August Books 14) The Orientalist

14) The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West, by Tom Reiss

This is a biography of the author of Ali and Nino, the insufficiently famous great romantic novel of the South Caucasus. Although Ali and Nino was published under the pseudonym of “Kurban Said”, the author was born Lev Nussimbaum, apparently on a train in 1905, and grew up in Baku where his father, a minor oil magnate, was doing good business with the Swedish Nobel brothers (of dynamite, and the Nobel Prizes); his mother may well have invited Stalin round for tea occasionally; when the revolution came they fled to Constantinople, then Paris, and finally Berlin where he was in the same class at the school for the children of Russian exiles as the sisters of Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov; he later converted from Judaism to Islam and was best known as a writer on history and contemporary politics under the name of Essad Bey (his biography of the Prophet Mohammed has never been out of print). He died an early death, in Italian exile, caused by a horrifying medical condition in which bits of his feet gradually dropped off, aged just 37, Ezra Pound’s last-minute efforts to help him being all in vain; and his grave became the butt of a comic anecdote told by John Steinbeck.

I’m afraid the summary above does not do justice to this fascinating book. Reiss has obviously been in the grip of an obsession with his subject, and understandably so. His portrayal of the religious, cultural, political and social background of Baku and the Russian Empire in the early twentieth century is utterly convincing, and he does decent vignettes of 1920s Turkey and inter-war Berlin as well. His central argument is that Nussimbaum was a late representative of a strand of Jewish thinking which saw alliance with Islam and the Arabs and Turks as the way forward, a strand which Reiss traces back to Benjamin Disraeli; obviously with the rise (and indeed political victory) of Zionism, one doesn’t hear much of this side of the story, and Edward Said’s account of Orientalism omits the Jewish orientalists (at least, according to Reiss, but I’m not very surprised). Nussimbaum obviously went just a little bit farther than most in a) converting to Islam and b) fervent admiration for Fascism and the Nazis, ever so slightly unusual for a writer who was originally himself Jewish.

Reiss’ story of his own research permeates the biographical account, and includes nonagenarian Azeri exiles, fading central European aristocrats and the pretender to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. I felt the last part of the book was not quite as well structured – there’s no account of Vienna, for instance, to match his superb descriptions of Berlin and Baku – but the strength of the material carried me through it. I’m sure that those who believe that the true author of Ali and Nino was not Nussimbaum, but really Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, or the Azeri nationalist poet Josef Vezir, will feel more than a little short-changed by the narrative, but I’m basically convinced. Read Ali and Nino, and then read this; or vice versa, if you like, but be warned that the biography has spoilers for the novel. Both are superb.

One thought on “August Books 14) The Orientalist

  1. If the data’s gathered, then there should be a way to form it into a permanent feed (possibly through either an LJ account or WordPress site) that will automatically post the relevant entry on the relevant date every year. (And allow that data to be added to as well, of course)

    But thanks for all the hard work you’ve done on this so far!

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