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'Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.' Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-sellin 'Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.' Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe. His enduring masterpiece, Ali and Nino–a story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaust–is still in print today. But Lev's life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity–until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereck–also a friend of both Freud's and Einstein's–was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. Lev was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer–until the Fascists discovered his "true" identity. Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last book–discovered in a half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyone–helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. Tom Reiss spent five years tracking down secret police records, love letters, diaries, and the deathbed notebooks. Beginning with a yearlong investigation for The New Yorker, he pursued Lev's story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal, and sometimes as heartbreaking, as his subject's life. Reiss's quest for the truth buffets him from one weird character to the next: from the last heir of the Ottoman throne to a rock opera-composing baroness in an Austrian castle, to an aging starlet in a Hollywood bungalow full of cats and turtles. As he tracks down the pieces of Lev Nussimbaum's deliberately obscured life, Reiss discovers a series of shadowy worlds–of European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientalists–that have also been forgotten. The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth century–of the origins of our ideas about race and religious self-definition, and of the roots of modern fanaticism and terrorism. Written with grace and infused with wonder, The Orientalist is an astonishing book.


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'Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.' Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-sellin 'Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.' Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe. His enduring masterpiece, Ali and Nino–a story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaust–is still in print today. But Lev's life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity–until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereck–also a friend of both Freud's and Einstein's–was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. Lev was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer–until the Fascists discovered his "true" identity. Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last book–discovered in a half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyone–helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. Tom Reiss spent five years tracking down secret police records, love letters, diaries, and the deathbed notebooks. Beginning with a yearlong investigation for The New Yorker, he pursued Lev's story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal, and sometimes as heartbreaking, as his subject's life. Reiss's quest for the truth buffets him from one weird character to the next: from the last heir of the Ottoman throne to a rock opera-composing baroness in an Austrian castle, to an aging starlet in a Hollywood bungalow full of cats and turtles. As he tracks down the pieces of Lev Nussimbaum's deliberately obscured life, Reiss discovers a series of shadowy worlds–of European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientalists–that have also been forgotten. The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth century–of the origins of our ideas about race and religious self-definition, and of the roots of modern fanaticism and terrorism. Written with grace and infused with wonder, The Orientalist is an astonishing book.

30 review for The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    The Orientalist is, in the end, the story of one man’s accidental obsessive search for another man’s story. While in Baku (present day capital of Azerbaijan) writing a story about the revival of the oil business, Tom Reiss is handed a copy of Ali and Nino by a person called “Kurban Said,” and told that this book is both the Azeri “national novel” and the best introduction to the city he could possibly have. Soon, he finds that there is a huge controversy over the identity of the author- despite The Orientalist is, in the end, the story of one man’s accidental obsessive search for another man’s story. While in Baku (present day capital of Azerbaijan) writing a story about the revival of the oil business, Tom Reiss is handed a copy of Ali and Nino by a person called “Kurban Said,” and told that this book is both the Azeri “national novel” and the best introduction to the city he could possibly have. Soon, he finds that there is a huge controversy over the identity of the author- despite the novel’s cultural importance, no one seems to really know who this “Kurban Said,” was for sure, and everyone wants to claim him for one of their own. He becomes fascinated with the mystery and embarks on a whirlwind quest to find out just who this man was. The author identifies the author of the novel as a man born to the name of Lev Nissumbaum, born on October 17, 1905 (Alert: history buffs, you might have reason to know this date) in Baku, Tiflis, or “noplace,” depending on the version of his birth story that you believe. Lev’s own version of his birth (found in his deathbed notebooks) essentially gives the framework of his entire life, so I will reproduce a part of it here: “Born in…? Already here the problematic nature of my existence begins. Most people can name a house or at least a place where they were born… I was born during the first Russian railroad strike in the middle of the Russian steppes between Europe and Asia, when my mother was returning from Zurich, the seat of the Russian revolutionaries, to Baku, the seat of our family. On the day of my birth, the czar proclaimed his manifesto in which he granted the Russians a political constitution. On the day of my arrival in Baku the city was engulfed in the flames of Revolution, and the slaughtering of the mob…So began my existence. Father: an industrial magnate in the oil industry; mother: a radical revolutionary.” The story of Lev’s life as it progresses essentially does not stray very far from any of these contradictions, and he fights them out visibly and painfully in public and private, in sources Reiss has found has far ranging as American tabloids and Lev’s deathbed notebooks, written to distract himself from horrible pain. Lev starts out with a pampered childhood in Baku, the son of a privileged Jewish (as you might imagine, that will become important later) oil millionaire, a little boy who runs away to the “Arabic” quarter of the city in order to escape, and sits staring over the desert on top of old, crumbling Muslim palaces- far far away from the replica of Paris many Westernized members of society were trying to create around his home. He is eventually allowed to go to school and spends several years in his youth at a Imperial Russian run school. The young Liova conceives a fascination with everything to do with the East- Muslims, the desert, Arabic art and clothes, swords, Persian and Arabic heroic tales(“ To this day I do not know whence this feeling came...I do know that throughout my entire childhood, I dreamed of Arabic edifices every night. I do know that it was the most powerful and formative feeling of my life”). Fascinatingly, as an old lady who also lived in pre WWI Baku during the oil-boom years tells Reiss, “for a Jewish boy to assume a Muslim name and convert here in Baku would not have been anything so horrendous as it seems today… there was never anything rigid about this identity, quite the opposite. It was Bolshevism, the anti-religion of our time, that was rigid. We were simply open to the currents of the time in which we were born.” Indeed, Reiss opens up an entire place and time that was nearly forgotten, a muddled place where the strict lines of nation-states really didn’t mean very much. Near Baku, for instance, one could find an isolated German immigrant community who had created an entire replica of a Black Forest town, nomadic tribes from the desert come to trade, a community of “Wild Jews” who were not much aware that they were “Jews” in the way that Westerners thought of the concept, and, I swear to God, the red haired and blue eyed descendants of knights from the Crusades who still wore chain mail and painted crosses on their shields. In other words, the Caucuses was the dumping ground for all sorts of leftover groups no one had bothered to check up on ever again- and now here at the beginning of the 20th century these people were suddenly being found again- not at all remembering who it was they were supposed to be. Lev and his father are forced to flee his beloved home of Baku twice, the second time never to return again, both times on account of the violence of the Russian Revolution, both times after hiding in the basement while mobs rioted overhead, fearing for their lives. He developed a hatred of revolutions from this period, all revolutions of any kind. He was terrified of them. From his point of view, Revolutions were just an excuse for mass violence, and were far too terrifyingly focused on sweeping away everything that came before it. Lev and his father flee eastward, protected by Muslim nomads, then nationalists, and then eventually coming under the protection of the Ottoman empire in its last, dying breath before the occupying forces arrive- before finally escaping into safety (and oh the irony of this later) in Paris and Germany. Lev became a famous writer of essays on the “Orient”, passing himself off as some sort of Muslim prince (he did in fact convert to Islam at the Ottoman Embassy in Berlin, just before the Empire was officially dissolved). He joined the rebellious café society of Weimar Berlin, walking around town in full Orientalist gear- turbans, earrings, robes, swords and makeup and hobnobbing with communists, socialists, satiric cabaretists and in general all the oddballs of the Weimar era. He marries a Jewish millionaire’s daughter, spends some time in high society New York and Hollywood, getting fat and drinking away his health- and then chooses to come back to the heart of fascist Europe in the 1930s after he had already escaped to the safety of America. He called himself “Essad Bey,” now, or some hybrid of his real name and his new name “Essad Bey-Nussimbaum,” as if never quite sure how far he could really leave his past behind. But he tries very hard to hide in this persona, long before it would have become necessary due to any sort of outside forces. He told outrageous stories about his life- many of which turned out to be true in essentials. He was “exposed” many times (by “real” Muslims, by the anti-Semitic press, by rivals, by the army who didn’t like his too-truthful picture of what went on in the Caucuses while the German army was there during WWI), and yet somehow manages to carry it off, writing continually in this new persona, keeping everyone guessing as to who he really was. As anti-Semitism grew in Germany and with it the accusations of him being a “Jewish story-swindler,” Lev just kept writing- biographies (Stalin, Czar Nicholas- with whom he had a very strong identification), essays (on Muslim independence, the oil industry, and everything in between), style pieces, and eventually novels. His politics were often supported by one right-wing pre-Nazi ministry while his questionable ancestry was persecuted by another. He supported the more “moderate” form of fascism espoused by Mussolini before he radicalized, and wrote an “expose” of the Cheka, the Russian secret police of the time. His works were on the list of “approved reading” for Nazi Germany for many years into the war. When he died in Positano, Italy he died “the Muslim,” with a carved turban on top of his gravestone and his feet pointing towards Mecca. Lev Nissumbaum spent his entire life trying to become the person that he believed that he was in the end. He spent his entire life looking back towards the past, even as a young boy, looking for a way to restore what he felt had been lost to him. He forged a new identity out of nothing but what he felt the world should look like- a romanticized portrait from his childhood that he couldn’t let go of, and he succeeded. I can’t even begin to do this book justice, writing the above hasn’t even covered a grain of what’s going on here. The issues of identity being addressed here are just mind-bogglingly amazing to engage with, and all the huge questions of the 20th century are here- how do we classify people, try to make them something else, how little choice the world gives people who want to be something else other than what the lines and borders of the modern world tell them they are meant to be. He kept on selling himself, right to the very end, like to stop selling his persona was to stop believing in it himself. There’s amazing statements here about the nature of “truth” and “truthiness”. As Reiss himself admits, the facts that you can trust least about Lev Nissumbaum are the basics for the time, “name, race, nationality.” Many of the tales Lev tells about himself are concocted, skewed, embellished… and yet never really not true. All the stories he told were about himself, even those that were ostensibly about others- the self that mattered far more than the categories that 20th century Europe made necessary for people to identify with. Only those basic facts are the real lies, the ones he felt he needed to devote a life’s work to obscuring in order to live the life that he wanted to, even before being a Jewish writer in Berlin was a real danger. It’s just an amazing, exhilarating book from which I learned so much, a visceral experience of finding oneself seemingly literally against all the world. The Self triumphant, somehow, in a system that wants to destroy every last trace of it. I can't even express, I don't think, all that is amazing about this book. Reading this was, for me, one of those peak moments that Joseph Campbell describes when you find out that: "Ohhh.. ah.. ah.. ahh..." Actually, weirdly, a quote from the other sort of biography I'm reading right now on Sarah Bernhardt I think explains excellently what is so captivating about Lev to me, being the way he was in the time he was it: "Do you for a moment believe that my public wanted me to be like them? Do you think the world would have praised me to the skies if I had been just like everybody else? Really, what an absurd goal! Do you mean to say there isn't anyone among your contemporaries who would like to look like no one else on the face of the earth? No one who wants to set himself or herself apart from the common herd? Is here no one who wants to transcend the others, who wants to be adored by them, who wants to distance himself from them, and be adored by them precisely because he has distanced himself from them? What kind of time is this where everything is all blended into a meaningless nothing? I feel sorry for you with all my heart."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Brina

