1. How do you interpret the novel’s epigraph: “The others are really others”? How do you characterize Perlmann’s relationships with others? What do his feelings toward others—such as Brian Millar and Giorgio Silvestri—reveal about him? What qualities does he admire in others?
2. Uncomfortable in his persona as esteemed academic, Perlmann dreams of shedding it: “Why, then, should it not be possible to withdraw entirely from his professional role, his public identity, into his private, authentic person, the identity that was the only thing that counted?” (p. 413). Are the private and public self so clearly divisible? Does one determine the other? Is it possible to withdraw one’s public identity?
3. What are the sources of Perlmann’s sense of identity? Does Perlmann’s view of himself affect his view of others, or is his view of others affected by how he sees himself? Does establishing and maintaining a sense of identity require a person to see their self in opposition to others?
4. When Laura Sands uses the word “ingenuous” to describe the Bach English Suite Brian Millar has played, Perlmann wonders whether his past intimacy with Hanna has been violated (p. 108). He is also discomfited by his intimacy with Leskov in St. Petersburg and by his room’s proximity and similarity to Achim Ruge’s. How does this fixation on intimacy shape him and direct his actions?
5. As Perlmann’s lecture due-date approaches and he realizes he needs to take some sort of action, he thinks: “Here in this room, under the eyes of the others, so to speak, he couldn’t reach a decision” (p. 259). How does his impulse toward solitude affect his thinking? How does his thinking change when he is forced to encounter—or in the case of Agnes and Kirsten, to consider—others? Is it possible to derive a sense of morality in isolation?
6. How does Perlmann thwart his own desire to achieve a sense of “presence”? How does his desire to find refuge (at the trattoria, in language study, and in other ways) relate to his relationship with the present moment?
7. Does this novel betray a European sensibility? How does Perlmann view Brian Millar’s Americanness? What is the role of John Smith from Carson City, Nevada?
8. Perlmann sometimes feels that he’s acting without volition, such as when he copies Giovanni Leskov’s text and experiences it as “less his own action than something that had come over him, that had simply happened to him” (p. 276), and when he feels propelled “by an invisible force” to go to the piano and play (p. 534). Could relinquishing willpower be a method of achieving presence? Or is it a form of unconscious will? Is Perlmann simply letting himself off the hook, or is the argument made that one is not ultimately responsible for his or her actions?
9. Who were Perlmann’s parents and how did his relationship with them shape him? Are his memories of them trustworthy? Does his blame seem justified? Does he understand them only in terms of his psychological wounds or can he sometimes see them separate from himself?
10. What interests Perlmann in Sandra, the daughter of the trattoria‘s proprietor? Why does he dream that her exercise book merges with his black notebook (p. 184)? She distractedly bid him goodbye and in the wake of his disappointment, he parted the trattoria‘s glass bead curtain for the last time and felt “something break as he did so, something precious and intangible” (p. 521). What hurts him in that moment?
11. In the discussion with Brian Millar and others about the death penalty, Perlmann asserts: “Killing must be based on a personal relationship. A hatred for one’s tormentor, for example. Otherwise it’s perverse” (p. 153). Do you agree or disagree with this logic?
12. Does your knowledge of Perlmann’s anxiety and other foibles make you feel sympathetic toward him? If you feel nervous that he’ll be caught, does this make you complicit in his criminal intentions? His plans to plagiarize and murder having failed, is Perlmann any less guilty than if these crimes had come to fruition? Is restoration of Leskov’s text sufficient atonement?
13. Flying back to Frankfurt, Perlmann thinks, “Finding a perspective outside oneself, to live from there in greater freedom within oneself. . . The perspective of eternity. If one did everything from that perspective, wouldn’t that mean losing the present completely—so completely that one wouldn’t even miss it?” (p. 579). If a limited perspective is imprisoning and an unlimited, eternal perspective annihilates our sense of meaning and time, are we necessarily in a bind as human beings? Would this story exist if it were told from a perspective other than Perlmann’s?
14. What sort of picture do you get of Perlmann’s relationship with Agnes? Does his bereavement have stages? Why does Agnes eschew color in her photographs? How does her project—to capture “scenes that concealed a story within themselves and forced the viewer to invent that story”—relate to themes in the book (p. 163)?
15. Can Leskov be considered Perlmann’s doppelganger? Leskov, too, speaks of loving the Italian light, of losing his sense of identity, of plagiarizing, and of experiencing the nightmare of being asked to lecture without a text. Is Leskov Perlmann’s destroyer or his savior?
16. What connection does Perlmann have with Evelyn Mistral? How does he “read” the red elephant on her suitcase? Why can’t he say no to her when she asks to come with him to the airport? How does Kirsten’s visit affect his relationship with Evelyn?
