Summary and book reviews of The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

The Orientalist

Solving The Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

by Tom Reiss

The Orientalist
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2005, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2006, 480 pages

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Book Summary

'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.

Introduction
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 bigger–that'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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion Questions
  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. What is ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Mr. Reiss's book fills the reader with admiration. Tracking a life across so many cultures and disguises, far-flung places and languages, he must have endured an odyssey comparable to his subject's… The modern world had given up on [Lev Nussimbaum]. It had, as Mr. Reiss says, 'left him without an audience.' He has one now.

Newsweek

Absorbing...fascinating...heartbreaking.

The Miami Herald

Rarely in the literary annals of identity confusion has there been a tale as gripping as Tom Reiss' far-reaching detective work exploring the life and times of Lev Nussimbaum... a captivating and disquieting parable of the mystery of identity...endlessly fascinating... a truly page-turning meditation on the meaning of homeland and the endless capacity of the imagination to transcend the violence of society's capricious labels.

The Economist

The inter-weaving of biography, investigation and geopolitics [is] so elegant.

The New York Times

A wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct... Mr. Reiss's quest takes him right through the looking glass [and] what a tale it is—mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible. Mr. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own.

Entertainment Weekly

Thrilling, novelistic, and rich with the personal and political madness of early-20th-century Europe.

The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Reiss's book fills the reader with admiration. Tracking a life across so many cultures and disguises, far-flung places and languages, he must have endured an odyssey comparable to his subject's… The modern world had given up on [Lev Nussimbaum]. It had, as Mr. Reiss says, 'left him without an audience.' He has one now.

The Chicago Tribune

A brainy, nimble, remarkable book...what boosts this account above a mere true-mystery yarn is Reiss' dead-on cultural analysis, his record of the failed ideas that almost destroyed the world.

Library Journal - Jim Doyle

Reiss (Fuhrer-Ex) was able to flesh out Nussimbaum's mysterious life after discovering a cache of unpublished letters he wrote to a friend.... Unfortunately, Reiss gets bogged down in tangential details while trying to place Nussimbaum in early 20th-century context, but this is still an important work that sheds light on the pre-Zionist phenomenon of Jewish Orientalism that led many Jews to embrace Muslim culture.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred review. Marvelously written, and imbued with scholarly thinking on a forgotten tradition of Jewish-Islamic accord.

Booklist - Mark Knoblauch

In the hands of a less adept writer, such complex history might grow opaque and tedious, but Reiss' storytelling flair and the utterly compelling character of Lev Nussimbaum turn this biography into a page-turner of epic proportion.

Author Blurb Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
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.

Author Blurb Paul Theroux
I greatly enjoyed Tom Reiss's The Orientalist, for its mingled scholarship and sleuthing, and for so elegantly solving the puzzle of one of the Twentieth Century's most mysterious writers.

Author Blurb Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley
Tom Reiss's The Orientalist is a remarkable story of East meeting West, and the fantastic historical figure who stood astride both worlds, during an almost equally fantastic moment in time. This is history and biography that reads like a great novel.

Author Blurb Jonathan Rosen, author of Joy Comes in the Morning
'The Jew is most happy when he remains a Jew,' Albert Einstein is quoted as saying in this fascinating story about a man who extravagantly rejected this principle. Lev Nussimbaum didn't so much embrace a new religion as invent one. Tom Reiss's investigation into how he did this, and why, reads like a thrilling detective story peopled by unforgettable character and shadowed by the dark forces of 20th century history and, above all, by the mystery of human character.

Reader Reviews

tereska torres

the orientalist
This biography is a must-read today. It tells the history of the regions in the world that are in the center of today's problems: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Crimea,Turkey, Russia and the great oil city of Baku, all through the history of a mysterious ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

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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