Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life.
New York, Random House, 2005
Reviewed by John P.R. Schaefer
Lev Nussimbaum’s life was pure Hollywood and should be made into a film.
The frail, sheltered dreamer was born on a train between Zurich and Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1905. His Bolshevik mother committed suicide when Lev was a child. After his father lost an oil fortune to the Soviets following the October Revolution, the two fled to Weimar Germany via Iran and Istanbul. In the café culture of Berlin, Lev was reborn as writer and Muslim convert Essad Bey. He published 14 books of history, biography, and political economy between the ages of 24 and 33. Lev married the daughter of an industrialist and settled into a Bohemian lifestyle in Vienna; when the two divorced, lurid stories followed in European and American tabloids. In 1938 Lev contracted a mysterious aging and wasting disease and fled to Italy. The intervention of Ezra Pound and others kept him alive and enabled the publication of two masterful novels under the name Kurban Said. Ultimately, though, he ended up miserable, lame, half-starving and alone on the Amalfi coast, tended only by a shadowy Libyan arms smuggler. Self-described “Mohammedan, monarchist, and Orientalist,” Lev Nussimbaum died in Positano in 1942. A compelling screenplay is still missing, but Tom Reiss’s book is rich in facts and appropriate conjecture.
Producing a factual narrative about Nussimbaum at times seems an exercise in futility, since the writer delighted in fabulating wild stories, usually about himself. His two novels, Ali and Nino (1937; Random House, 2000) and The Girl from the Golden Horn (1938; Overlook Press, 2001), give insight into the worlds Lev imagined. Set in Azerbaijan in the late 1910s, Ali and Nino narrates a passionate love affair between a Shi‘i Azeri boy and a Christian Georgian girl of equally noble birth. Lev’s fantasy of a masterpiece imagines what his early life would have been like had he been a Shi‘i nobleman and a committed Azeri nationalist. We can read this novel as a love poem to his homeland in the Caucasus, which he never really abandoned.
The second novel introduces two more alter egos. The first, Prince Abdel-Kerim, heir to the Ottoman caliphate, goes by the name of John Rolland, a Hollywood screenwriter conspicuously drunk in Greenwich Village gutters. Here we see Lev as fallen nobleman and frustrated artist who would sell his talents to the movies. The second alter ego is a young Turkish woman. A graduate student in linguistics, Asiadeh lives a refugee life in 1930s Berlin with her carpet-salesman father, a former Ottoman governor. She is entranced by the former prince. Here, we see how German society both arouses and dismays Lev who, in this imagined feminine identity, is a fragile waif cast adrift in the European city. Rolland states that his place of origin, the East, is “bisexual, it lives and acts in unity with the universe. That is why there is something unfinished and yet illimitable about the art of the Orient.” It is impossible to determine whether his queerness extended beyond aesthetics, but Lev had ambivalent relationships with women and repeatedly rejected men’s affection in attentive, longing ways.
Reiss’s book follows the chronology and geography of Lev’s life. Reiss provides necessary details on the Russian historical background, an often-wacky cultural map of the Caucasus, and the Russian Revolution. His chapters on Central Asia and Iran, which lapse into simple stereotypes, betray Reiss’s dependence on Lev’s Orientalist perspectives at the expense of more factual descriptions. Finally, in the sections set in Germany, Vienna, New York, and Positano, Reiss painstakingly picks apart the intricate web of relationships Lev built among his varied supporters.
Lev resists being forced into neat categories. His fairly conventional Muslim gravestone in Positano, erected by his Libyan friend, is inscribed in Arabic with the name “Muhammad As‘ad Bay.” A disturbing recent trend among the American political right has been to revive admiration for Mussolini, and Reiss comes close to placing Lev in this camp of early Italian Fascism. In contrast, nevertheless, Lev appears to be perhaps the last of an already obsolete political type: a monarchist holding antipathies toward democratic liberalism and fascism that are surpassed only by his visceral and consuming hatred of communism, cemented when the Bolsheviks brutalized Baku. Finally, as an Orientalist, Lev joins other Jewish Orientalists like William Palgrave, Benjamin Disraeli, Josef Horovitz, Franz Rosenthal, and Leopold Weiss/Muhammad Asad. Thus at least one of his self-descriptions—“Mohammedan, monarchist, and Orientalist”—is accurate.
Lev’s similarities with Asad extend the furthest: Both were self-educated and polyglots, living uneasily in Europe; both converted in Berlin in the 1920s and thereafter identified with Islam partly as a means of critiquing the West. Like his character John Rolland, Lev found himself “a nomad, an exile, chasing after an unknown aim. His home? He did not know anymore where his home was.” Asiadeh gives a tempered critique of the Western world, not necessarily “a good or [a] bad world. Any world could make its people happy. But all differed from all the others, divided from one another since the beginning of time, strong and immovably rooted in their own individuality.” Displaying an exquisite sense of the impenetrability of cultural difference, Lev ultimately failed in his Herculean attempt to translate between cultures.
In the biggest failure, Lev identified closely with Nazi Germany despite its anti-Semitism. Moreover, both novels are absent any Jewish character or discussion of Judaism. Whether or not this omission was due more to Nuremberg laws than to Lev’s own intent to deny his Jewish past, we may never know. Lev attempted frequently to circumvent the laws and escape them, and he denied repeatedly that his mother was Jewish. Reiss must find two of Lev’s cousins before he can confirm that Lev’s mother, like his father, came from a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the Caucasus from the Pale of Settlement. This incongruity is also a central enigma of Reiss’s book, which he satisfies only partly by referring to Lev’s handling by the Bolsheviks.
Overall, Reiss’s book represents an admirable first attempt just to get some facts straight. The detective work necessary to establish Nussimbaum as Essad Bey and Kurban Said, and to document his life, represents Reiss’s greatest accomplishment. A tremendous breadth of knowledge would be necessary to fully explain the worlds Lev inhabited, and the limits of Reiss’s knowledge are evident on occasion. Reiss is much more comfortable discussing fascist and communist Europe, providing useful genealogies of propaganda and mass murder. At times Reiss details too much his efforts to salvage the story of Nussimbaum’s life, an engaging story filled with chance meetings between Reiss and fascinating men and women of very advanced age. Often, they died just weeks or months after the interviews, and we are indebted to him. Nevertheless, a different biography could have been written, more literary and cultural, with fewer historical tangents and tales of tracking down venerable Austrian eccentrics.
By all means, read the book. The prose moves quickly, and it is appropriate for advanced undergraduate courses, if not for graduate ones. When comparing The Orientalist to the two novels, nevertheless, I found the novels much more satisfying. We can also look forward to the eventual publication of Lev’s deathbed memoir, The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. Ultimately, The Orientalist is most valuable because it revives interest in Lev Nussimbaum and enables us to appreciate more fully his strange and dangerous life.