The Many Lives of Lev Nussimbaum
“The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House, $25.95).
Lev Nussimbaum lived as though life were theater, inventing an identity, dressing the part, shifting scenes, seeking audiences everywhere. He thought he could keep rewriting the ending, believed he could talk his way out of anything including his Jewish past, but ultimately he could not.
Nussimbaum was born in Baku in 1905, the son of a Russian Jewish émigré who made a fortune in the oil business. In a case of hiding in plain sight, he later on became known as Essad Bey, a well-known writer of books on Islam and global politics, and then Kurban Said, a novelist whose best-known work, “Ali and Nino,” published in 1937, is still in print.
Tom Reiss spent seven years trying to untangle the threads of this most unusual life. His new book is a richly detailed biography that’s also a memoir of his quest and an uncommon view into the Holocaust era. “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House) makes for fascinating reading.
From childhood, Nussimbaum daydreamed of the East, of Turkish warriors, Persian princesses and Arabic architecture. After the Russian Revolution, he and his father fled from Baku to Turkestan and then across the desert in a 50-camel caravan, finally arriving in Constantinople and then Paris. They moved to Berlin, where he secretly attended high school and university simultaneously, “cramming his head full of the mysteries of the East,” as Reiss writes.
At a time when many European Jews were interested in Orientalism, Nussimbaum went a step further and converted to Islam. He enjoyed dressing in full regalia, and was celebrated in literary and intellectual circles for his work, publishing 16 books — including biographies of Lenin and Stalin — before the age of 30. As Essad Bey, he married a Jewish heiress, and when their marriage fell apart in the late 1930s, the story was reported in tabloid newspapers around the world.
He died in Positano, Italy in 1942 at age 36, while under house arrest; although the courtly gentleman was known by townspeople as the Muslim, his Jewish identity was suspect. He was impoverished, unable to collect royalties due on his books. One of the remaining mysteries of his life is why he went to Italy — and offered to write a biography of Mussolini — and then chose to stay there, when he might have had a chance of escaping to the United States or elsewhere. He’s buried in a cliffside cemetery in Positano, the tombstone set to face Mecca.
It’s no surprise that researching a life as unusual as this one would entail remarkable adventures. Reiss, who was dogged in his research and reporting, traveled to 10 countries, interviewing a range of relatives, publishers, aged childhood friends of his subject in Baku, others who claimed to know another author of “Ali and Nino.” Doors seemed to open to Reiss at unexpected moments, yielding gifts.
Reiss found the woman who took over the publishing company (after the Jewish owners were expelled) that published much of Nussimbaum’s work in Vienna. She had gone to see Lev in Positano, and returned with six small leather notebooks in which he had handwritten his final and unpublished work, “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love.” She kept them in a closet for more than 50 years and presented them to Reiss, who was then able to fill in many gaps in the story. Another great discovery was a box of letters, recording a correspondence between Nussimbaum and Pima Andreae, an influential Italian salon hostess who tried to help him in Positano. Nussimbaum was a man who never wrote a boring letter. Theirs was an intellectual love affair, and she was his last link to the outside world. He reveals his deep sadness that in the end he could no longer protect his father, who ultimately died in Treblinka.
Reiss was drawn to Nussimbaum’s story during a trip to Baku in 1998, on assignment for a travel piece. A friend recommended “Ali and Nino” as a useful guide to the city. The author named on the cover was Kurban Said, and Reiss learned there was some disagreement as to Said’s true identity. At the same time, he happened to pick up one of Essad Bey’s early books in his hotel, a memoir and history titled “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” and he immediately saw connections between the two works.
As he got more involved in tracking down the truth about Nussimbaum, the 40-year-old Reiss came to see his subject as a character he had been waiting his whole life to meet, as he said. Reiss is the grandson of German Jews who left in the 1930s, although many relatives remained trapped in Europe; his mother came to the United States in 1948 as a French Jewish war orphan. In his early childhood years, Reiss lived among relatives in Washington Heights before his family moved to Texas and then Massachusetts. The book is dedicated in part to his late great-uncle Lolek, an émigré who would have been Nussimbaum’s contemporary and regaled him with stories of his adventures.
Offhandedly, Reiss refers to himself as a novelist.
“That’s how I write,” he said, “through the experiences of individuals. I think of myself as a novelist who must write the truth.”
He added that he has been obsessed with facts since childhood.
If there has been a theme to Reiss’s books and articles — he wrote about neo-Nazis in Dresden for The Wall Street Journal, a book called “Fuhrer-Ex” on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe — it has been “trying to find the back door into the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe,” he said. “I’ve always tried to find a way of seeing it that pulled me away from the clichés of the era.”
“In some ways, I’m very attracted to the assimilated Jews of Europe,” he said. Reiss has come to see assimilation as a profoundly creative act, particularly in Nussimbaum’s case.
“He was a Jew being forced to become anything else but a Jew,” he said. “Forced to assimilate all the other cultures of the world as a way of running away from being Jewish.”
In talking about his subject’s capacity for self-invention, Reiss sees Nussimbaum “as an unusually American character for a European Jew.”
Over the years, in his different guises, he rewrote his autobiography several times, another quality that strikes Reiss as American.
The multicultural Nussimbaum didn’t write directly about Zionism but one of his last published works, “Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World,” published in 1936, was co-written with Wolfgang von Wiesl, a leading Zionist who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-hand man. In Weimar Berlin, Nussimbaum found a number of other Jewish writers who “sought refuge from the new political realities in esoteric vistas on sympathetic Orientalism.” They saw the Jews as mediators between East and West.
Working on this project has influenced the author’s view of history.
“It made me see the whole early 20th century as one continuous tragedy beginning in 1905 and ending in 1945,” he said. “It was a disaster that began in Czarist Russia, for Jews and for everyone else.”
Did Reiss like his subject?
“I grew very attached to Lev, as often happens with a biographer,” he said. “I grew defensive of him in an odd way and went through stages of being disturbed by his disguises and choice of friends. Over time I grew to not exactly admire him, I grew deeply sympathetic. I guess that means I like him.”
“He feels like a friend who you would want to shake, to come to his senses,” he added. “But what does it mean to come to one’s senses if living in Nazi Europe. If he was crazy in behavior, most people were much crazier. There’s something inspiring in him — he’s someone who creates ways of escape even if in the end it’s just imaginative.”
Reiss, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two daughters, still has the last notebooks and correspondence. His hope is to find an institution, perhaps in the United States or Israel, interested in creating a collection. He could see the letters published as “one of the most interesting 20th-century correspondences.”
To Andreae’s practical questions, Lev would often respond with fantastical tales, drawn from the invented life he lived.
“Up until his last letter,” Reiss said, “he thought he could save himself.”