Kay's Reviews > The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss
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Feb 11, 2016

it was amazing
bookshelves: biogr-memoir, eccentrics, russia, world_war_ii, favorites, nonfiction, middle-east-central-asia, re-reading
Read from January 10 to February 09, 2016

(Previously read in June, 2009.)

The Second Time Around

I've decided that this year (2016) I'll undertake an experiment, of sorts, to read books which I've rated highly some time back but which I haven't written reviews for or have only a vague memory of to see how they fare "the second time around."

This is not to be confused with my occasional rereading of perennial favorites such as Jane Austen, E.F. Benson, or Arthur Conan Doyle ("comfort reads"). No, I'm genuinely curious to see how the passage of time has affected my reaction to and appreciation for each book.

And so the experiment begins with a book that I recently gave to my nephew for Christmas, confident that he, too, would enjoy it. Only after giving it to him, I realized that while I remembered the general historical period and geographical regions the book covered, one I and my nephew have both studied, that I couldn't actually recall much about the subject of the book himself. And why had I given the book five stars, a rare thing for me?

I have, I realize, become a harsher critic and would probably now give the book four stars, though I have decided to retain the initial rating because, after all, it did impress me enough to warrant it in 2009. For this second reading, I read quite differently than before, though, making "The Orientalist" my "bedside book" which I read for a half hour or so before falling asleep, a more fragmented and incremental reading, both measured and challenging, for it is harder to remember incidents and people spread out over a reading of weeks rather than days.

But this much I can say in any case: the author, Tom Reiss, must have embarked on a truly strange and obsessive journey while researching this book, and while he never permits himself to seize the foreground, I was keenly aware of his reaction to and appraisal of his subject as well as numerous temptations to hare off pursuing other topics.

Thus, the subject of the biography, one Lev Nussimbaum AKA Essad Bey AKA Kurban Said, is at the center of a whirling and ever-changing historical maelstrom. Since Lev/Essad Bey himself is an self-invented fabulist or "story swindler" (in the Nazi's estimation), Reiss' primary challenge was in deciphering where reality left off and fantasy began. It was clearly a daunting if fascinating task.

Reiss firmly embeds Lev in the events of his cultural and political events of his time, providing whatever material the reader needs to understand the central events and players. There are some illuminating chapters or parts of chapters, which depart from Lev altogether to give the reader a bird's-eye view of what happened in the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Revolution, in Berlin during the 1920s, and in Italy in the 1930s. It's heady stuff, and for an ex-Slavic studies major like myself it covered a lot of familiar territory, but from a new slant: from the perspective of the son of a wealthy Jew, owner of oil wells in Baku.

So much of the material unfolding -- on Stalin, on various Russian religious sects, on White Russian exiles, on the rise of Hitler and the political upheavals in Berlin in the 1920s -- was known to me, but it was interwoven in a way I'd never been exposed to, making entirely new (to me) connections and revealing so many things that I astonished myself by not knowing already. This is a humbling and delightful experience for a reader: to know enough to appreciate the material but to be given new grist for the intellectual mill.

I did not know, for example, that there had been "Jewish" Cossacks (not actually Jews, but observing many Jewish practices, such as keeping Sabbath rules) who rode to the protection of Jews during the pogroms in the Ukraine, and that indeed an entire group of Russian serfs, known as the Subbotniks, had likewise decided to "reject the divinity of Jesus Christ and worship like Jews," petitioning the czar in 1817 to recognize their conversion. The czar, as one can imagine, was furious, for at that very time he was trying to rid his realm of Jews altogether.

That is but one snippet, taken from one page of background on the Caucasus and its mix of religions, but it's a representative one. Reiss ranges so widely and authoritatively that I was repeatedly going back a few pages to make sure I'd absorbed them properly. (This, of course, was also because I was reading the book in smallish chunks right before falling asleep, but suffice it to say that it was less because the material was hard to absorb than that I simply wanted to make sure I could later recall it correctly.)

