The Empire of the Senses is an enthralling tale of love and war, duty and self-discovery. It begins in 1914 when Lev Perlmutter, an assimilated German Jew fighting in World War I, finds unexpected companionship on the Eastern Front; back at home, his wife Josephine embarks on a clandestine affair of her own. A decade later, during the heady, politically charged interwar years in Berlin, their children—one, a nascent Fascist struggling with his sexuality, the other a young woman entranced by the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age—experience their own romantic awakenings. With a painter’s sensibility for the layered images that comprise our lives, this exquisite novel by Alexis Landau marks the emergence of a writer uniquely talented in bringing the past to the present.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The Eastern Front, August 1914
At first, the men were drunk off the euphoria of leaving Berlin, dreaming of virgin battlefields, singing and sharing flasks of whiskey when night fell. But Lev could not join in, blocked by a numb indifference that had settled over him as he observed the others with a clinical eye, picking apart their features, imagining how grotesque some of these men would appear if he sketched them asleep, their open mouths inviting flies. Yes, he’d volunteered when war was announced—but that day, only two days ago, already appeared fantastical, full of heated parades and brass bands, too much drink, his oxford shirt sticking to his chest in the humid air, and Josephine, waiting for him at home in the shaded courtyard, clutching her hat in her hands. She’d nearly ruined it, the one with the velvet flowers. He gently took it away from her and explained how he’d volunteered, to ensure he’d be called up first, to ensure no one would accuse him of shirking. He had said no one darkly because they both knew whom he meant—her mother and father, her brother, her whole Christian family, who despised him because he was a Jew. Even after seven years of marriage, seven biblical years, they hated him.
Josephine had blinked back tears, mumbling something about how perhaps a shortage of equipment would delay his leave.
No, no, he said. It wouldn’t. “And where did you hear that, about lack of equipment?”
He suppressed a laugh. “Still consulting your housemaid on such matters?”
Lev nodded, trying to sympathize, but really, procuring information from Marthe? Large bumbling Marthe, who, although she expertly ironed the bedsheets and brought in afternoon tea at three o’clock sharp, never forgetting the lemon wedges, knew nothing of military matters.
Josephine brushed a hair out of her eyes. “But why must you go directly?” Here she was, acting like a girl of eighteen when at twenty-five she had already suffered the agonies of childbirth, twice, giving him Franz and then Vicki. The children were asleep, napping in the nursery. Soon Marthe would wake them. He pushed away the thought of their warm sleepy bodies, of how they clung to him when they woke, as if he might slip away, as if they had already dreamed this. Tonight, Lev would explain his departure to Franz, who, at six, would understand, and Vicki, only four, who might not. After he went, Josephine would weave a grand story they could all believe, a story repeated over dinner and again at bedtime. A story that would lessen the blow of his absence. Was she capable? Or would she become so wrapped in her own sorrow, the tale would not hold? He must tell her what to say, exactly how to phrase it, so the children would understand why he had evaporated, like the receding condensation on the bathroom mirror Franz traced his finger through after Lev’s daily shave, drawing a gun with his pinky.
He looked at her face. Admiral-blue eyes, as if spun from colored glass. The delicate bridge of her nose framed by high cheekbones. Her arched eyebrows the color of wheat, which now drew together in worry. Please tell them a good story, he thought.
“But we still have some time?”
He inhaled sharply. “I’m leaving tomorrow. On the three o’clock transport train.” Saying tomorrow made his heart pound, for her and for him. Too soon. So little time. He wondered if she would let him inside her tonight, their last night. On special occasions, she proved more compliant. Tonight, he thought, was a special occasion. The thought of her turning away, saying her head hurt, flashing that half-apologetic smile, infuriated him.
He stared down at his lace-up oxfords. Scuffed tips. Should take them in, he thought. No point—tomorrow he’d be gone. He pictured his empty shoes standing in his dark closet, perfectly in line with the other pairs.
Josephine touched his arm. “What are you thinking?”
The courtyard’s uneven stones made their chairs lean slightly off kilter, and for a moment, it looked as if she might slide off.
“My shoes are scuffed.”
“What?” she said.
How afraid should he feel of war? The question burned. But it didn’t matter how much fear he felt or didn’t feel—he was already in it, signed up and registered. And desertion promised death. They made sure everyone understood that.
“How can you think of shoes, of all things? You’ll be gone by nightfall tomorrow and you don’t even know how to hold a gun.” He detected a hint of malice in her voice, as if he should know how to hold a gun properly, like her brother did, from shooting pheasant in Grunewald forest. But Lev had grown up in the city. Never touched a gun in his life. Never killed, not even a deer or a bird. Jews don’t hunt, he remembered his mother saying. Nor do they ride horses, sail, swim, fight in duels, or drink. And he remembered thinking: What do Jews do then? All the valiant heroic activities were reserved for gentiles. For men like Josephine’s brother, Karl von Stressing, who taunted Lev with his gray-and-white dappled steed as he trotted through the Tiergarten, with his saber and his hunting rifle and his tall black boots. But now they were both privates enlisted in the German army, both fighting for Germany, both shooting and killing and then afterward, drinking in the trenches. Lev already tasted the vodka, clear and pure and burning in his throat.
