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.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
The Orientalist of this detailed biography is Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who became a Muslim prince. Reiss (Fuhrer-Ex) was able to flesh out Nussimbaum's mysterious life after discovering a cache of unpublished letters he wrote to a friend. He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1905 to a Jewish oil baron father and a Bolshevist mother who committed suicide when Nussimbaum was still a child. The Soviet takeover of Baku's oilfields sent him and his father fleeing into the Persian deserts, and thus began his lifelong infatuation with the Middle East and eventual conversion to Islam. He was a nomadic soul whose only constant was his gift as a writer. By the late 1920s, he had become a best-selling author in Weimar Germany under the pseudonyms Essad Bey and Kurban Said (his works of fiction and nonfiction are still considered minor classics), but he was forced to flee when Hitler gained power and died in Italy in 1938. 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. Recommended for academic and public libraries with strong 20th-century literature or history collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/04.]-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 13, 2006
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Excerpt from The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
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 andNino.Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about thebook: ' 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 probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese caf ' -society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot. In the jacket photograph of a book called Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, the mysterious author is dressed up as a mountain warrior ' wearing a fur cap, a long, flowing coat with a sewn-in bandolier, and a straight dagger at his waist. Mayer and I were on our way to a meeting with a lawyer named Heinz Barazon, who was challenging Overlook over proper author credit on the novel.
Barazon claimed to know the true identity of Kurban Said, and as the lawyer for the author ' s heirs, he was insisting that it be acknowledged in the new edition of Ali and Nino or he would block publication. At the lawyer ' s address, next to a shop where some old women were bent over tables with needle and thread, we were buzzed into a lobby that could have had the grime of the Anschluss on its fixtures. Mayer squeezed my arm with excitement and said, ' It ' s The Third Man! ' Barazon ' s appearance didn ' t do anything to dispel the atmosphere of a Cold War thriller. He was a small man with a gravelly voice, a stooped back, and a clubfoot that made a tremendous racket as he led us down his book-lined hallway. ' You have both come a long way to discover the identity of Kurban Said, ' he said. ' It will all soon become clear to you. ' He ushered us into a room where a gaunt and beautiful blond woman with enormous glassy eyes was lying motionless on a couch. ' Pardon me, this is Leela, ' said Barazon. ' I hope you ' ll forgive me, ' Leela said in a fragile, precise voice. ' I must remain lying down because I ' m ill. I can ' t sit for long. ' Barazon came directly to the point: the novel Ali and Nino was written by the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the second wife of Leela ' s father, Baron Omar-Rolf von Ehrenfels, and when Baroness Elfriede died, in the early 1980s, having outlived her husband, all rights to the work had passed down to Leela.