[Paleopsych] NYT: Exploring the Life of an Author Who Wrote His Own Identity
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Wed Apr 6 21:54:30 UTC 2005
Exploring the Life of an Author Who Wrote His Own Identity
February 23, 2005
By WILLIAM GRIMES
'Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life'
By Tom Reiss
Illustrated. 433 pages. Random House. $25.95.
In the cultural hothouse of Weimar Germany, few flowers bloomed quite
as extravagantly as Essad Bey. His enormously popular books and
articles opened a window on the Islamic world, the exotic tribes of
the Caucasus and the political upheavals convulsing Russia. ''Ali and
Nino,'' written under the pen name Kurban Said, enchanted readers with
its depiction of Azerbaijan on the eve of the Russian revolution and
its romantic story of a Muslim prince's love for a Christian girl. For
cultivated Germans, Essad Bey was the man of the East, the
cosmopolitan Muslim who, in his writings, brought back treasure from
the fabled lands of the caliphate.
In fact, Essad Bey, the Orientalist of Tom Reiss's title, was a
fictional creation. Although fond of posing for photographs in
Caucasian tribal gear, or wearing a fez or turban, Germany's most
beloved Muslim was actually a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum. Thereby hangs
a wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and
patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct.
Nussimbaum did not make things easy. A relentless fantasizer and
self-inventor, he treated the facts of his life as dramatic material.
In one of many improbable strokes of luck, Mr. Reiss tracked down his
subject's last editor, who surrendered six leather notebooks
containing autobiographical ruminations that Nussimbaum wrote as he
lay dying in Positano, Italy. They proved to be problematic. Like
everything that Nussimbaum wrote, fact and fancy were intertwined. It
was Mr. Reiss's task to disentangle one from the other, a job he
undertook with great enthusiasm and imagination. No wonder. The
unvarnished truth rivals anything that Essad Bey ever conjured from
the remote mountaintops of the Caucasus.
The Nussimbaums came from Slutzk, a village in the Pale of Settlement.
Abraham, Lev's father, headed for Baku to seek his fortune in the oil
business, and there, in the waning years of the Russian monarchy, his
son grew up, surrounded by mosques, minarets and enormous wealth. From
early childhood, Lev feasted on tales of the Orient and wandered the
Muslim quarter of the city, dominated by the palace of the Khans. The
palace, and the desert outside the city, he later wrote, ''became for
me the epitome of peaceful, ancient, silent grandeur.''
Revolution broke the spell. Fleeing the Bolsheviks, the Nussimbaums
embarked on a terrifying journey across Turkestan and Persia,
territory that supplied Lev with rich literary material and the seeds
of a new identity. The glories of Constantinople, which Lev reached in
1921, put the finishing gloss on the resplendent creation soon to be
presented to the world as Essad Bey. ''The new identity that was
taking shape in his mind had the pedigree of a Caucasian warrior, half
Persian, half who knows what,'' Mr. Reiss writes. ''He would not
arrive in Europe as a stateless Jew from the East, he would come
dressed in an Ottoman fez or, when he felt like it, as a Cossack.''
In Berlin, Nussimbaum quickly found his place. At the prestigious
Literarische Welt, the Weimar equivalent of The New York Review of
Books, he became the resident expert on the East, writing on topics as
various as King Amanullah of Afghanistan and a professional congress
organized by former eunuchs, thrown out of work by the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire. He wooed and won the chic, thoroughly modern Erika
Loewendahl, a poet and, like Nussimbaum, a fixture in cafe society.
A facile, stylish writer, Nussimbaum turned out books at a furious
rate, all of them best sellers. He wrote biographies of Muhammad,
Nicholas II, Lenin and Stalin, and a history of the secret police
under the Bolsheviks. (''Who is this Essad Bey?'' Trotsky wrote to his
son in 1931.) He chronicled his early life and the Bolshevik takeover
of Baku in ''Blood and Oil in the Orient,'' and took his wide-eyed
German readers along a fantastic tour in ''Twelve Secrets of the
Caucasus,'' where, he claimed, one could find a strange, secluded land
called Khevsuria, ''the political Switzerland of the Caucasus,''
reached by a long rope hanging from a cliff. There, anyone fleeing the
police could find sanctuary.
By the late 1930's, when the Nazis uncovered his Jewish identity,
Nussimbaum needed that rope. When he could no longer publish in
Germany, he left for Vienna and wrote two novels under the name Kurban
Said. But time was running out. In 1938, Vienna fell to the Nazis, and
Nussimbaum, who was pursued by revolution and chaos all his life,
escaped to Positano on the Amalfi coast. He survived on charity but
eventually succumbed, at 36, to Raynaud's syndrome, a rare
gangrenelike disorder, leaving a trail of mystery and romance behind
Mr. Reiss's efforts to pick up the trail become a parallel narrative
to Nussimbaum's life. His inquiries lead him to a strange gallery of
characters, most in their 80's or even older, and all of them
extremely odd, like the Austrian baroness, isolated in a remote
castle, who spends her nights writing the French text for an
Israeli-German rock musical. Unfortunately, she has never actually
seen a musical, so Mr. Reiss, at her request, finds himself performing
bits from ''On the Town'' and ''Camelot.'' At moments like these, Mr.
Reiss's quest takes him right through the looking glass.
''The Orientalist'' is too long by a third. Mr. Reiss, reluctant to
throw away any research, stops the narrative repeatedly to deliver a
lengthy historical set piece as Nussimbaum moves from city to city,
and he drags the reader a little too often into far-flung libraries
and dusty offices as he follows up one lead after another. He is, to
put it mildly, in no hurry to unfold his tale, but what a tale it is
-- mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible. Mr. Reiss, caught up
in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of
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