    It is hard to fathom that 2019 is winding down. For the last two months I am focusing on books that have been on my to read pile for the longest and books by authors that I have previously read and enjoyed. Reading mainly nonfiction has been enlightening even if I didn’t stick to my original plan to read twenty Pulitzer winners. One Pulitzer winner I did read back in January was The Black Count about the real life inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. Needing a fast paced adventure to pique It is hard to fathom that 2019 is winding down. For the last two months I am focusing on books that have been on my to read pile for the longest and books by authors that I have previously read and enjoyed. Reading mainly nonfiction has been enlightening even if I didn’t stick to my original plan to read twenty Pulitzer winners. One Pulitzer winner I did read back in January was The Black Count about the real life inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. Needing a fast paced adventure to pique my interest now that the days have gotten shorter, I returned to Tom Reiss and his earlier work The Orientalist. In another real life adventure that spanned three continents, I knew that I would be in for a whirlwind ride. Ali and Nino: A Love Story is undoubtedly the most famous novel to come from the nation of Azerbaijan. The book’s author is known only as Kurban Said, but Tom Reiss, as well as other literary critics of the twentieth century wanted to know who Kurban Said was. After much research, Reiss determined that Said was most likely a writer named Essad Bey, who was really a Azeri writer named Lev Nussimbaum. Yet, who was this Essad Bey/Lev Nussimbaum character? Was he a pen name so the actual author could get published or an actual writer? The identity of Kurban Said has puzzled the critics for decades, and Reiss was determined to be the one who found out the layers and facets to Kurban Said’s origin. Lev Nussimbaum was born in Baku, Azerbaijan on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution when the territory still belonged to Russia. His mother was a revolutionary who saw that things were not going so well for the Reds, at least at first, so she killed herself, leaving Lev to be raised by his father Avraham Nussimbaum, a millionaire oil magnate. Baku had been the center of the oil trade for two thousand years and had attracted Jewish refugees from across the diaspora since the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E. With a strategic location on the routes to India and it’s proximity to Persia and the Middle East, world powers realized that if they gained control of Azerbaijan, they could conceivably control the world. Until 1917, life was good for Jews in Azerbaijan, so Avraham chose to stay in Baku and enjoy life as an oilman. Once the Stalinist takeover was complete, effectively banning religion across the Soviet Union, Avraham knew that he and Lev, age twelve, would have to leave their adopted nation behind, so they fled Azerbaijan for good. Eventually the Nussimbaums would reach England, and Avraham needed to find a gymnasium for Lev to complete his schooling. At age fifteen, he was already more worldly than most of his peers, and this task was more difficult than Avraham had foreseen. Eventually, the father and son settled in Berlin, which in the interwar years was a sanctuary city for Jews fleeing Russia. Lev enrolled in a night high school for Russian émigrés but felt uncomfortable. Coming from an Oriental background with a swarthy complexion, Lev did not fit in with Ashkenazic Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement. As a teenager, Lev already showed a propensity for writing novels and biographies and enrolled at a college during the day while finishing high school at night. Reiss notes of the political situation in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, and suggests that as the climate grew worse for Jews, Lev would have to reinvent himself if he stood a chance to get published. As an Orientalist, Lev Nussimbaum became Essad Bey, used this name for his publications, and officially converted to Islam. Lev Nussimbaum only lived to be thirty six, but he was an old thirty six. He died in 1942 in Positano, Italy. In the 1930s, Lev and Nussimbaum relocated to Vienna before the Anschluss, Lev married his former secretary Ericka, the daughter of a shoe magnate, and the small immediate family relocated to New York. Ericka’s father sensed that Europe was about to become a powder keg and enjoyed life in America, and the family easily adapted to life on 5th Avenue. All but Lev/Essad Bey. He pined for his contacts in Europe as he believed that being based there was best for remaining a relevant author, so he divorced Ericka and returned to Vienna. Returning to a country where his life was in danger puzzled all his friends and acquaintances as well as the author. If Kurban Said was really Lev Nussimbaum, then why would he return to a country where being a Jew was grounds for being killed. Reiss dug through mounds of correspondence to find the answer to this puzzle, yet it became irrelevant when Lev moved to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for the final years of his life. Swarthy in complexion and Oriental in appearance, Lev was spared from deportation, even after Italy entered into an alliance with Germany. Living as Essad Bey would save his life for the time being. The journey of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/ Kurban Said was a compelling story. It took me on an adventure over three continents and rivaled Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia for thrills. The only difference is that Nussimbaum’s story was real, and Reiss tells the story of a writer and the nexus of religion and race during the interwar years to paint a picture of the political and cultural climate for non Aryan people during the early 1930s. I found Nussimbaum’s story to be compelling and finished it in a little over a day. I know that Reiss’ writing gets better because he would go on to win a Pulitzer for his next book, The Black Count, another true to life adventure story. With the days getting shorter and sunlight at a premium, I need fast paced stories to hold my interest. The Orientalist fit the bill nicely. 4 stars

