The Orientalist

The Denver Post has an excerpt of Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist, a book that I have been dying to read ever since I heard about it. It’s a biography of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish millionaire who escaped revolutionary Russia, transformed himself into a Muslim prince, and wrote Ali and Nino, which became a huge bestseller in pre-WWII Europe.

On a cold November morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said. I was with Peter Mayer, the president of the Overlook Press, a large, rumpled figure in a black corduroy suit who wanted to publish Said’s small romantic novel Ali and Nino. Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about the book: “You know how when you look at a Vermeer, and it’s an interior, and it’s quite quiet, yet somehow, what he does with perspective, with light, it feels much bigger-that’s this novel!” A love story set in the Caucasus on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Ali and Nino had been originally published in German in 1937 and was revived in translation in the seventies as a minor classic. But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot. In the jacket photograph of a book called Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, the mysterious author is dressed up as a mountain warrior-wearing a fur cap, a long, flowing coat with a sewn-in bandolier, and a straight dagger at his waist. Mayer and I were on our way to a meeting with a lawyer named Heinz Barazon, who was challenging Overlook over proper author credit on the novel.

Read the rest of the first chapter here.

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