with, she becomes much more on the Zionist track in terms of her identity. Still, she’s pretty conflicted even up until the end in terms of how much she really believes in that project.

BK: Do any of the characters reflect your own relationship with Judaism?

AL: For the first seven years of my life, my parents raised me without a lot of awareness of being Jewish. I don’t really think I fully knew I was Jewish even though my mom is Jewish and my dad is half-Jewish. My mom didn’t identify herself as Jewish. We had a Christmas tree, we weren’t religious in any sense, and the idea of being Jewish was just not in my consciousness.

Then my parents got a divorce, and my dad started dating an Ortho­dox Jewish woman. She was like: “You’re Jewish, and your daughter is Jewish! She doesn’t know she’s Jewish, what’s going on here?” She started taking me to temple and we would walk there because of the Sabbath; we would have to turn the lights off before the Sabbath; we had kosher plates…All this stuff that I didn’t know about was suddenly in my life and suddenly part of my identity, or supposed to be. My mom still said: “Oh yeah, well, we’re Jewish, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.” So I grew up with all these ideas floating around about what it means to be Jewish: why you wouldn’t want to be Jewish from my mom’s standpoint, and my dad embracing it much more than he had. I think that informed me to start thinking about Jewish identity— maybe more than other people who might have had a more straightfor­ward type of situation.

BK: What were the challenges in portraying characters with mindsets that are very much of their time while still conveying your contempo­rary insight into the period? Were some perspectives harder to evoke than others?

AL: One of my best friends, who is an editor, told me: “The most important thing is tone, and getting the tone right, and not having your contemporary voice barge in.” When I was writing, especially in the beginning, I was really conscious of that. I can’t write well unless I understand every aspect of a person. Not just what they’re experienc­ing psychologically, but also their body in time and space. Otherwise the writing becomes too disembodied, and not real. I would fall into the whirlpools of research where I might spend half a day looking at men’s fashion in the 1920s. But a certain amount of those details really fed my ability to keep going. Otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum, and then I don’t have the necessary confidence. I had to get certain things down to feel that I could move forward.

Making it feel real or feel relatable in terms of readers now, in terms of contemporary issues or even concerns, was one of my main con­cerns. I didn’t want to float into abstraction, such as Franz is representa­tive of the rising Fascist movement, or Josephine is representative of changing sexual mores at the time. That is just not interesting. What makes it interesting is the humanness of the story, the emotion. Love, death, having children, being married. And those things don’t change, really, over time.

BK: Do you have any ideas of themes you might want to explore in the future?

AL: Yes, I do! Of course, writers generally freak out whenever they have to talk about their next project, but…I have this sense that The Empire of the Senses might become a trilogy. That wasn’t what I set out to do at first. But then I finished it and some time passed, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t feel like I’m done with this story.” And so the next book is probably going to be from the point of view of the son that Lev had with Leah, whom we never met. He moved with Leah to New York when he was about seven. He actually ends up fighting in World War II, because he would have been about twenty, but the focus is going to start in 1946, after the war. The book is probably going to be set in the late '40s and early '50s Hollywood. A lot of German artists and exiles lived here in L.A. So I think I’m heading in that direction with my next book, but we’ll see!

Alexis Landau received her MFA from Emerson College and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California. She currently teaches writing at USC and lives in Los Angeles. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel.

Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany. Currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.

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The Absence of the “Jewish Question” in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise

Thursday, February 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexis Landau shared the story behind her debut novel, The Empire of the Senses, as well as books that inspired her while she wrote. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many questions surround the writing and eventual publication of Irène Némirovsky’s masterful last unfinished novel, Suite Francaise. For instance, why was any scholarly consideration of Némirovsky’s work nearly nonexistent before the publication of Jonathan Weiss’s biography in 2005? Her writing has also been denied canonical status, creating a yawning absence of over sixty years in which Némirovsky was erased from the literary discourse in both Europe and the U.S., despite the fact that in the 1930s she was one of the most prolific and widely read French authors of her generation.1 Then there is the mystery of the suitcase, hidden for sixty years containing Némirovsky’s unfinished manuscript, Suite Francaise (published in France in 2004), which she was writing up until the point of her deportation to Auschwitz in July of 1942. Her daughters—who miraculously survived the war—discovered the manuscript (but there are differing dates as to when they knew the manuscript existed) and had it translated. Soon after, the book became a New York Times bestseller in 2006. And in terms of Némirovsky’s identity in relationship to her position in the literary field of 1930s France, this raises even more questions, resulting in a heated, ongoing debate over whether or not Némirovsky should be classified as a Jewish writer, a French writer, an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew, or a Russian émigré desperate to fit into French society, plagued by her conflicting and multiple identities, a debate that began with the initial reception of her novels by the French press, and continues now, most pointedly between critics Ruth Franklin and Susan Suleiman.

Given how much of Nemirovsky’s work as a novelist and short story writer dealt with themes of Jewish identity and assimilation, another central question critics have been puzzling over is the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise.

It may seem strange to complain about the absence of a certain theme or subject matter in a work of literary fiction, as opposed to talking about what is present in the text. But in Nemirovsky’s case, a writer highly conscious of her endangered position as a Russian Jewish emigrant living in France during the German occupation, it seems odd that in this last novel, which details the German occupation of a small French village—one very similar to the town where she and her family were living under increasingly stringent anti-Jewish laws, any mention of Jews and their trials and tribulations of assimilation and acceptance into French society is strikingly absent.

Some critics claim that the absence of Jews in Suite Francaise evidences Némirovsky’s lack of sympathy and identification with Jews but as Susan Suleiman explains, nothing points to this reason given how in the spring of 1942, while she was deep in the writing of the novel, Némirovsky walked around the village of Issy-L’Eveque wearing the designated yellow star—“Whether she liked it or not, she was identified as a Jew, and she made no effort to escape it.”2 Suleiman then offers what seems to be a more plausible explanation for why Némirovsky doesn’t include Jews in her novel. Given how, by the early 1940s, she had arrived at the conclusion that Jews would never fully feel, or be, fully accepted by the French, this perhaps translates into the impossibility of her representing Jews ‘together with’ the French, “as if she could not see them in the same viewfinder—or in the same story and same history.”2 Jonathan Weiss offers another conclusion—that from 1940 onward no Jews appear in any of Némirovsky work because she had now decided to fashion herself into an entirely French writer writing on French themes, which no longer included the Jewish Question. He writes: “It is doubtful that the projected volumes of Suite Francaise would have taken Jews into account; the notes Irène left behind do not reveal any Jewish characters or any reference to deportation. After the publication of The Dogs and the Wolves in 1940, Irène kept Jewishness out of her writing. As an author, she continued to create for herself a purely French identity and left no trace of her origins in her later fiction.”4

Another reason, perhaps, was that while writing Suite Francaise, Némirovsky felt the most rejected and cast out by her beloved France, and therefore used the novel as a vehicle of criticism and, in part, revenge on the French, the same land and its peoples she so idealized in her novel All Our Worldly Goods only a few years earlier. In the early summer of 1942, before her deportation, a journal entry reads, without a date: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it rejects me, let us think about it coldly, let us watch it lose its honor and its life. And others, what are they to me? Empires die. Nothing is important. Whether one looks from a mystical point of view or a personal one, it’s all the same. Let us keep a cold head. Harden our hearts. And wait.”5 Increasingly, from 1940 onward, life for Némirovsky and her family grew more difficult. In June of 1940, after the German occupation of Paris, the Némirovskys moved to Hotel des Voyaguers in Issy-l’Eveque. In October of 1940, a law was passed giving Jews inferior legal and social rights and most importantly, it defined Jewishness based on racial criteria. The Némirovskys were classified as both Jewish and foreign, becoming “stateless” people in the eyes of the French state, rendering their baptism certificates useless. Michel, Irène's husband, could no longer work at the bank and the publishing houses were “Arayanizing” their staff and authors, prohibiting Irène from being published there. More race laws were passed in October 1940 and June 1941 stipulating that Jews could be placed under house arrest, or deported and interned in concentration camps. Issy-l’Eveque was now in the occupied zone and the hotel where Irène and her family were living was full of German soldiers. Irène, her husband and her eldest daughter all openly wore the Jewish star.6 Even though in Issy-I’Eveque life was still relatively calm for Jews in the summer of 1941, Irène was aware that in Paris, round-ups continued—on July 16, 4,000 Jews were deported, both children and adults; between August 20 and 23, 4,000 more were arrested and the detention camp at Drancy was opened. In occupied France, Jews were no longer allowed to own radios. And on September 5, an exhibit entitled “The Jew and France,” went up in Paris. The catalogue reads: “Jews are at the root of all the troubles, all the perturbations, all the conflicts, all the revolts of the modern world.”7

In 1941, in the thick of this persecution, Irène feverishly began working on Suite Francaise. She envisioned the project as a five part novel of a thousand pages in length, and she started to write notes while simultaneously writing the book, notes that indicate how she no longer had any illusions about the French, loathsome in their defeat and collaboration, and about her own doomed fate.

But characteristic of Némirovsky, even when she decides to portray the French living under German occupation in an uncompromising light, she still conveys a sense of empathy in Suite Francaise when describing the torment of a young French woman, Lucile, who falls in love with an attractive and cultivated German soldier billeted in her home. Némirovsky is always able to see the other side and this sensitivity and acuity of vision is what elevates her writing. Némirovsky laments in her journal, in June of 1941, when the German soldiers, whom she and her husband have grown to know and like, leave their village to fight the Russians: “I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors. I feel sorry for these poor children. But I cannot forgive certain individuals, those who reject me, those who coldly abandon us, those who are prepared to stab you in the back. Those people…if I could just get my hands on them…”8 It makes sense how “coldly abandoned” she felt at the end of her life, how rejected and cast out she was made to feel by her desired native land given her intense attachment to the idea she maintained of herself as being fully and solely French. This is why, when, in March of 1940, for an interview with the literary magazine Les Nouvelles litteraires, when asked who she was: a French author or a Russian author writing in French, her response is so poignant given what we know of her fate:

I hope and I believe I am more a French than a Russian author. I spoke French
before speaking Russian. I have spent half of my childhood and all of my young
adulthood and married years in this country. I have never written anything in
Russian except for my schoolwork. I think and I even dream in French. All is so
totally amalgamated into what remains within me of my race and my native land,
that even with the best will in the world, I would be incapable of knowing where
one ends and the other begins.

Alexis Landau recently completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, where she currently teaches writing. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives there with her husband and two children.

1. Angela Kershaw, “Finding Irene Nemirovsky,” French Cultural Studies 18 (2007): 61.

2. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 29.

3. Suleiman, “Jewish Question in Interwar France” 30.

4. Weiss 139.

5. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 153

6. Myriam Anissimov, preface to French edition, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, trans. Sandra Smith (New York: Vintage International, 2006) 426.

7. Weiss 143.

8. Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise 374.

9. Nemirovsky quoted in Weiss 173.

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The Story Behind The Empire of the Senses

Monday, February 23, 2015 | Permalink

Alexis Landau recently completed her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, where she currently teaches writing. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives there with her husband and two children. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the first questions many people ask me about the book is if it reflects my own family history—if it is, to a certain extent, my family story. And the answer is resoundingly no. I was actually drawn to write this detailed generational story because there is such a lack of story in my own family. I am an only child, and my parents are estranged from all of their relatives. My grandparents have died, and even when they were living there wasn’t much contact. The concept of having an extended family, of aunts, uncles, and cousins was and still is a foreign one. I often wonder about my family—where they came from, what my great grandparents were like, but I received vague blurry answers that never felt satisfactory. The facts changed to the point at which it didn’t seem to matter anymore—sometimes my father’s family was said to have emigrated from Russia, sometimes Lithuania or Poland, sometimes even Germany. The lack of information was often coupled with a shrug, because no one seemed all that interested in talking about it. The few stories that do exist are more recent memories that my mother and father recounted about growing up in the '40s and '50s and even these stories are not told often. Anything before the postwar period is pretty much a blank. So in my desire for some kind of family story, I decided to create one, and this desire for a better understanding of my past, even if it wasn’t my past, but a past, is in part what shaped the writing of this book.

Why I decided to focus on this particular period in history is another question I’m frequently asked. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit Glitter and Doom about the artists who were working in Berlin in the '20s and '30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. This was always my favorite period in art history and during the exhibit, while viewing all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the people who influenced the painters as well as the painters themselves, I became so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and place—such an intense, foreboding but also incredibly creative period in European history.” Then the second starting point occurred during my time as a graduate student in English literature and Creative Writing at USC—I had to choose a critical field of interest which is separate from one’s creative work, and I became increasingly interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation during the interwar period. It seemed crucial to understand what it meant to be Jewish before the Holocaust, given how after the Holocaust, and after the birth of Israel, Jewish identity underwent so much change and redefinition. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it I would be allowed to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. But my advisor was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.” So I started delving into the work of writers such as Kafka and Joseph Roth, and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, not even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off—a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s circumstances (the protagonist of The Empire of the Senses), which increased my interest in her life as a Russian Jewish writer living in Paris between the wars.

Also, in terms of beginning the book at the start of World War I and ending the book in 1928, I wanted to focus on this time period not only because it was such an explosion of art and creativity, but also because during this time in Berlin, there were so many forces undermining the status quo, in terms of sexuality and gender, as well as the political climate, and I was excited to convey all of these intersecting and sometimes conflicting cultural currents through the characters and the choices they make.

The “Top Five” books that inspired me while I was writing The Empire of the Senses:

1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

2. My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (a trilogy following the evolution of a friendship between two women in Naples Italy, from the 50s to the near present day)

3. Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Singer (a wonderfully funny and insightful novel about Jewish refugees living in New York after the war)

4. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (an epic generational novel about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire)

5. Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s by Sabine Rewald and Ian Buruma (a fantastic collection of paintings by artists working during this period, who were still reeling from World War I and trying to understand and define a new era of unprecedented sexuality and artistic freedom)

In the New York area? See Alexis Landau live at JBC's Unpacking the Book event on February 24th at The Jewish Museum. Find out more information here.

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