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    Tom Reiss tells a fascinating story of his search for the elusive author Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said. Nussimbaum, a famous writer (“Ali and Nino”) during the 20’s and 30’s, was a Jewish writer who converted to Islam and spent much of his life in Berlin during the formative Nazi years. His life was one of reinventing himself, either out of some yearning for a simpler pre-revolutionary time or for self-preservation. He grew up in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. His mother was a Russi Tom Reiss tells a fascinating story of his search for the elusive author Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said. Nussimbaum, a famous writer (“Ali and Nino”) during the 20’s and 30’s, was a Jewish writer who converted to Islam and spent much of his life in Berlin during the formative Nazi years. His life was one of reinventing himself, either out of some yearning for a simpler pre-revolutionary time or for self-preservation. He grew up in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. His mother was a Russian revolutionary and his father was an oil magnate. Some of Lev’s first memories are of being heavily guarded and protected; members of the Baku rich and their families were constantly being threatened with kidnapping and being ransomed off. In pre –World War I Baku, Josef Stalin was in the business of extorting local ethnic groups to raise money for the Bolsheviks; this was before he became a mass murderer. Lev and his father (his mother comitted suicide by swallowing acid) had to flee the Red Army (twice). This brought them into contact with camel caravans, Central Asian despots, the Communist Secret Police, Muslim sultans, and local warlords. Throughout Lev’s journey, Reiss weaves in local history, personalities and color to great effect. He explores the Ottoman Empire, Fascism, post WWI Berlin, and the life of the Russian émigré. Although, ultimately a sad tale, it’s a rewarding one for any history buff who wants a decent encapsulation of some of the major events in early 20th century European and Central Asian history or anyone who’s interested in good biography of an elusive figure in 1920s – 1930’s literature.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Overmark

    Tom Reiss is taking you on a true tour de force trough Caucasus, Russia and Germany during the first 3 decades of the 20th century. Not alone are we given a rare insight into the first stages of what would, for good or bad, become the Soviet Union, but also glimpses of the various political and religious societies that played each their part - on both sides - of the Bolshevik revolution. As history is repeating in Germany and in Italy, by choice or by accident, Lev Nussimbaum happens to turn up ev Tom Reiss is taking you on a true tour de force trough Caucasus, Russia and Germany during the first 3 decades of the 20th century. Not alone are we given a rare insight into the first stages of what would, for good or bad, become the Soviet Union, but also glimpses of the various political and religious societies that played each their part - on both sides - of the Bolshevik revolution. As history is repeating in Germany and in Italy, by choice or by accident, Lev Nussimbaum happens to turn up everywhere a revolution is in its making. Lev Nussimbaum was deconstructing himself throughout his life, Tom Reiss is putting him together and presenting him in a political, historical and literary context that it must have taken an enormous effort to achieve. The only question left is what an Orientalist really is. At the time of Lev Nussimbaum, orientalism was "the new black" with so many fractions each representing their own schools of thought and each having their own political agenda. A truly enjoyable read, not least if you take an interest in the Orient - whatever that be.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Hanaan

    I'd give this more than 5 stars if I could. It was so unusual. It is written as a biography, but really more of a history. I learned so much fascinating stuff about Central Asia, about which really very little great material is written these days (Baku, in Azerbaijan, has been an oil boom town from the ancient to the modern world.) It also dealt heavily on the influence of the Bolshevik revolutions on the rest of Europe and how that played into WWII, which was still well done though more well kn I'd give this more than 5 stars if I could. It was so unusual. It is written as a biography, but really more of a history. I learned so much fascinating stuff about Central Asia, about which really very little great material is written these days (Baku, in Azerbaijan, has been an oil boom town from the ancient to the modern world.) It also dealt heavily on the influence of the Bolshevik revolutions on the rest of Europe and how that played into WWII, which was still well done though more well known. It adds such needed complexity to orientalism debates - it is one thing to create and define myths about "the other", but is it any sin to create and re-create a myth about yourself? The history does get a bit heavy in the middle of the book, but it is so worth it. Such great details - Stalin's favourite novel? What about what Lenin was reading? Did you know that Benjamin Disraeli was a novelist as well? Much of the book is centered on the interwar Russian emigre communities in Germany and France that included the families of Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov. The first three chapters plus the one on Jewish Orientalism is worth the book. I'd like to hear someone expound on the "clash of civilizations" after reading this.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Having recently completed Ali and Nino: A Love Story and having given it 5 stars, I wanted to know more about the author. The author Lev Nussimbaum, born a Jew, used the pen name Kurban Said. Actually both this book and The Girl from the Golden Horn were registered under the author Elfriede Ehrenfels in the German Nazi document Deutscher Gesamkatalog for the years 1935-1939! Who was this guy?! Why all the different names? He left Judaism and converted to the Islamic faith. This was not motivated Having recently completed Ali and Nino: A Love Story and having given it 5 stars, I wanted to know more about the author. The author Lev Nussimbaum, born a Jew, used the pen name Kurban Said. Actually both this book and The Girl from the Golden Horn were registered under the author Elfriede Ehrenfels in the German Nazi document Deutscher Gesamkatalog for the years 1935-1939! Who was this guy?! Why all the different names? He left Judaism and converted to the Islamic faith. This was not motivated by the persecution of Jews under Hitler. He converted earlier. What motivated him? What life experiences formed him? You get all of this in this biography which is carefully researched by Tom Reiss. Basically Lev Nussimbaum continually reinvented himself, even when he was dieing at 36 years of age from Raynaud's disease. However, this book is more centered on political science than this one man's life. Definitely more than half of this book is about political movements and history. I found the parts about Lev's youth in Baku, Azerbaijan, after the early exploitation of oil, the most colorful and wonderful. I had a harder time following the political topics. The more you know the easier it is to follow such topics. I have alot to learn. This book definitely taught me tons. You learn about how the Russian Revolution played out in the Caucasus, about the growth of fascism and communism and the effects this had on the people living not only in Europe but also Asia and the Near East. I knew little about Jewish Orientalists. Although I have studied the philosopher Buber, he and others like him were hoping that that Zionism would promote the oriental Jewish cause rather than just European Judaic problems. These issues affected who Lev Nussimbaum was as a person. He wrote 14 non-fiction books on political issues, one being a biography about Mussolini. He livesd 1905-1942. Born in Baku to a wealthy oil baron he escaped during the Russian Revolution via boat and camels to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey and Italy. He lived in Germany and Austria. He had to escape again from the claws of Hitler. How? Well most often, by reinventing himself - over and over again! He lived in the thick of the Russian and European turmoil. For this reason history was a real part os what shaped him. To understand him you have to understand the history of his time. A fascinating life! The book never dragged, but at times it was very difficult to follow all the political twists and turns. I have two complaints. There is no map in the book and SOMETIMES I think Tom Reiss goes too far in trying to pinpoint WHY Lev did what he did. Sometimes a thorough analysis of a painting just goes too far. Let it be. Let the readers draw their own conclusions.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bettie

    Dedication: For Lolek, who showed me how to travel, and Julie, who keeps me from going too far. I wish they had met. Opening: On a cold morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said. It's hard to warm to the chameleon, Lev, however his times were eye-poppingly interesting/terrifying; he was forever out of the frying-pan and into the fire and it could be this reason that he kept shape-shifying Zelig-style. Re-inventing ones Dedication: For Lolek, who showed me how to travel, and Julie, who keeps me from going too far. I wish they had met. Opening: On a cold morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said. It's hard to warm to the chameleon, Lev, however his times were eye-poppingly interesting/terrifying; he was forever out of the frying-pan and into the fire and it could be this reason that he kept shape-shifying Zelig-style. Re-inventing oneself to survive is one thing, not knowing when to leave off is worrying - he had the personality traits to become a Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Mehmed. This is an amazing piece of investigative literature by Reiss. Not a book to read at night because of the small font and the print is mid grey on recycled, therefore greyish, paper. From the Guardian Sept 2011: Recently I read The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, a fascinating account of the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew from Baku who after the Russian revolution escaped via Turkey to Berlin. Semi-safely ensconced in the Weimar capital, he converted to Islam, taking the name "Essad Bey". A career writing bestselling biographies of Stalin and Mohammed followed. His escapades took him as far as Hollywood before he decided to return to Europe at precisely the wrong moment in history. read more of this review here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/... #79 TBR Busting 2013

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    "The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second one is, nobody knows." Oscar Wilde Reiss is an indefatigable researcher. That's a virtue and a flaw in his writing. How much back story is good for a story? Mind you, it's all fascinating -- brilliant primers on European, Middle Eastern, and Asian history, and all told with narrative panache -- but there were times when I felt like we were getting deep in historical weeds thick enough to choke the main story of Nussimbaum's life, and at "The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second one is, nobody knows." Oscar Wilde Reiss is an indefatigable researcher. That's a virtue and a flaw in his writing. How much back story is good for a story? Mind you, it's all fascinating -- brilliant primers on European, Middle Eastern, and Asian history, and all told with narrative panache -- but there were times when I felt like we were getting deep in historical weeds thick enough to choke the main story of Nussimbaum's life, and at some points I found the transition back rather thin. Listening to audio version, I found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with all the sources he draws on, but so interesting that I'd like to get a hard copy and reread many sections. (I hasten to add that narrator of audio was excellent.) Though Reiss does not do as good a job of selecting and integrating the back ground as he does in The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, his main story of another figure who was raised up and betrayed by historical forces is every bit as riveting. The account of Lev N's final months are poignant and heartbreaking. I plan on listening to it again with book in hand.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jo Walton

    I bought this book because Nicholas Whyte made it sound very interesting, and then I kept it lying about on the Kindle for ages without starting it. When I did, I raced through it. Fascinating, well written book about a very strange person. One of the things I like about biographies is that people's lives resist periodization and also geography. You get histories of times and places where the times and places are cut neatly along lines, but biography crosses those lines. Lev Nussimbaum, Essan Bey I bought this book because Nicholas Whyte made it sound very interesting, and then I kept it lying about on the Kindle for ages without starting it. When I did, I raced through it. Fascinating, well written book about a very strange person. One of the things I like about biographies is that people's lives resist periodization and also geography. You get histories of times and places where the times and places are cut neatly along lines, but biography crosses those lines. Lev Nussimbaum, Essan Bey, Kurban Said, did this more than most people. Born on a train in Russia to a Jewish oil millionaire from Baku and a revolutionary mother, in 1905, he fled the Russian revolution and reinvented himself in Germany in the twenties and thirties as a Muslim, and as someone who could explain East to West. It's very interesting to consider how much of it was deception, how much self-deception, and how much playacting -- he'd tell people his father was a Sheik while living in an apartment in Vienna with his actual father. This is very well written, and weaves in the story of Reiss's quest for Kurban Said remarkably well. You wouldn't think you want to read this, but actually you should.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    If you're a teenaged Jew fleeing the Bolshies in 1917 Odessa, what better way to enjoy Western Europe than remaking yourself into a fake Arab prince. Marry an American heiress, work for fascist Italian publishers and enjoy the Roaring 20s and early 30s...until German agents start to sniff out who you really are... If you're a teenaged Jew fleeing the Bolshies in 1917 Odessa, what better way to enjoy Western Europe than remaking yourself into a fake Arab prince. Marry an American heiress, work for fascist Italian publishers and enjoy the Roaring 20s and early 30s...until German agents start to sniff out who you really are...

  11. 5 out of 5

    DoctorM

    Lev Nussimbaum...upper-middle-class Ukrainian Jewish boy raised in Baku just before the Great War...who reinvents himself as Kurban Said, a Muslim Azeri Turkish princeling, a right-wing journalist in Weimar Germany, society husband, friend of a host of shadowy political and high-society figures, and who ends up in Mussolini's Italy as a pro-Fascist targeted by the Nazis as a Jew...and as the author of "Ali and Nino", a world-famous novel of love and war in the Caucasus, a book regarded as the Az Lev Nussimbaum...upper-middle-class Ukrainian Jewish boy raised in Baku just before the Great War...who reinvents himself as Kurban Said, a Muslim Azeri Turkish princeling, a right-wing journalist in Weimar Germany, society husband, friend of a host of shadowy political and high-society figures, and who ends up in Mussolini's Italy as a pro-Fascist targeted by the Nazis as a Jew...and as the author of "Ali and Nino", a world-famous novel of love and war in the Caucasus, a book regarded as the Azerbaijani national epic. Okay-- do try to keep up. Lev Nussimbaum, Kurban Said, Essad Bey... all faces of a personality more intriguing than Sir Edmund Backhouse ("The Hermit of Peking") or Lincoln Trebitsch ("The Many Lives of Lincoln Trebitsch"): one of the great imposters of the 20th century. And yet..."imposter" isn't the right word, really. His literary talents are clear, and his constant reinventions are far more than tactical ploys. Reiss' biography is engrossing, and Nussimbaum/Kurban said is a figure worth considering. Very much a book worth reading some night over Turkish coffee.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    (Previously read in June, 2009.) The Second Time Around I've decided that this year (2016) I'll undertake an experiment, of sorts, to read books which I've rated highly some time back but which I haven't written reviews for or have only a vague memory of to see how they fare "the second time around." This is not to be confused with my occasional rereading of perennial favorites such as Jane Austen, E.F. Benson, or Arthur Conan Doyle ("comfort reads"). No, I'm genuinely curious to see how the passa (Previously read in June, 2009.) The Second Time Around I've decided that this year (2016) I'll undertake an experiment, of sorts, to read books which I've rated highly some time back but which I haven't written reviews for or have only a vague memory of to see how they fare "the second time around." This is not to be confused with my occasional rereading of perennial favorites such as Jane Austen, E.F. Benson, or Arthur Conan Doyle ("comfort reads"). No, I'm genuinely curious to see how the passage of time has affected my reaction to and appreciation for each book. And so the experiment begins with a book that I recently gave to my nephew for Christmas, confident that he, too, would enjoy it. Only after giving it to him, I realized that while I remembered the general historical period and geographical regions the book covered, one I and my nephew have both studied, that I couldn't actually recall much about the subject of the book himself. And why had I given the book five stars, a rare thing for me? I have, I realize, become a harsher critic and would probably now give the book four stars, though I have decided to retain the initial rating because, after all, it did impress me enough to warrant it in 2009. For this second reading, I read quite differently than before, though, making "The Orientalist" my "bedside book" which I read for a half hour or so before falling asleep, a more fragmented and incremental reading, both measured and challenging, for it is harder to remember incidents and people spread out over a reading of weeks rather than days. But this much I can say in any case: the author, Tom Reiss, must have embarked on a truly strange and obsessive journey while researching this book, and while he never permits himself to seize the foreground, I was keenly aware of his reaction to and appraisal of his subject as well as numerous temptations to hare off pursuing other topics. Thus, the subject of the biography, one Lev Nussimbaum AKA Essad Bey AKA Kurban Said, is at the center of a whirling and ever-changing historical maelstrom. Since Lev/Essad Bey himself is an self-invented fabulist or "story swindler" (in the Nazi's estimation), Reiss' primary challenge was in deciphering where reality left off and fantasy began. It was clearly a daunting if fascinating task. Reiss firmly embeds Lev in the events of his cultural and political events of his time, providing whatever material the reader needs to understand the central events and players. There are some illuminating chapters or parts of chapters, which depart from Lev altogether to give the reader a bird's-eye view of what happened in the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Revolution, in Berlin during the 1920s, and in Italy in the 1930s. It's heady stuff, and for an ex-Slavic studies major like myself it covered a lot of familiar territory, but from a new slant: from the perspective of the son of a wealthy Jew, owner of oil wells in Baku. So much of the material unfolding -- on Stalin, on various Russian religious sects, on White Russian exiles, on the rise of Hitler and the political upheavals in Berlin in the 1920s -- was known to me, but it was interwoven in a way I'd never been exposed to, making entirely new (to me) connections and revealing so many things that I astonished myself by not knowing already. This is a humbling and delightful experience for a reader: to know enough to appreciate the material but to be given new grist for the intellectual mill. I did not know, for example, that there had been "Jewish" Cossacks (not actually Jews, but observing many Jewish practices, such as keeping Sabbath rules) who rode to the protection of Jews during the pogroms in the Ukraine, and that indeed an entire group of Russian serfs, known as the Subbotniks, had likewise decided to "reject the divinity of Jesus Christ and worship like Jews," petitioning the czar in 1817 to recognize their conversion. The czar, as one can imagine, was furious, for at that very time he was trying to rid his realm of Jews altogether. That is but one snippet, taken from one page of background on the Caucasus and its mix of religions, but it's a representative one. Reiss ranges so widely and authoritatively that I was repeatedly going back a few pages to make sure I'd absorbed them properly. (This, of course, was also because I was reading the book in smallish chunks right before falling asleep, but suffice it to say that it was less because the material was hard to absorb than that I simply wanted to make sure I could later recall it correctly.) Indeed, I found myself, over the weeks I read the book, finding excuses to work these treasured tidbits into conversations with my husband and friends. Did you know, for example, that the Nazi chant "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" was the brainchild of a Harvard man who based it on a Harvard football fight chant: "Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!"? Hitler, apparently, loved the idea of football chants and immediately saw their appeal in a political context. This same Harvard man, one Putzi Hanfstaengl, who was Hitler's capable publicist in the early days, later served as an adviser to Roosevelt. In fact, I was astonished and rather bemused to find how many American connections there were to both Hitler and Mussolini. In this election year, it was a sobering reminder of how short-sighted contemporary appraisals of rising political figures can be. (A personal aside: I was chagrined, as always, to find that my husband had a much better recollection of The Orientalist than I had. He also read the book back in 2009. He has always had a much better memory than I have, a vexing characteristic in a spouse.) But getting back to the central subject of the book, Lev Nussimbaum. He was, in addition to being a gifted storyteller, linguist, and scholar, an extremely secretive and complex character. Reiss' appraisal of Lev unfolds throughout the book, but he begins from the very outset to present Lev as an irresistible mystery: it is as if Lev had in some way foreshadowed his own biographer, leaving a trail of delicious crumbs, just enough to lure the biographer on. Lev's life took so many turns, and along the way he encountered so many fascinating, notable, and infamous people, that I was swept right along. On this second reading, I was struck forcefully by how Lev's life could well have played out in contemporary times. Or, as Reiss put it in an interview included in an appendix, "In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may be facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling. Terrorism was a fact of life. " This thought had also occurred to me a number of times as I read the book. "It could happen to us. It could happen to me!" Lev is an extravagant creature, but he is also a sort of Everyman, dealing with impossible catastrophes with ingenuity. Rather than retreat from threats, Lev simply insists that he is someone else entirely. He is not a Jew from Baku. He is an Oriental prince. And to an amazing extent, the ruse works. How much of the ruse is protective covering and how much Lev actually believes it himself is one of the central questions of the book. He converts to Islam, publishes under the name "Essad Bey," and becomes fluent in Turkish and Arabic. He covers his tracks. Yet everyone seems to know that he is "a Jew from Baku" and not Essad Bey. For some reason, and this may seem a frivolous comparison, I couldn't help but think of David Bowie, who died while I was reading this book. No one actually believed that Bowie was a spaceman, Ziggy Stardust. Yet it seemed.... almost believable. There was something so alien about Bowie that he could successfully become an alien from outer space. And thus it was with Lev, who seemed to be an Oriental prince down to his very bones, and yet he was, in fact, a Jew from Baku. In the author's final analysis, Lev "believed he could invent his way in and out of anything." I agree this was the case, but I couldn't help but wonder how much of our lives, in the final reckoning, are just that: inventions we believe in, whole heartedly. Perhaps our self-invented selves are not as exotic as being an Oriental prince, but they are inventions, nonetheless. And this thought, depressing as it may be, made me utterly sympathetic to the strange life and even stranger times of Lev Nussimbaum.

