The Orientalist: Excerpt, Review, Questions, Interview

Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist, his biography of the elusive Lev Nussimbaum, the man who may or may not have been cult author Kurban Said, is reviewed in the New York Times by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. (The paper also posts the book’s first chapter on its site, along with a picture of the very photogenic author.) Wheatcroft recaps the major points of Nussumbaum’s fascinating life, finds a couple of factual errors in Reiss’s work, but otherwise gives the book a positive review, concluding,

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?

What I find rather interesting myself is that Reiss’s central thesis (that Lev Nussimbaum was Kurban Said) isn’t presented as just that–a hypothesis. Amardeep Singh points out that in the Anchor Books version of Ali and Nino, there is an afterword that points to another possible author: Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels.

It was impossible for decades to identify the author behind the pseudonym, but it now seems clear that “Kurban Said” is a pseudonym for two different people– a woman, the baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, and a man Lev Nussimbaum. . . . Lev Nussimbaum–who possibly had the original idea for the novel–was Jewish, born in Baku [in Azerbaijan] in 1905. Nussimbaum’s father took Lev and perhaps a German governess to Berlin during the tumult of the Russian Revolution. Nussimbaum completed his studies there, became a journalist and later wrote books about Mohammed, Nikolas II, Lenin, Reza Shah Pahlevi and regional geo-political issues. These books were published in London and New York under the name Essad Bey, the name he had taken in his youth when he converted to Islam. After Hitler seized power, Nussimbaum fled Berlin for still-independent Austria where an intense friendship with Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, her family, and her circle, developed. Ali and Nino is almost certainly result of this relationship. Which sections of the novel are the work of which author remains an unsolved mystery.

This is the stuff that legends are made of, and I’m sure speculation about who the real Kurban Said is won’t stop anytime soon.

In other news and coverage about The Orientalist, Nextbook contributor Boris Fishman interviews Tom Reiss about the book.