California Literary Review

The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery of A Strange and Dangerous Life – by Tom Reiss

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April 22nd, 2007 at 5:52 pm

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The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery of A Strange and Dangerous Life
by Tom Reiss
Random House, 433 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

CON MAN PAR EXCELLENCE!

Admirers of a haunting gem of a novel called, ALI & NINO, a work that seemed to materialize from nowhere when it was reprinted in 1999, were excited to learn that finally, finally! there is definitive information about its mysterious author. Ever since Tom Reiss’ biography of his elusive figure was announced, devotees have eagerly awaited his book.

At the initial publication of ALI & NINO in 1935, one Kurban Said signed the work. Clearly that was a pseudonym, but next to nothing more was known of its writer or his true origins.

Though the novel proved a sensation through Europe and the world in those turbulent times, the enigma of the writer’s identity was to remain for decades. Revived sometime in the mid-70’s and translated into English from the German, it was acclaimed as something of a masterpiece when The Overlook Press reissued it. Even at this late date, nothing more was known regarding its phantom author.

Until now. And what a life his turns out to have been! Several lives, in point of fact. For Kurban Said was also a dashing Muslim playboy, Essad Bey, as well as his more modest self, Lev Nussimbaum, under which name he’d launched his writing career. And all three were notorious during the years of entre les guerres!

Apparently, the prolific writer created not merely a world in fiction, but recreated himself, inventing in reality that set of striking personae. And now, what surprises us most about The Orientalist is that, in unveiling this life of daring, the story proves as engrossing as his fiction itself!

Born in Baku in 1905, Liova (Lev) Nussimbaun, son of Abraham Nussimbaum, a magnate of the local oil industry, and Bertha Slutsky Nussimbaum, “a radical revolutionary,” parents of Russian Jewish heritage, the boy was raised in that booming, open city of exotic Azerbaijan. There he began early on to weave his fictional life’s tale.

In Nussimbaum’s first book, Blood and Oil in the Orient, he laid groundwork for his chameleon escapades to come. Here’s his depiction of his father as he observes his “sun-darkened features” while he promenades one afternoon: “An oriental sheepskin cap on his head and in his hand a rosary of amber, without which no one can get along in Baku,” and with a facial expression “imperturbable, weary, and yet eager for activity, of an Oriental who has transferred the old tradition of command to the social life of the young oil-city.”

The notion of Abraham Nussimbaum as a Muslim aristocrat “of Persian and Turkish heritage” was strictly invention, a kind of fantasy-wish on the part of the writer. Yet, he persisted in maintaining this claim to mythic Arab origins during the rest of his short life. His extraordinary personages, from his earliest role as fearless adventurer [the escapee from Bolshevism who joined a camel caravan to cross Asia (Turkistan and Persia) at 15 with his father so to find a refuge in Germany]; to his pose as the swaggering Muslim nobleman; his fast-paced wooer (and wedder) of an heiress to millions; his literary giant-amongst giants in cosmopolitan Berlin of the 20s. He actually preserved those masks until the very end, when he lived under house arrest by the Fascist police in Positano, Italy, and faced an imminent and painful death. Hero to hunted man —— and all by the time he reached the age of 36!

His literary shift from Lev Nussimbaum to the more romantic Essad Bey, suited not just his needs but also those of that chaotic period. Lev, as he understood it, having managed to arrive safely in the West, and succeed as a writer, must make a splash by his person as well as his work. As Essad Bey, with “the pedigree of a Caucasian warrior, half-Persian half who knows what,” Reiss explains, he soon established that notoriety.

He was to be seen gallivanting about in pre-Nazi Berlin, dapper in his fez or grand in his turban. With his smartly tailored clothing, he was always confident because of his new-found celebrity, Blood and Oil having been such a sensation. He soon joined the prestigious literary journal Literarische Welt, while continuing to produce books at a frantic pace. His best-selling biographies concerned significant figures like Stalin, Nicholas II, and Muhammad. He was even invited to be the official biographer of Mussolini (that is, until the Fascists learned his true identity).

All this brought easy access to the grandees of European society. And soon enough, came his courtship and marriage to Ericka Loewendahl, “a slim attractive girl with bobbed hair, whom he encountered at the Literarische Welt magazine and who fancied herself a poet. “Her dark smiling eyes and vampish way of “wearing men’s suits and tight-fitting skirts with little bolero jackets and tiny hats at jaunty angles” made it impossible for Lev to ignore her. She made an instant conquest. Lev was in love.

Moreover, her millionaire father was a German industrialist. Ericka was driven to the office daily in an elegant automobile with a uniformed chauffeur.

The courtship was swift, the 26-year old sheik, playing his hero part as smartly as a Rudolf Valentino, swept her off her feet. Ericka in fact boasted at the time to any and all that would listen, of her “dark eyed Arab prince” who would come to whisk her away on horseback.

Naturally, Herr Vater Loewendahl scarcely trusted this Essad Bey, suspecting him of being a gold digger. Rumors surrounded him even then. Yet Loewendahl Senior delighted in association with fame, tolerating the flirtation despite all. The two soon wed. They were happy for a short interval. But the persistent gossip flew about him while the atmosphere in Germany grew darker and darker with the emergence of the Nazi fanatics.

Reiss’ sleuthing ferrets out details of Nusimbaum’s bold life, lived incredibly fast in several cultures, languages, and in distant places. It is the biographer’s fascination with the ambient atmosphere of madness during that era, in freeing him from one revolution’s expulsion to another that makes the study much more than one man’s life story, extraordinary as it was.