  13. 5 out of 5

    D. St. Germain

    One of the most riviting and epic biographies/historical recreations I've encountered. One of the most riviting and epic biographies/historical recreations I've encountered.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stuart

    Lev Nussimbaum was a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the name of Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution became celebrated throughout fascist Europe. His enduring master Lev Nussimbaum was a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the name of Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution became celebrated throughout fascist Europe. His enduring masterpiece, Ali and Nino—a story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaust—is still in print today. But Lev’s life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his real identity—until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereck, also a friend of Freud’s and Einstein’s, was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. Lev was invited to be Mussolini’s official biographer—until Fascists uncovered his true origins. Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last book—scrawled in tine print in half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyone—helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. Tom Reiss spent five years tracking down secret police records, love letters, diaries, and deathbed notebooks. Beginning with a yearlong investigation for The New Yorker magazine, he pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal—and sometimes as heartbreaking—as his subject’s life.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Charlaralotte

    I picked this book up in Newark Airport & read it all during my trip to Portugal. What a find! Suddenly all the history preceding WWI & II & the creation of Israel was spelled out for me. Fascinating story of solving the mystery of Lev Nussbaum's eclectic life as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a writer... Just learning that at the turn of the 20th Century, the British proposed moving Jews into Palestine to "stabilize the situation."???!!!! Lord, everything we have been taught to think today about relatio I picked this book up in Newark Airport & read it all during my trip to Portugal. What a find! Suddenly all the history preceding WWI & II & the creation of Israel was spelled out for me. Fascinating story of solving the mystery of Lev Nussbaum's eclectic life as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a writer... Just learning that at the turn of the 20th Century, the British proposed moving Jews into Palestine to "stabilize the situation."???!!!! Lord, everything we have been taught to think today about relations between Muslims and Jews is all such recent political doctrine. Reading about the centuries of comradery between these two religions was mindblowing. The author manages to weave so much very detailed historical record of the Russian Revolution, the late 19th century rise of the concept of Aryanism, the precarious political situation in Germany before the rise of Nazism, the beginning of Stalin's career--all deftly combined with the specifics of Lev's peripatetic journey around Europe and the Caucasus. Lev's incredible output as a writer is phenomenal. He died in his thirties, but with many novels, stories, biographies under his belt. I'm about to reread this, as my dad has finally finished it. Yea!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    The Orientalist was a fascinating portrait of the son of a Jewish oil millionaire from Azerbaijan, Lev Nussimbaum, who reinvents himself as Essad Bey and becomes a best-selling author. There is interesting consideration of a lost, benevolent form of Orientalism, pan-semitism, the longing some Jews once had to close the gap with their Muslum brethren. Lev/ Essad was witness to the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and linked to it via his mysterious, revolutionary mother who killed herself by The Orientalist was a fascinating portrait of the son of a Jewish oil millionaire from Azerbaijan, Lev Nussimbaum, who reinvents himself as Essad Bey and becomes a best-selling author. There is interesting consideration of a lost, benevolent form of Orientalism, pan-semitism, the longing some Jews once had to close the gap with their Muslum brethren. Lev/ Essad was witness to the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and linked to it via his mysterious, revolutionary mother who killed herself by drinking acid. Lev's story is interspersed with fascinating historical sections that set complex context, the best of which is about the golden age of once-progressive melting pot Azerbaijan. This is also a literary mystery, dicovering whether or not Lev is the real author of the Azerbaijani classic novel Ali & Nino. Ultimately, Lev flees the violence of history only to find himself in Weimer and then Nazi Germany. After that, he applies to be the biographer of Benito Musolini. This is not only a great, bizarre adventure tale, it's a book that explores some of the greatest atrocities, reversals and pogroms of the 20th century. Despite the gravity of that, it is still a fun, very engaging read about a wonderfully eclectic fabulist.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    "It’s just an amazing, exhilarating book from which I learned so much, a visceral experience of finding oneself seemingly literally against all the world. The Self triumphant, somehow, in a system that wants to destroy every last trace of it. I can't even express, I don't think, all that is amazing about this book."--Kelly "It’s just an amazing, exhilarating book from which I learned so much, a visceral experience of finding oneself seemingly literally against all the world. The Self triumphant, somehow, in a system that wants to destroy every last trace of it. I can't even express, I don't think, all that is amazing about this book."--Kelly

