Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The story of Lev Nussimbaum is so fantastic that it seems like a novel, and indeed he wrote his own autobiography several times before he was 25, changing details as he went. Yet The Orientalist has over 65 pages of endnotes and bibliography and has been praised for its meticulous research. How do we separate truth from fiction in this story? How does the author? How is the experience of reading The Orientalist different from reading a novel?
What's in a name? Were Lev Nussimbaum and Kurban Said the same man? How do names determine identity in the book and how does identity determine destiny? How important is the question "Who Was Kurban Said?" and does the biographer solve it conclusively by the end?
What is an Orientalist? Why did Lev come to feel that the world of Caucasian tribes and Moorish synagogues was more real to him than contemporary Judaism or secular culture?
Most of the characters in The Orientalist are obsessed with "the East," whether in the sense of the Islamic East or the Russian East or some other definition. Lev became famous because he could explain "the East" to a Western audience. Why were people in the early 20th century so obsessed with "the East" and why were they willing to accept Lev as the authentic interpreter of it? Do we have a similar fascination? How has our view of "the East" changed? How has it stayed the same?
Lev Nussimbaum grew up hating and fearing the Russian Revolution, which destroyed the world of his childhood and also destroyed his family. Yet he later claimed that he confronted his oil-millionaire father with the suffering of the oil workers and felt that they had been mistreated. Why did Lev come to believe that no injustice was greater than the Revolution itself?
We tend to think of leaders like Stalin and Hitler as cartoonish villains, their evil ideas fully formed and ready to be loosed on the world. Yet The Orientalist gives us glimpses of them as real people sliding incrementally toward their psychosis: Stalin as a young Esperanto-speaking ex-seminary student, for instance, or Hitler cribbing his Sieg Heil! chant from an old Harvard football cheer. What do such glimpses tell us about "history" as we know it? Why do you think a biographer went to such effort to flesh out these moments in the lives of people who were not his main subject?
The early 20th century was beset by a global epidemic of fear, by terrorism and revolution, and the staggering destruction of that time flowed from it. Do you see any parallels to the times we're living in today? How did growing up in an age of terrorism affect Lev personally and politically?
Sometime during his year as a refugee, fleeing across Central Asia and then to Constantinople with his father, Lev decided to become a different person. What allowed him to make this transformation? Was he unique? Could anyone have done this? Could it be accomplished today?
What was Lev Nussimbaum's most unique quality?
Lev's mother committed suicide when he was a young boy. Why did she do it? What impact did this have on Lev's outlook and the way he lived his life? His relationship with his wife? His way of creating and recreating myths about himself?
What did Lev want most from life? Why? Did he get it?
As a young man Lev insisted that his father, Abraham Nussimbaum, was a Muslim lord, even though his circle in Berlin and Vienna knew that he was a penniless Jewish refugee. Lev would become furious at friends who mocked his conversion to Islam, while making a joke of his Jewishness himself. Could Lev in some ways have been like Hamlet, crossing a line between role-playing and genuine delusion, depending on who was watching?
It's hard to tell exactly what Lev himself believed. His conversion to Islam sometimes seems like a mere cover; at other times, there seems to be no question of his sincerity. Which do you think it is? Could it be both? Are people's beliefs and identities always or usually clear-cut?
How did Lev's friend and writing partner George Sylvester Viereck reconcile his friendships with Freud, Einstein, Goebbels, and Hitler? Was Viereck being serious when he said Nazism did not need to be anti-Semitic? Was he right? After reading The Orientalist, do you think Fascism was always anti-Semitic? Did it need to be?
What is the significance of Khevsuria for Lev? Is it a real place? Has Lev ever been there? If not, why did he write about it for an anthropological magazine? What does the Caucasus represent to Lev?
Lev was always writing from the time he was a young boy. Even as he lay dying and poor in Positano, he continued to write furiously. His final manuscript, written in six leather notebooks, provided many clues for author Tom Reiss. But from what we know, it seems that Lev did not intend to publish them. Why did he write the six death bed notebooks? Who is Dr. X?
What should author Reiss do with the six leather notebooks? Should he return them to the Austrian "Aryanizer" of Lev's publisher? Should he give them to a museum? What is a nonfiction author's responsibility for evidence he feels was obtained because of an unjust law, such as the Nazi anti-Jewish ban in publishing? Why do you think Frau Moegle gave Reiss the notebooks in the first place?
What do you think the mysterious Algerian, Giamil Vacca Mazzara, wanted from Lev? What evidence do we have and what does the author conclude? Do you agree? Why did Mazzara become so attached to Lev, building his gravestone memorial and even trying to start an Essad Bey Foundation after the war?
Near the end of his life, in 1942, Lev would write in a letter that he looked forward with excitement to the Nazi victory over Stalin and the West. Yet at the same time, he wrote of his constant terror about the fate of his old father, whom Nazis might deport to a death camp any day. Were Lev's pro-fascist statements at the end of his life merely a survival strategy? What kind of game was he playing with his benefactors and captors? What kind of game was he playing with himself? Why do you think the black secret police limousine arrived to take Lev away after he died?
As he lay trapped and dying in Positano, Lev wrote that he was haunted by one thought: why hadn't he stayed in America when he had the chance? Just a few years earlier, he had been internationally famous with money in the bank and friends in high places; he had offers to stay in the U.S.. Yet he had gone back to where he would be in most danger-to the heart of fascist Europe. In the notebooks, Lev agonizes over why he'd returned "to the edge of the abyss." Why do you think he did? What drew Lev Nussimbaum back to the forces that would destroy him?
The author, Tom Reiss, seems to feel a deep sympathy for Lev Nussimbaum. If you met Lev today, do you think you would like him? Was he a good man?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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