It brings this exquisite and prolific stylist —— the man himself—— back to us vividly, as well as demonstrating for us just why this writer meant so much to his own exotic Baku, a city situated between continents, which looked towards Europe even a hundred years ago. So important is “Kurban Said” that to this day its natives speak of his work with awe. When Reiss went to Baku in the 90s to look into Nussimbaum’s early life, he found a guide whose devotion was striking. It was Fuad Akhundov who, while showing the biographer about, first advised him to read Ali and Nino. Only then, he said, could he comprehend his significance to all citizens of Baku: “This novel made me discover my country, it made me discover the whole world that lay beneath my feet, buried by the Soviet system.”

And Reiss suggests here that such reverence shows us how that era must have prompted Nussimbaum’s self-inventions. The speaker, like his Azeri compatriots, has never to this day acknowledged that their national hero —— a writer who tore away for them a cover shrouding the inhuman effects of the Bolshevik Revolution upon their civilization —— and one that is “their lifeline” to the West, was born Ashkenazi Jewish, scarcely a Muslim at all!

Reiss’ research delves further into influences that might have shaped the young Lev. To comprehend Nussimbaum’s passion for “Orientalism,” for example, he explains certain, now forgotten popular notions of the 19th Century. He investigates theorists of those times termed “Jewish Orientalists.” Among their advocates were the like of Benjamin Disraeli and William Palgrave, the anthologist. Disraeli designated the group as “Jews on horseback” in an attempt to present a glamorous picture of his people’s ancestors. Others have considered the movement rather a prototypical form of Zionism, one of several.

But Reiss regards them as part of an ongoing longing, an urge not so much for the flamboyant or exotic (as it seems with Nussimbaum) but a search for legitimacy. Many Jews in Europe were casting about for other, deeper roots to redefine themselves. Orientalism offered the ideal of pre-Medieval origins. They asked to have another world. They found it in Asia. Jewish Orientalism represented, Reiss observes, the “opportunity to escape their demeaning European image as insulated, persecuted ghetto dwellers”.

His research into the short but chaotic period of Nussumbaun’s life is thus interwoven meticulously with investigation into the undercover world of the times. Take, for example, his revelation concerning Lev’s closest friend, one George Sylvester Viereck, later arrested as a leading Nazi agent in the United States. Viereck, a poet and journalist, numbered among his “associates” figures like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. But Viereck represented as well “America’s entire confused relationship with fascist Europe in the 1930’s,” in what was politically called “Isolationism.” Such views are glossed over today, even forgotten; yet they were powerful ideological positions within the lifetime of many with us today.

Regarding Nazism and Fascism, Reiss reminds us how deluded any number in this country were. It was only when Viereck went over the top and committed himself to what today is referred to as “the dark side,” that distinguished intellectuals abandoned him, including our own writer, Lev Nussimbaun.

Viereck encouraged Lev to write pro-Nazi articles, and to maintain and promote the illusion that “under the Nazis Jews in general are not in any way molested.” Nussimbaum then, playing his role as the popular Kurban Said touring America with his new wife, obliged.

Remarkable too is Reiss’ contribution of vivid anecdotal details from that period, the kind of stories seldom encountered. Small, yet revealing details, they take Reiss beyond simple biography into a social history that comes alive.

For instance, his tales of “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the Harvard man. Paradoxically, it was that hapless enthusiast’s strong ties with Americas’ “best and brightest” that resulted in his conversion to the Nazi movement!

During the early twenties, Hanfstaengl didn’t take seriously the nascent Nazi organization. But he’d kept touch with his Harvard colleagues and one day he got a call from a Hasty Pudding Club buddy named Warren Robbins, who’d joined the State Department and was then working as a senior officer in the American embassy in Berlin. Robbins asked him whether he’d take over for him with a visiting young military attaché, a Captain Truman-Smith, sent to look around Hanfstaengl’s Munich. Could he introduce him about?

This fateful meeting changed the course of Hanfstaengl’s life, perhaps Germany’s as well. It brought him to kneel at Hitler’s feet and yield himself to Nazism heart and soul!

The American attaché had already chanced to meet someone in Munich he described as “the most remarkable fellow I’ve ever come across, a fellow called Adolf Hitler.” Subsequently, when he asked Putzi to cover that meeting, a dubious Putzi had agreed.

And when Hanfstaegl joined the Nazis soon after, it was his creative suggestions to Hitler that virtually tin typed the entire course of Nazism’s future public image! For it was Putzi Hanfstaengl’s recollections of his college cheer-leading football years that stuck the ambitious young Hitler, who had recently begun dashing about the country to advance his candidacy for president.

Hanfstaengl demonstrated for him Harvard’s football chant, “Fight Harvard —— Fight, Fight, Fight! performing the choreography that accompanied such songs and this demonstration inspired Hitler’s own “Sieg Heil Sieg Heil Sieg Heil!

Reiss reports Putzi’s having boasted afterward, “I had Hitler fairly shouting with enthusiasm, and encouraging me to show what I had learned at Harvard University.

“That‘s it, Hanfstaengl, that’s it!” shouted a jubilating Hitler, “‘That’s just what we need for our movement, marvelous!’ while he pranced up and down the room like a drum majorette….”

Reiss’ absorbing book not only evokes an extraordinary life, but illuminates dark corners of the monstrous era in which he lived!

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