The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

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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.


From the Hardcover edition.

About Tom Reiss

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TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He makes his home in New York City.
Published February 15, 2005 by Random House. 464 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Travel, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for The Orientalist

Kirkus Reviews

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The intriguing search for the true identity of a 1930s cult novelist (published here, by Random, in 1971) whose obscure working life was based entirely on escapist subterfuge.

May 20 2010 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

The New York Times

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Essad Bey, the most famous Muslim in Weimar Germany, was actually a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum. Thereby hangs a wondrous tale, told by Tom Reiss in a new book.

Feb 23 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

The Guardian

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The Orientalist Tom Reiss Chatto & Windus £17.99, pp433 It was a 1937 German novel called Ali and Nino, the story of a relationship between a Muslim boy and Christian girl in Azerbaijan, which set American journalist Tom Reiss hunting for Lev Nussimbaum.

Jul 10 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

The Guardian

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(Lev and Abraham had by then scarce unpacked their suitcases in Constantinople, Rome and Paris in turn, flotsam on a first wave of asylum-seekers.) Lev attended Russian high school in the afternoon and enrolled for oriental studies at Berlin university the rest of the day.

Jun 18 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

Entertainment Weekly

(May have — Lev was a notoriously untrustworthy chronicler of his own life, even in his deathbed manuscript.) Escaping the Russian Revolution with his father, the young man ''traded one dying identity — son of a Jewish cosmopolitan from Baku — for another.'' Lev became a creation of his own ...

Feb 16 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

Booklist Online

But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 160,000 reviews.

Dec 15 2004 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

Deseret News

In the astonishing book "The Orientalist," written in a genre all its own, Tom Reiss uncovers the strange life of Lev Nussimbaum, a talented but forgotten early-20th-century Jewish writer.

Feb 27 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

Bookmarks Magazine

In his quest to unravel the mythical life of the "Orientalist," Reiss followed Nussimbaum’s trails from Azerbaijan and Austria, Istanbul and Italy, and from the Russian Revolution through the rise of Hollywood.Random House.

Jan 12 2008 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

Asian Review of Books

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss. reviewed by Peter Gordon. 23 March 2005 — I can'
t remember where I found Ali & Nino—probably while doing an A-to-Z of ...

Mar 23 2005 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

California Literary Review

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...

Apr 22 2007 | Read Full Review of The Orientalist: Solving the ...

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