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 Ninoa story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaustis 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 identityuntil she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereckalso a friend of both Freud's and Einstein'swas arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. Lev was invited to be Mussolini's official biographeruntil the Fascists discovered his "true" identity. Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last bookdiscovered in a half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyonehelped 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 worldsof European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientaliststhat have also been forgotten. The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth centuryof 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.
On the Trail of Kurban Said
On a cold November 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. I was with Peter Mayer, the president of the Overlook Press, a large, rumpled figure in a black corduroy suit who wanted to publish Said's small romantic novel Ali and Nino. Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about the book: "You know how when you look at a Vermeer, and it's an interior, and it's quite quiet, yet somehow, what he does with perspective, with light, it feels much biggerthat's this novel!" A love story set in the Caucasus on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Ali and Nino had been originally published in German in 1937 and was revived in translation in the seventies as a minor classic. But the question of the author's identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had ...
The story of Lev Nussimbaum's life starts in Baku, the capital of
Azeraijan at the turn of the 20th century.
Thanks to the joys of the internet you too can travel to Baku by browsing the local English language newspaper, the Baku Sun, which includes a guide to the city and even what's on the TV today. Isn't the web a wonderful thing!
Ali and Nino (1938) and The Girl From The Golden Horn (1939) by Said Kurban (aka Lev Nussimbaum) are both available at Amazon. Writing as Essad Bey, Naussimbaum is also believed to be the author of Blood and Oil in the Orient (1929), Stalin, the Career of a Fanatic (1931), and ...
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