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

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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life Cover

ISBN13: 9781400062652
ISBN10: 1400062659
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Staff Pick

Islamic prince, Hollywood intimate, Mussolini's biographer, Jewish tycoon's son, international bestselling author (Goebbels was a big fan), chummy with the Nabakovs and Pasternaks: Lev Nussimbaum (aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey) was all these things... and not. Dead by age thirty-seven, Nussimbaum lived one of the most creative, exciting, adventuresome lives one might imagine, refashioning himself as circumstances demanded. With infectious love and romance, Tim Reiss recreates Lev's brilliant career in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, a book that leaves you wishing for more.
Recommended by Fidel, Powells.com

Truth is stranger than fiction in the improbable life of Lev Nussimbaum. The Jewish son of an oil millionaire in Azerbaijan, he escapes one tyranny after another and becomes a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. This fascinating biography reads like a novel.
Recommended by Fidel, Powells.com

Islamic prince, Hollywood intimate, Mussolini's biographer, Jewish tycoon's son, international bestselling author (Goebbels was a big fan), chummy with the Nabakovs and Pasternaks: Lev Nussimbaum (aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey) was all these things... and not. Dead by age thirty-seven, Nussimbaum lived one of the most creative, exciting, adventuresome lives one might imagine, refashioning himself as circumstances demanded. With infectious love and romance, Tim Reiss recreates Lev's brilliant career in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, a book that leaves you wishing for more.
Recommended by Robin, Powells.com

Truth is stranger than fiction in the improbable life of Lev Nussimbaum. The Jewish son of an oil millionaire in Azerbaijan, he escapes one tyranny after another and becomes a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. This fascinating biography reads like a novel.
Recommended by Robin, Powells.com

Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

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.

Review:

"The intriguing search for the true identity of a 1930s cult novelist whose obscure working life was based entirely on escapist subterfuge....Marvelously written, and imbued with scholarly thinking on a forgotten tradition of Jewish-Islamic accord." Kirkus Reviews

Review:

"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." Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

Review:

"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." Paul Theroux

Review:

"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." Booklist

Review:

"[A]n important work that sheds light on the pre-Zionist phenomenon of Jewish Orientalism that led many Jews to embrace Muslim culture." Library Journal

Review:

"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." Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

Review:

"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." Jonathan Rosen, author of Joy Comes in the Morning

Review:

"[A] wondrous tale, beautifully told....[M]esmerizing, poignant and almost incredible. Mr. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own." William Grimes, The New York Times

Book News Annotation:

Said is acknowledged to be the pen name of the author of books in German about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution that were celebrated throughout fascist Europe. Reiss, a political and cultural in New York City, argues that he was Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew born in 1905 to a rich family in Baku, who escaped the Russian Revolution, found refuge in Germany, wrote his books, married an international heiress, was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer, then put under house arrest when his identity became known, where he wrote his last book.
Annotation 2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Synopsis:

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 bestselling author in Nazi Germany.

About the Author

Tom Reiss has written about politics and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.

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rollyson2002, August 15, 2012 (view all comments by rollyson2002)

"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.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400062652
Author:
Reiss, Tom
Publisher:
Random House
Author:
He lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Holocaust
Subject:
Historical - Holocaust
Copyright:
Publication Date:
February 2005
Binding:
Hardcover
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
464
Dimensions:
9.18x6.54x1.44 in. 1.62 lbs.

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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life Used Hardcover
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Product details 464 pages Random House - English 9781400062652 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Islamic prince, Hollywood intimate, Mussolini's biographer, Jewish tycoon's son, international bestselling author (Goebbels was a big fan), chummy with the Nabakovs and Pasternaks: Lev Nussimbaum (aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey) was all these things... and not. Dead by age thirty-seven, Nussimbaum lived one of the most creative, exciting, adventuresome lives one might imagine, refashioning himself as circumstances demanded. With infectious love and romance, Tim Reiss recreates Lev's brilliant career in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, a book that leaves you wishing for more.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Truth is stranger than fiction in the improbable life of Lev Nussimbaum. The Jewish son of an oil millionaire in Azerbaijan, he escapes one tyranny after another and becomes a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. This fascinating biography reads like a novel.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Islamic prince, Hollywood intimate, Mussolini's biographer, Jewish tycoon's son, international bestselling author (Goebbels was a big fan), chummy with the Nabakovs and Pasternaks: Lev Nussimbaum (aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey) was all these things... and not. Dead by age thirty-seven, Nussimbaum lived one of the most creative, exciting, adventuresome lives one might imagine, refashioning himself as circumstances demanded. With infectious love and romance, Tim Reiss recreates Lev's brilliant career in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, a book that leaves you wishing for more.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Truth is stranger than fiction in the improbable life of Lev Nussimbaum. The Jewish son of an oil millionaire in Azerbaijan, he escapes one tyranny after another and becomes a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. This fascinating biography reads like a novel.

"Review" by , "The intriguing search for the true identity of a 1930s cult novelist whose obscure working life was based entirely on escapist subterfuge....Marvelously written, and imbued with scholarly thinking on a forgotten tradition of Jewish-Islamic accord."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[A]n important work that sheds light on the pre-Zionist phenomenon of Jewish Orientalism that led many Jews to embrace Muslim culture."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[A] wondrous tale, beautifully told....[M]esmerizing, poignant and almost incredible. Mr. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own."
"Synopsis" by , 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 bestselling author in Nazi Germany.
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