'The Orientalist': The Chic of Araby Feb 28, 2005 17:04:38 GMT -5
Post by Bozur on Feb 28, 2005 17:04:38 GMT -5
'The Orientalist': The Chic of Araby
By GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT
Published: February 27, 2005
From ''The Orientalist''
Lev Nussimbaum in full Orientalist rig.
From ''The Orientalist''
Lev Nussimbaum as a young writer.
AN entertaining species of biography might take the generic subtitle: ''But did he really exist?'' The benchmark is A. J. A. Symons's 1934 book, ''The Quest for Corvo,'' where a literary gumshoe tailed the pederastic (and quite interesting) writer Frederick Rolfe, ''Baron Corvo''; but other examples are ''The Hermit of Peking,'' in which Hugh Trevor-Roper exposed Sir Edmund Backhouse, another intellectual impostor and sexual adventurer; and Bernard Wasserstein's richly comical ''Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln'' (by turns Hungarian Jew, British M.P., Buddhist convert and Chinese gunrunner). In each case, the biographer's task is not just telling a life story but peeling away the layers of myth and mendacity that cocoon these fabulists.
Although ''Kurban Said'' may not have reached such extremes of fantasy, he set a high standard. During his short but amazing interwar career as a writer he became famous throughout much of Europe. His novel ''Ali and Nino,'' a romance set in Azerbaijan at the time of the Russian Revolution, was a best seller in 1937, and is read to this day. When Tom Reiss went to report from Baku some years ago, an Iranian friend recommended it to him as better than any guidebook. Its author also published a number of books as ''Essad Bey,'' beginning with ''Blood and Oil in the Orient,'' written when he was only 24, and including biographies of the last czar and of Stalin.
But who was he? That question set Reiss off sleuthing, and ''The Orientalist'' is the result. It might have been called ''The Quest for Kurban.'' While the full answer is anything but simple, he was born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku in 1905, when the city was enjoying its first oil boom: half of the world's supply passed through its port. Around half a century earlier Lev's grandfather had probably migrated to the Caucasus from the Jewish Pale within the Russian Empire, and Lev's father, Abraham, had made a small fortune out of oil. One of Lev's first pieces of mythmongering was to insist that his mother was not Jewish (as she doubtless was) but a declassed aristocrat. He was altogether a romantic snob, who strongly identified with Nicholas II (''we have the same character'').
In ''Blood and Oil'' Lev would describe himself at 13 using a machine gun during the brutal civil war that followed the revolution. That seems unlikely, but there is little doubt father and son escaped across Turkestan and Persia and endured many privations before returning to Baku. But soon the Bolsheviks and their dreaded Cheka were in control there, and the pair escaped once more, this time to Constantinople.
Although Reiss's book is intermittently enthralling, he suffers from the notorious author's inability to let go of anything he has learned. Numerous digressions are more detailed than relevant, on everything from the origins of the Shiite-Sunni scission to the decay of old Turkey (''I didn't know much about the Ottoman Empire when I first returned from Baku,'' he says in his chatty way, ''but when I got back to my apartment in New York, the perfect source presented itself to me'').
Not all these asides have the ring of authority. ''The pro-Jewish climate of aristocratic England in the 19th century'' is not a phrase many historians would be keen to use, and the czar and his family were killed at Yekaterinburg in 1918, not 1917. Still, these are minor flaws, and the action is so gripping that Reiss is soon pulled back to spinning his yarn.
After moving to Berlin, Lev finished his schooling among the Russian emigres there, when his friends included Elena Nabokov. But his first really successful reinvention was to shed his Russianness and become a German author. This kind of transmogrification was not so rare -- in the fullness of time, after all, Elena's brother Vladimir would become a great American writer -- and in that slightly crazy milieu, name-changing, or ''guising,'' was almost commonplace.
At any rate, there now emerged Essad Bey, a turbaned, dagger-wielding writer, an Azeri Muslim, who began contributing to literary papers and turning out books. Whatever his veracity, there is no doubting Lev's ability, precocity and sheer prolificity. After ''Blood and Oil'' came half a dozen more very successful books in the next four years, at least 14 in his short life, as well as a great quantity of journalism. Less productive authors may be amused to hear his agent begging his client ''not to publish too many more books.''
His performance as Essad was not just shtick, and one chapter, on ''Jewish Orientalism,'' is far from an irrelevant digression. Reiss gives a fascinating examination of something that sprang up in the early 19th century, a romantic Jewish tradition of identifying with the East. It encompassed everything from the cult of the mystic Orient found in Benjamin Disraeli's preposterous novel ''Tancred,'' to the quite extraordinary architectural fashion for building synagogues in a supposedly Jewish-Muslim or ''Moorish'' style, often of the most outrageous extravagance (I don't know if Reiss has ever seen it, but there is no more astonishing case than the wildly over-the-top synagogue in Liverpool). In this context Reiss connects Nussimbaum-Essad with some of the more exotic Zionists, who envisaged not so much a European colony on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as a reconnection of the Jews with their Asian heritage.
And yet if the Jewish boy from Baku who wanted to be a sheik of Araby fit into this pattern, he never completely shed his origins, not in the way witness-protection schemes are meant to arrange. ''Essad Bey'' was less a total change of identity than a stage name, like calling yourself Cary Grant or Ed McBain as a career move. By the early 1930's Lev was flirting with all sorts of harebrained zealots and crackpots, some on the far right. But if he had forgotten that he was a Jew, they hadn't. In late 1933, after Hitler had come to power, Lev sailed for New York, maybe -- who knows if anything was for certain in his case? -- with a view to one more transformation, into an American. Instead, he returned to Europe in 1935, only to learn that he had been expelled from the German Writers Union (''No specific reason was given, but none needed to be'') and that his wife had left him.
He went to Vienna and, in the same strange pattern of paradox and denial, wrote ''Allah Is Great,'' celebrating the Muslim resurgence of the age. The book could equally have borrowed Shelley's title, ''The Revolt of Islam,'' or George Antonius's ''Arab Awakening'' -- and to make it odder still, its co-author was Wolfgang von Weisl, an associate of Vladimir Jabotinsky in the ultranationalist Revisionist Zionist movement.
Now Lev moved to Italy and desperately tried to ingratiate himself with Mussolini's regime, even offering, with what Reiss calls almost suicidal chutzpah, to write a biography of Il Duce. But his timing had finally gone all wrong. Mussolini had just passed his racial laws in an opportunistic attempt to please Hitler and Lev Nussimbaum's Jewish identity was officially denounced.
He managed to hide himself away in Positano, the pretty town south of Naples, pretending to be an American. Maybe the New Order would have caught up with him -- his father disappeared into the hellish darkness and was probably murdered at Treblinka -- but disease came first. Raynaud's syndrome, similar in effect to gangrene, killed him in 1942, at the age of only 36.
Whether this astounding and bitter story has any moral I am not sure, but it defies the old phrase ''stranger than fiction.'' It's just as well that Reiss didn't write his ''Quest for Kurban'' as a novel. Who would have believed a word of it?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include ''The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma,'' and the forthcoming ''Strange Death of Tory England.''