Indeed, I found myself, over the weeks I read the book, finding excuses to work these treasured tidbits into conversations with my husband and friends. Did you know, for example, that the Nazi chant "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" was the brainchild of a Harvard man who based it on a Harvard football fight chant: "Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!"? Hitler, apparently, loved the idea of football chants and immediately saw their appeal in a political context. This same Harvard man, one Putzi Hanfstaengl, who was Hitler's capable publicist in the early days, later served as an adviser to Roosevelt. In fact, I was astonished and rather bemused to find how many American connections there were to both Hitler and Mussolini. In this election year, it was a sobering reminder of how short-sighted contemporary appraisals of rising political figures can be.

(A personal aside: I was chagrined, as always, to find that my husband had a much better recollection of The Orientalist than I had. He also read the book back in 2009. He has always had a much better memory than I have, a vexing characteristic in a spouse.)

But getting back to the central subject of the book, Lev Nussimbaum. He was, in addition to being a gifted storyteller, linguist, and scholar, an extremely secretive and complex character. Reiss' appraisal of Lev unfolds throughout the book, but he begins from the very outset to present Lev as an irresistible mystery: it is as if Lev had in some way foreshadowed his own biographer, leaving a trail of delicious crumbs, just enough to lure the biographer on. Lev's life took so many turns, and along the way he encountered so many fascinating, notable, and infamous people, that I was swept right along.

On this second reading, I was struck forcefully by how Lev's life could well have played out in contemporary times. Or, as Reiss put it in an interview included in an appendix, "In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may be facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling. Terrorism was a fact of life. " This thought had also occurred to me a number of times as I read the book. "It could happen to us. It could happen to me!"

Lev is an extravagant creature, but he is also a sort of Everyman, dealing with impossible catastrophes with ingenuity. Rather than retreat from threats, Lev simply insists that he is someone else entirely. He is not a Jew from Baku. He is an Oriental prince. And to an amazing extent, the ruse works. How much of the ruse is protective covering and how much Lev actually believes it himself is one of the central questions of the book. He converts to Islam, publishes under the name "Essad Bey," and becomes fluent in Turkish and Arabic. He covers his tracks. Yet everyone seems to know that he is "a Jew from Baku" and not Essad Bey.

For some reason, and this may seem a frivolous comparison, I couldn't help but think of David Bowie, who died while I was reading this book. No one actually believed that Bowie was a spaceman, Ziggy Stardust. Yet it seemed.... almost believable. There was something so alien about Bowie that he could successfully become an alien from outer space. And thus it was with Lev, who seemed to be an Oriental prince down to his very bones, and yet he was, in fact, a Jew from Baku.

In the author's final analysis, Lev "believed he could invent his way in and out of anything." I agree this was the case, but I couldn't help but wonder how much of our lives, in the final reckoning, are just that: inventions we believe in, whole heartedly. Perhaps our self-invented selves are not as exotic as being an Oriental prince, but they are inventions, nonetheless. And this thought, depressing as it may be, made me utterly sympathetic to the strange life and even stranger times of Lev Nussimbaum.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Daren (new)

Daren I have recently considered re-reading some of my best liked books read pre-reviewing, but I find to too hard to justify many when I have so many unread books in my shelves!

message 2: by Forrest (new)

Forrest Excellent review and a most intriguing experiment!

message 3: by Kay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kay Thanks, Forrest. And I know how you feel, Daren. I'm surrounded by unread books but for some reason I feel more strongly about "solidifying" my recollection of certain books which stand out in my mind. It's kind of like returning to a favorite place in the world when so many other places I've never seen beckon.

message 4: by John (new)

John The book would have a tough time being as interesting as your review! The last time I tried re-reading a book about which I remembered little, other than that I liked it, the result was rather a dud: The Kingdom by the Sea.

message 5: by Kay (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kay Thanks, John. Hmmm... I read The Kingdom by the Sea years ago, either right before, during, or after a year we lived in Britain and I enjoyed it very much. But Theroux is one of those writers who has to be read in a "certain" mood to be appreciated, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, the mood varies from book to book, or at least it does in my case. I am fascinated by the interactions between readers and books. How much is our appreciation what we bring to the book and how much inherent in the book itself? I expect that varies, too. Must curtail this line of thought, else an essay ensue.

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