  18. 4 out of 5

    Carl Rollyson

    "Who is this Essad Bey?" Trotsky asked in a 1932 letter to his son. By then, this mysterious writer had written bestselling biographies of Mohammed and Stalin, a book on the oil industry in Baku (in the early 20th century the Texas of the Caucasus), and a steady stream of articles on literary and political subjects from Tolstoy and Dreiser to the Ottomans and Americans ("American History in Five Hundred Words"). In one photograph he appears as a sporty figure in a fez; in another he is dressed as "Who is this Essad Bey?" Trotsky asked in a 1932 letter to his son. By then, this mysterious writer had written bestselling biographies of Mohammed and Stalin, a book on the oil industry in Baku (in the early 20th century the Texas of the Caucasus), and a steady stream of articles on literary and political subjects from Tolstoy and Dreiser to the Ottomans and Americans ("American History in Five Hundred Words"). In one photograph he appears as a sporty figure in a fez; in another he is dressed as mountain warrior with a dagger at his waist. He claimed descent from Muslim princes, but others alleged he was the son of an oil millionaire in Baku, a nationalist poet, or a Viennese writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot. Not many biographers have to begin their projects by first figuring out the identity of their subjects. But in order to write "The Orientalist," Tom Reiss traveled to 10 countries in search of Essad Bey, aka the bestselling novelist Kurban Said, author of "Ali and Nino," a 20th-century literary classic. Mr. Reiss's book chronicles the adventures of a biographer, disclosing the process by which he discovered that in fact his subject was Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew born in Baku in 1905, an escapee via camel caravan from his native land, which Stalin (once a guest in Lev's own home) was plundering and devastating. Lev would die of a rare blood disease in 1942 in Italy, two weeks too late to take advantage of doing the radio broadcasts that Ezra Pound had arranged for him. Lev (as his biographer calls him) yearned for the pre-World War I world. Like Disraeli and a generation of 19th-century Jews, Lev was an orientalist - a mystic, really, who believed in a kind of pan-Semitic peopling of the East. Although Lev assumed the identity of a Muslim - even converting to the religion - and married an American wife without telling her that he was born a Jew, he was something other than an imposter. Among friends, he would even joke about his assumed identity, and anyone who became Lev's friend quickly realized that his father, who lived with Lev, was hardly the Muslim prince Lev claimed as his progenitor. Lev is best understood as a writer. All else - his marriage, love affairs, politics - was at the service of his imagination. Life for him was something that had to be brought to book. Stalin, in Lev's biography, was not only the monster-totalitarian who destroyed the diverse world of the East and tyrannized his own people, he was also a gangster/bank robber and a friend of his mother, herself a revolutionary who committed suicide after marrying Lev's oil millionaire father. Or so Lev claimed. Mr. Reiss can sort out the fact from the fancies only up to a point. As he asks when he quotes Trotsky's query: "Was it even clear that Lev knew the answer by this point?" Lev was a bestselling author in Nazi Germany until Goebbels & Co. discovered his Jewish identity. After 1935, Lev could have stayed in the United States, even though his marriage had broken up, since he would have had no trouble earning his living. He was a prolific author who had already been translated into 17 languages. But Lev was a monarchist. He had no more faith in the United States than he had in Weimar Germany. Democracy, to him, represented merely a cacophony of political factions. Kings had ruled the world for centuries, and so they should again. Dictators ran a poor second to kings, since they did not, in Lev's view, hold power in trust for the people but only for themselves. In fascist Europe, where Lev returned to live, he sought protection from those in power. So as late as 1938 he aspired to be Mussolini's authorized biographer. At least Mussolini had shown some respect for the Italian monarchy. Lev was no Nazi, but like Disraeli he might be called a racialist (Mr. Reiss shows how Disraeli's novels dramatize a sense of Semitic supremacy that made the imaginative world of Essad Bey conceivable). Lev thought of himself as a "Man from the East, a realm of lost glory and mystery. He began to fantasize about a pan-Islamic spirit that would preserve everything from revolutionary upheaval." Lev carried with him what Mr. Reiss calls a "portable Orient," which Lev would embody for the entertainment of his audiences. He was Zeliglike (Mr. Reiss alludes to Woody Allen's movie) in so far as he seemed to be able to change identities without any sense of inner conflict. In Positano, Lev's final destination, he enjoyed the admiration of a community that did not doubt his identity, finally erecting a gravestone that read "Mohammed Essad Bey." Mr. Reiss does not provide a scrap of evidence to show that Lev turned Turk because he repudiated his Jewishness. "Figures as diverse as Disraeli and the philosopher Martin Buber played a part in this relocation of the Jewish spirit to the realm of pan-Asia," writes Mr. Reiss. This is a lost world of the imagination that the biographer recreates with extraordinary aplomb. It appears in all its strangeness and wonder in the midst of the biographer's own tales about his strenuous efforts to find out who Essad Bey and Kurban Said really were. As a biographer, I especially enjoyed Mr. Reiss's accounts of his efforts to entertain his interviewees. In one case, he had to visit a castle inhabited by a source who was writing lyrics for a musical. The trouble was she had never seen such a production. Had Mr. Reiss seen one? Not in a long time, he replied, but the obliging biographer then performed versions of "Singin' in the Rain" and other classics of the musical stage - all while making his way to a freezing room stuffed with prized documents he could only peruse under natural light. (Ah that's the trouble with those castle assignments, an arduous part of the biographer's task). For sheer reading pleasure, for insights into the biographer's world, and for the rediscovery of a major literary figure (please, someone, reprint Lev's biography of Stalin!), this book cannot be bettered.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Babak Fakhamzadeh

    A few years ago, I was given the novel Ali and Nino: A Love Story by someone working at a client of mine. The book, on an 'impossible' love affair between a muslim boy and a christian girl, set in pre-revolution (that is, pre-Russian revolution) Baku in Azarbaijan, is an amazing masterpiece. The author, then listed as Kurban Said, was a bit of a mystery, as it was quite unclear who the person actually was, the assumption being that he was a Russian Jew, originally from Baku, who had fled from th A few years ago, I was given the novel Ali and Nino: A Love Story by someone working at a client of mine. The book, on an 'impossible' love affair between a muslim boy and a christian girl, set in pre-revolution (that is, pre-Russian revolution) Baku in Azarbaijan, is an amazing masterpiece. The author, then listed as Kurban Said, was a bit of a mystery, as it was quite unclear who the person actually was, the assumption being that he was a Russian Jew, originally from Baku, who had fled from that very revolution, to Germany. Hardly an improvement, at the time, for a jew. More recently, I read Kurban Said's other novel, The Girl from the Golden Horn, and although this one was less impressive, it still had some very good moments. As 'my' copy of Ali and Nino was published in the 1970s, this book had slightly more info on the author, actually saying that 'Kurban Said' was a pen name. Reiss, fascinated by the book Ali and Nino, during a trip to the Caucasus a few years ago and a Jew himself, was captivated by the mysteries surrounding the book's author and ended up excavating related information and talking to relevant individuals for several years, before coming up with the definitive answer as to who the man, Kurban Said, Essad Bay, Lev Nussimbaum, was: A jewish refugee from Azarbaijan, who, after a spectacular flight through central Asia, running from the Bolsheviks, returned to Baku, only to leave once more, with his father, for Constantinople and, later, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, briefly staying in the US, to end up in the Italian coastal town of Positano, where he died from a rare and incurable disease. Nussimbaum's story is certainly tragic but also amazing, reading like an adventure novel itself, in part because of his extreme genius as an author, penning a very wide range of books, including biographies on Stalin, Lenin and Czar Nicholas II as well as others. But also because during his short lifetime, he died in his 30s, he was in contact, or even close friends, with a whole laundry list of important social and historical figures of his age. In fact, Reiss unearthed so much information related to Nussimbaum, that it's surprising his personage was surrounded by so much mystery for so long. I can only wait for Nussimbaum's other works to be republished as his style of writing is immersive, pleasant and accessible. The parts of 'The Orientalist' that are nicest to read are the ones that deal with Nussimbaum himself, or his experiences. However, Reiss also spends lots of time on describing the political situations of all the arena's Nussimbaum was affected by. Although not too uninteresting in itself, it makes this book into a bit of a history lesson where, occasionally, Reiss really goes too far, bordering on the verge of boring the reader.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Gela Tevzadze