17. How does Kirsten’s presence in Perlmann’s life affect his actions? Why does her visit to Italy make everything there seem unreal? How is she similar to her father and how are they dissimilar?
18. What about the southern light of Italy gives Perlmann intimations of life in the present? He thinks: “The crucial thing would be this: to allow the appearance of this light to be everything, the whole of reality, and seek nothing behind it. To experience the light not as a promise, but as the redemption of a promise. As something at which one had arrived, not something that constantly aroused new expectations” (p. 7). Would this kind of fulfillment be antithetical to the experience of life? How would you describe the experience of being in the present? When do you feel most present?
19. Once he has made the decision to plagiarize Leskov, why does Perlmann feel as though “the future was no longer a space of possibilities, but just a cramped, undeviating stretch of time on which he would have to live through the unalterable consequences of his deception” (p. 277)? What is the relationship between time and uncertainty and other mental states? How does the novel explore the subjective experience of time?
20. Perlmann thinks that as a translator “one could think without having to believe anything, and one could speak without having to assert anything. One could deal with language without having to be concerned about the truth. For a man with no opinions, like myself, translator or interpreter would have been the ideal profession” (p. 148-149). Why does Perlmann shy away from forming opinions? Is it possible to think without believing or to speak without asserting? As Perlmann translates Leskov’s text and searches for the right words, does he make decisions that are, in a sense, opinionated?
21. What do you make of Perlmann’s idea of “Language as an enemy of imagination” and of thinking in sentences as necessarily bringing about “a diminution of possibilities” (p. 176)? Do you feel trapped by language into certain ways of thinking? Studies show that gendered language affects perception so that, for instance, in languages where “bridge” is a feminine word, people attribute feminine qualities to bridges (like beauty and elegance) and in languages where “bridge” is masculine, people describe bridges in traditionally masculine terms and speak of their strength and durability. How far-reaching are the ramifications of this gendered vocabulary? Is an argument made for learning a second language?
22. During his presentation, Leskov elaborates his theory that “the narrating self is none other than the narrated stories. Apart from the stories there is nothing. Or rather, no one” (p. 485). For him, remembering involves creation and invention, and so “there is no such thing as a true story about the experienced past” (p. 486). Do you find these beliefs unsettling or comforting? If one can never attain the truth about his or her past, what should be one’s goal? Have your stories about your past changed as you’ve grown older?
23. Perlmann reads from his notebook: “It cannot be stressed often enough: one grows into the world by repeating words parrot-fashion. These words don’t come by themselves; we hear them as parts of judgments, mottos, sentences” (p. 172). Can language exist apart from usage that is personal and also cultural? Were you told something when growing up that lodged inside you and bothered you so much you had to find a way to dispute it, as Perlmann does with his father’s statement, “mestre is ugly”?
24. Why does Perlmann make a project of reading the chronicle of the twentieth century? What does he learn from it and what makes him relinquish the project? When you look back on historical events you’ve lived through, do the events trigger forgotten memories from your personal life?
25. Offended by Laura Sands’ poetic images of suffering on the Steppe, Brian Millar says “Truthful pictures of hunger and death . . . should, I think, be as dry as agency reports. Sober” (p. 223). Achim Ruge disagrees: “Taking suffering seriously and allowing oneself to be morally touched by it can’t mean denying beauty” (pp. 223-224). Have you felt uncomfortable about images of suffering that are beautiful? What is the source of such discomfort? Do you think certain rules should govern depiction of atrocities?
26. Why does Perlmann abandon his study of the piano and how does it affect his life? What does he experience when he finally sits down to play in Chapter 53? How does Perlmann’s life in academia mirror the life he might have had in music?
27. At the end of the novel, has Perlmann’s relationship with himself and with others changed? Why does he refuse the job offer from Olivetti and apply to teach German in Managua? Why will he never again read Jakob von Gunten? How do you interpret the last line of the book—”Nothing had happened”—and how does it relate to Gorky’s story of the drowned boy in Klim Samgin (p. 559)?
28. As Perlmann considers what to wear on his dark errand, he thinks to himself: “Dress more comfortably for the murder” (p. 343). When Brian Millar admires his rental car, it occurs to Perlmann that his murder weapon has turned him into a man of style. Are other elements of the absurd present in the novel? Places where a disjuncture between action and thought seems ridiculous? Does the novel suggest that life is absurd or that meaning can be found somewhere?
Suggestions for further reading
The Loser and Correction by Thomas Bernhard; The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes; Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser; Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Vertigo by W. G. Sebald; Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson; Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson