The Empire of the Sens­es: A Novel

By – March 16, 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.

Bec­ca Kan­tor is the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca was award­ed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to spend a year in Esto­nia writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry. She lives in Brooklyn.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs questions

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?