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 ...
althy 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.
biography, nonfiction, winter-20122013, wwii, paper-read, dip-in-now-and-again, azerbaijan, adventure, history, jewish, slavic, anti-semitic, dodgy-narrator, wwi, teh-brillianz, italy, germany, france, spring-2013, austria, iran-persiaRead from biography, nonfiction, winter-20122013, wwii, paper-read, dip-in-now-and-again, azerbaijan, adventure, history, jewish, slavic, anti-semitic, dodgy-narrator, wwi, teh-brillianz, italy, germany, france, spring-2013, austria, iran-persia Read from November 30, 2012 to March 27, 2013
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/...