    A must-read for everyone who is familiar with "Ali and Nino" and is interested in the true identity of Qurban Said (aka Essad Bey, aka Lev Nissimbaum). This is one of the few cases when the adventures and exploits of an author are no less - may be quite a bit more - entertaining and exciting than the life of his heroes. Tom Reiss did a marvelous job putting together the most convincing theory unveiling the identity of Qurban Said, and an equally admirable effort is devoted to uncovering the flaws A must-read for everyone who is familiar with "Ali and Nino" and is interested in the true identity of Qurban Said (aka Essad Bey, aka Lev Nissimbaum). This is one of the few cases when the adventures and exploits of an author are no less - may be quite a bit more - entertaining and exciting than the life of his heroes. Tom Reiss did a marvelous job putting together the most convincing theory unveiling the identity of Qurban Said, and an equally admirable effort is devoted to uncovering the flaws of other theories on this subject.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Richard Levine

    Finally, a work of popular non-fiction that lives up to its elaborate subtitle! Yes, there actually is quite a mystery about the life of Lev Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said); and his life was indeed utterly strange and often dangerous; and it appears, based on the evidence presented in the book, that author Tom Reiss has solved it! It's a wild, far-flung story, mixing elements of biography, history, and real-life sleuthing by Reiss. In short: Before taking a journey to Azerbaijan in t Finally, a work of popular non-fiction that lives up to its elaborate subtitle! Yes, there actually is quite a mystery about the life of Lev Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said); and his life was indeed utterly strange and often dangerous; and it appears, based on the evidence presented in the book, that author Tom Reiss has solved it! It's a wild, far-flung story, mixing elements of biography, history, and real-life sleuthing by Reiss. In short: Before taking a journey to Azerbaijan in the 1990s, Reiss was recommended to read a novel called Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said, which is regarded as the greatest work of Azeri literature. But Kurban Said is a pen name for the actual author, whose identity is the subject of dispute. Reiss came across one edition that said that Kurban Said was the pseudonym for the a man named Essad Bey, a now-forgotten author who was very prolific and well-known during the 1920s and 30s. On further investigation, it turns out that Essad Bey was itself a pseudonym (or to be more precise, an alternate identity) of a fellow named Lev (Leo) Nussimbaum, who was born to Jewish parents (his father an oil millionaire; his mother a revolutionary who helped Stalin terrorize the Caucasus before the 1917 Russian Revolution) in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1905. Reiss's book presents Lev's remarkable biography, as best as he can determine. (Some details are suspect, as Lev was a bit of a fabulist.) The boy and his father had to flee Azerbaijan when the Bolsheviks took over, wandering through much of Central Asia, Persia, and the Caucasus before eventually making their way to Constantinople and then Western Europe with lots of other Russian refugees. Lev became entranced with Islamic culture, and after the family settled in Germany in the 1920s he took on the name and identity of Essad Bey, claiming to be the son of a Muslim prince. (Although his friends in the cafes and salons knew his Jewish name and background.) As Essad Bey, he was an intellectual who specialized in writing about "the East," which meant both Islamic lands and cultures and then grew to include Russia and the Soviet Union. But his heyday as an author was cut short when the Nazis took power in Germany and later in Austria (to which he had moved). He somehow made his way to Italy, but ill and destitute, he died there in 1942. On top of this biography -- from which I've omitted quite a few colorful details -- Reiss sprinkles in a lot of historical digressions, explaining such things as the culture and character of the Caucasus before the Russian Revolution, the cafe society of Weimar Germany, the history of Jewish "Orientalists" (Jews who tried to link Judaiasm and Islam in a common harmonious past and conceive of a common harmonious future). Some of these are fairly extended and slow down the pace of the Lev/Essad/Kurban story, but I found most of this material fascinating and eye-opening. I also liked Reiss's way of occasionally toggling back to his own story of pursuing the mystery of Kurban Said, and recounting meetings with (the usually ancient and exotic) characters who had some personal connection with his subject: a 95 year-old Viennese literary agent; an elderly Austrian countess who invites him to her decrepit castle in the woods; an elderly upstairs neighbor in New York who turns out to be the rightful heir to the Ottoman Empire. All in all, a fun and interesting book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Whyte

    http://nhw.livejournal.com/466903.html[return][return]This is a biography of the author of Ali and Nino, the insufficiently famous great romantic novel of the South Caucasus. Although Ali and Nino was published under the pseudonym of "Kurban Said", the author was born Lev Nussimbaum, apparently on a train in 1905, and grew up in Baku where his father, a minor oil magnate, was doing good business with the Swedish Nobel brothers (of dynamite, and the Nobel Prizes); his mother may well have invited http://nhw.livejournal.com/466903.html[return][return]This is a biography of the author of Ali and Nino, the insufficiently famous great romantic novel of the South Caucasus. Although Ali and Nino was published under the pseudonym of "Kurban Said", the author was born Lev Nussimbaum, apparently on a train in 1905, and grew up in Baku where his father, a minor oil magnate, was doing good business with the Swedish Nobel brothers (of dynamite, and the Nobel Prizes); his mother may well have invited Stalin round for tea occasionally; when the revolution came they fled to Constantinople, then Paris, and finally Berlin where he was in the same class at the school for the children of Russian exiles as the sisters of Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov; he later converted from Judaism to Islam and was best known as a writer on history and contemporary politics under the name of Essad Bey (his biography of the Prophet Mohammed has never been out of print). He died an early death, in Italian exile, caused by a horrifying medical condition in which bits of his feet gradually dropped off, aged just 37, Ezra Pound's last-minute efforts to help him being all in vain; and his grave became the butt of a comic anecdote told by John Steinbeck.[return][return]I'm afraid the summary above does not do justice to this fascinating book. Reiss has obviously been in the grip of an obsession with his subject, and understandably so. His portrayal of the religious, cultural, political and social background of Baku and the Russian Empire in the early twentieth century is utterly convincing, and he does decent vignettes of 1920s Turkey and inter-war Berlin as well. His central argument is that Nussimbaum was a late representative of a strand of Jewish thinking which saw alliance with Islam and the Arabs and Turks as the way forward, a strand which Reiss traces back to Benjamin Disraeli; obviously with the rise (and indeed political victory) of Zionism, one doesn't hear much of this side of the story, and Edward Said's account of Orientalism omits the Jewish orientalists (at least, according to Reiss, but I'm not very surprised). Nussimbaum obviously went just a little bit farther than most in a) converting to Islam and b) fervent admiration for Fascism and the Nazis, ever so slightly unusual for a writer who was originally himself Jewish.[return][return]Reiss' story of his own research permeates the biographical account, and includes nonagenarian Azeri exiles, fading central European aristocrats and the pretender to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. I felt the last part of the book was not quite as well structured - there's no account of Vienna, for instance, to match his superb descriptions of Berlin and Baku - but the strength of the material carried me through it. I'm sure that those who believe that the true author of Ali and Nino was not Nussimbaum, but really Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, or the Azeri nationalist poet Josef Vezir, will feel more than a little short-changed by the narrative, but I'm basically convinced. Read Ali and Nino, and then read this; or vice versa, if you like, but be warned that the biography has spoilers for the novel. Both are superb.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Magnus Laursen

    Brilliant book, expertly shifting between the life of the extraordinary Lev Nussimbaum and the historical events that took place during his life. Gives a great overview of Russia, Europe and the Caucasus in the eventful first three decades of the 20th century. Tom Reiss is a very skilful detective and storyteller, and I already look forward to reading another historical biography by him.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary

    It has taken me quite a long time to read this biography of Kurban Said (born as the Russian Jew Lev Nussinbaum and also know as the writer Essad Bey). Though born in Russia, as a baby Lev with his parents went to live in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, where his father made millions in oil. The Russian Revolution and World War I caused Lev and his father to flee Baku, and travel around Central Asia trying to stay out of the clutches of the Bolsheviks. Lev became enamored of the Asiatic tr It has taken me quite a long time to read this biography of Kurban Said (born as the Russian Jew Lev Nussinbaum and also know as the writer Essad Bey). Though born in Russia, as a baby Lev with his parents went to live in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, where his father made millions in oil. The Russian Revolution and World War I caused Lev and his father to flee Baku, and travel around Central Asia trying to stay out of the clutches of the Bolsheviks. Lev became enamored of the Asiatic tribespeople they met, and began to feel himself as an Asiatic. He and his father returned to Baku but fled again, this time through Constantinople, where Lev saw the great Ottoman city as a kind of ideal culture and identified with it completely. He went on to Paris and then Berlin, but converted to Islam and began building a Muslim identity for himself. How a Jew masquerading as a Muslim tries to survive in Nazi Germany is a very strange story indeed, and Lev's life is a great puzzle. A brilliant man but psychologically difficult to understand. Long parts of the book narrated various revolutions in Russia and Germany, and other wars and skirmishes. I found some of these passages a bit tedious, and they slowed me down in my reading. I was expecting more biography and less history. For those who enjoy the history angle more, these parts will not be a problem. Everything is well written. There are notes at the bottoms of pages (which I appreciated), reference notes for each chapter, a hefty bibliography, and an index. I recommend Kurban Said's novels Ali and Nino and The Girl from the Golden Horn.

  25. 4 out of 5

    A. Sacit

    Superb! A very enjoyable and informative read overall. The author expended a tremendous effort towards bringing to light a once-well-known author in the early 20th century, lev Nussimbaum- a.k.a. Essad Bey or Kurban Said, from obscurity. Nussimbaum, born in 1905 in Baku (Azerbaijan) to Jewish parents, comes through as an enigmatic character who was enamored with cultures of the Orient and Islam, in search of an identity for himself, but continuously changing as he found himself immersed in the d Superb! A very enjoyable and informative read overall. The author expended a tremendous effort towards bringing to light a once-well-known author in the early 20th century, lev Nussimbaum- a.k.a. Essad Bey or Kurban Said, from obscurity. Nussimbaum, born in 1905 in Baku (Azerbaijan) to Jewish parents, comes through as an enigmatic character who was enamored with cultures of the Orient and Islam, in search of an identity for himself, but continuously changing as he found himself immersed in the difficult circumstances of the early 20th century, such as Bolshevik revolution, 1st World War, and following the tumultuous period in Europe leading into the 2nd World War. After Lev Nissimbaum positioned himself as an expert on the “East” in Germany at a young age, his pace of writing was nothing short of frenetic, and produced great many essays and some notable books during his short life of 37 years, and one can only imagine how many more great books he might have produced if he were to live into full ripe old age. The author provides some unique and lucid insights into the historical events and characters of that period, such as Stalin, the final days of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, emergence of Ataturk, Hitler, and Mussolini.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I was captivated by the first 150 pages of this book, with its descriptions of 19th-century Baku. It made me really want to visit Azerbaijan and Georgia. The second half was a disappointment, though I don't think the author is wholly to blame. Reiss clearly worked very hard to find out everything he could about his elusive subject, and I credit him for sticking to facts even when it meant leaving gaping holes in the story. Unfortunately, I don't think he turned up enough material to carry a 340- I was captivated by the first 150 pages of this book, with its descriptions of 19th-century Baku. It made me really want to visit Azerbaijan and Georgia. The second half was a disappointment, though I don't think the author is wholly to blame. Reiss clearly worked very hard to find out everything he could about his elusive subject, and I credit him for sticking to facts even when it meant leaving gaping holes in the story. Unfortunately, I don't think he turned up enough material to carry a 340-page biography. Reiss wasn't able to convey much of the flavor of Lev Nussinbaum's adult life. As a result, I never felt close to Nussinbaum, even though, in outline, he is fascinating - an Azeri exile who became a prolific writer in Berlin, surrounded by cafe intellectuals and millionaires. Reiss, in my opinion, also devoted too many pages to history lessons about Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, which didn't interest me without a compelling central character. I guess I was hoping that the second half of the book would read more like "A Moveable Feast" and less like a textbook.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Turhan Dilmaç

    The curious, even bizarre story of Lev Nissambaum aka Essad Bey. Or we should prefer his purported pen name Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino which is considered an Azeri national classic although written in German by an Ashkenazi Jew. Lev, Essad (Lion in Arabic which makes sense) or Said was a son of an Jewish moghul of the first Baku oil boom; albeit he claimed to be a descentant of great Muslim Turkish and Persian extraction and indeed he dubiously converted to Islam at the Ottoman Turkish I The curious, even bizarre story of Lev Nissambaum aka Essad Bey. Or we should prefer his purported pen name Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino which is considered an Azeri national classic although written in German by an Ashkenazi Jew. Lev, Essad (Lion in Arabic which makes sense) or Said was a son of an Jewish moghul of the first Baku oil boom; albeit he claimed to be a descentant of great Muslim Turkish and Persian extraction and indeed he dubiously converted to Islam at the Ottoman Turkish Imperial Embassy in Berlin in 1922. Short (he died in Italy at the age of 35) but remarkable tale of the Orientalist (in fact a mirror image of Vambery, famous Hungarian Jewish orientalist) contains other strange details like his flirtation with the Fascists, his days in Nazi Germany and Austria; scandalous marriage with daughter of a rich Jewish family who eventually left him for a Hungarian writer. I enjoyed the book; possibly it deserves more than 3 star. What I did not like were some simple but critical mistakes concerning the parts related to the Turkish history.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    This is a biography-as-mystery in that its subject mystified, concealed and confabulated his exotic identity from an early age. He was, in fact, of Jewish birth when being Jewish was most inconvenient, i.e. in pre-war Nazi Germany and wartime fascist Italy. He was, however, understood by many to be, among other things, a Moslem, a Russian aristocrat, even a woman. Author Reiss explores the life of Lev Nussimbaum through interviews with many who knew him and by unpacking archives all over the wor This is a biography-as-mystery in that its subject mystified, concealed and confabulated his exotic identity from an early age. He was, in fact, of Jewish birth when being Jewish was most inconvenient, i.e. in pre-war Nazi Germany and wartime fascist Italy. He was, however, understood by many to be, among other things, a Moslem, a Russian aristocrat, even a woman. Author Reiss explores the life of Lev Nussimbaum through interviews with many who knew him and by unpacking archives all over the world. So doing, he dispells many myths and paints an oftentimes surprising picture of the milieu of expatriate artists and intellectuals within which Nussimbaum traveled.

  29. 4 out of 5

    dianne b.

    an offering, a toast, to survival in the radically changing world of early 20th century Europe, by the power of intellect and imagination. If strong enough, these can be counted on to support one's redefinition, and one's future. But, ultimately, Lev / Essad / Kurban was without a community of believers; others who believed in like possibilities, in magic. Without a community that is beyond betrayal even the finest ideas, the widest possibilities, are limited. an offering, a toast, to survival in the radically changing world of early 20th century Europe, by the power of intellect and imagination. If strong enough, these can be counted on to support one's redefinition, and one's future. But, ultimately, Lev / Essad / Kurban was without a community of believers; others who believed in like possibilities, in magic. Without a community that is beyond betrayal even the finest ideas, the widest possibilities, are limited.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Iñaki Tofiño

    Absolutely loved it! Great research and scholarship not only on Lev Nussimbaum but also on East-West relations during the first half of the XXth century, Jewish Orientalism, Zionism, European colonialism, Nazi Germany... Even if not all points are well developed (the case for Nussimbaum's authorship of Ali and Nino, for example), it reads like a novel and whether you agree with the author's points or not, you are in for a great time! Absolutely loved it! Great research and scholarship not only on Lev Nussimbaum but also on East-West relations during the first half of the XXth century, Jewish Orientalism, Zionism, European colonialism, Nazi Germany... Even if not all points are well developed (the case for Nussimbaum's authorship of Ali and Nino, for example), it reads like a novel and whether you agree with the author's points or not, you are in for a great time!

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