“How will you learn in time?” Josephine asked, more gently.
“Training’s in the barracks close to the front, for four weeks, and then we’ll be sent off into the jaws of Hell,” he said, realizing how flat it sounded.
“Please don’t say that.”
“I’m sorry.” He looked into her watery light eyes. “Back by Christmas. I promise.” When his mouth closed in on that word, promise, Lev knew it was a lie.
Reading Group Guide
This guide is designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in this book and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. Feel free to wander in your discussions, and use this as a guideline only. [Spoiler alert! Some of the questions may reveal the book’s later content—you may want to wait to read the questions until you have fully finished the novel!]
1. Discuss the title. What does it mean to you?
2. Many of the Jewish characters in the book were secular Jews, persecuted for their race. What is the role of religion in the story? Can a system of political beliefs be considered a religion?
3. Although the story of the Perlmutter family is fiction, many aspects of the novel are historically accurate. What did you learn from this account? Do you have events that occurred in your own family's past that you can relate?
4. Initially, Lev and Josephine seemed to genuinely love each other. Neither were particularly religious, and Josephine didn't feel her family's dislike of Lev's background (and Lev himself) as a hardship. Would they have continued to love each other if not for the war? Would they have stayed together, if not for the war?
5. Describe the character of Leah, particularly as opposed to Josephine? How are they different? Are there similarities between the two women?
6. Do you think Lev and Leah would have continued to love each other, and as intensely, if they had been able to be together?
7. Lev is a deserter from the army. When he signed up for the Army, he deserted his family, in a way. How did he desert Josephine? How did he desert Leah? Did Franz desert his Jewishness? Did Vicky desert her relationship with her mother? What other forms of desertion, emotional and physical, occur in the book, and what other words would you use in place of "desertion"?
8. Friday, June 10, 1927: The author recounts this day several times to from the point-of-view of each character. What do you learn about the individual family members as they move through his/her day?
9. Vicky is a teenager, eager to assert her independence and individuality. What are the confinements she feels? How does she react to them? What does she embrace?
10. Franz, too, is trying to find himself. What does he need to do to assert himself? What new ideals does he embrace?
11. The Perlmutters are a family, although four incredibly different people. Do they seem ambivalent to one another? They seem to react very strongly to each other, but not to come closer together. How does the core (or lack thereof) of this family affect them so deeply? Can the war be blamed for these negative connections?
12. Josephine is an ever-evolving character. Describe her relationship with Dr. Dührkoop. How does the introduction of Herr K change what begins as a clinical arrangement? How does her newfound liaison change her? Where does the interest in mysticism and death fit it? Do you think Josephine is trying too hard to live in the past, or is she focused on her future?
13. What happens to the relationship between Josephine and Lev?
14. Discuss the character of Otto. He appears in the two separates sections of Lev's life, the two separate sections of the story. What role does he play in the novel?
15. Vicky has much in common with her father. How is her love with Geza similar to his love with Leah? How does this love change Vicky? What do you think makes this love work, through all of its hardships? What do Vicky and Geza have that Lev and Leah did not?
16. Franz grew up with Lev as his hero. What changed? How does Franz's behavior as a teenager reflect that change? Franz loved soldiers and Franz had a crush on Wolf. If Franz had shared the truth about his sexuality with anyone in his family, do you think he would have become so involved with the Nazis? So anti-Semitic? How are the feelings toward Franz’s father, soldiers/heroes, and Wolf bound together for him?
17. Describe the incident at Nuremburg. How did it affect the three Perlmutters differently? Why were there reactions so different? How would Franz have reacted, if he were there?
18. If Franz and Vicky had been closer, what would have changed for the two?
19. In certain key respects, Franz's family didn’t know him. Is he a sympathetic character, despite what he has done?
20. What about Josephine? She was left behind during the hardships of war, deserted in her marriage, lost and left alone by her mother's death, and poorly dealt with by her psychologist. Does she deserve sympathy?
21. In the end, Lev is alone. But, as throughout the story, he doesn't seem to feel it. Does Lev deserve his solitude? Is it a hardship? How do you feel about him as a protagonist?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After reading espionage and crime novels set in pre-and post-WWII Berlin (John Lawton, Joseph Kanon, David Downing, Philip Kerr, Luke McCallin), Alexis Landau's character study of the Perlmutter family adds dimension and humanity to the fascinating and terrifying period that was Weimar Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel.