The Empire of the Senses: A Novel

Pantheon  2015


At once at a family saga, a war story, and several love stories, Alexis Landau’s riveting debut, The Empire of the Senses, paints a sweeping yet intimate portrait of pre-World War II Berlin through the eyes of the Pearlmutter family.

At the outbreak of World War I, Lev Pearlmutter enlists in the German army. His motivation is personal rather than patriotic: he wants to prove to his wife’s aristocratic family that, despite being Jewish, he is just as German as they are. Fast-forward to 1927. Even as Germany’s political stability crumbles around them, the Pearlmutters remain preoccupied by internal hopes and concerns. Lev’s son Franz is obsessed with a handsome yet vicious university friend who introduces him to the Fascist movement and goads him into increasingly self-destructive behavior. Meanwhile, Lev’s rebellious daughter Vicki is enthralled by Berlin’s underground jazz scene. She falls in love with a young immigrant who teaches her about Zionism—but should she give up her comfortable lifestyle to join him on a kibbutz?

In hindsight, it is difficult not to see Germany’s interwar years simply as a prelude to the Holocaust. But as we read The Empire of the Senses, we become so absorbed in the Pearlmutters’ struggles that we forget the fate to which they are headed. The reader experiences the events that unfold with the same mixture of eagerness and trepidation as Landau’s distinct and subtly drawn characters. As its title suggests, The Empire of the Senses shows a world defined by perception and passion as much as it is by official policy. Rather than depicting the interwar period through overarching historic events, Landau brings it to life through intimate interactions between people.

Landau’s novel is both reminiscent of the modernist classics and thoroughly contemporary. Despite its gripping plot, the narrative unfolds with graceful, organic ease. Landau’s evocative prose, attention to detail, and meticulous research makes the Pearlmutters’ physical environment as vivid as their inner lives. As the story moves from the opulent Ice Palace to rural Russia to jazz clubs and opium dens, the reader will become just as reluctant to leave Landau’s ephemeral Berlin as Lev and his family are. The Empire of the Senses is sure to establish Alexis Landau as a masterful new literary voice.

Read Alexis Landau's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

The Story Behind The Empire of the Senses

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


Read Becca Kantor's interview with Alexis Landau here.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs questions

  1. The Empire of the Senses is a multi-perspective novel that, at some point, gives a voice to each of the four members of the Pearlmutter family. Having experienced the voice of each character, did you feel sympathy or empathy for some characters more than others? Why do you think that is?

  2. What role does intermarriage play in the novel? Do you think the marital problems between Lev and Josephine stem from a clash of cultures, as Lev’s mother believes? How does Lev and Leah’s relationship compare? While they have a shared heritage, they live in very different places and have completely different connections to Judaism. What about Vicki and Geza? Vicki, raised as a wealthy Christian in urban Berlin, comes from a background that is even more foreign to Geza than Lev and Josephine, and yet, their relationship remains strong.

  3. Were you surprised at the degree to which Lev was assimilated into German culture? Despite his successful career, his family’s position in Berlin society, etc., do you think Lev is constantly paying a price as Rabbi Landauer says about German Jews on p. 376?

  4. What do you think of the characters’ reactions to the incident in Nuremberg? Given what they knew at the time (as opposed to what we know now), do you think they were being shortsighted and naive or reasonable?

  5. Lev and Josephine both blame themselves for not interfering in Franz’s involvement with the SA. Do you think that they are to be held responsible? Was there something that they could have done to alter Franz’s course?

  6. What does the novel say about past and present? At what point does adherence to “the old ways” stunt one’s character? What are those who rush to embrace modernity and current trends losing?

  7. There are two rabbis who come into Lev’s life over the course of novel, both of whom remind him of an El Greco painting — the rabbi who visits Mitau and Rabbi Landauer. What affect do these men have on him?

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