Lev or Leo Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said) was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1905. As a young man he claimed to be the son of an immensely wealthy Persian-Turkic prince. In his first published book, Blood and Oil in the Orient, Nussimbaum wrote that his supposed father had ‘the facial expression, imperturbable, weary and yet eager for activity, of an Oriental who has transferred the old traditions of command to the social life of a young oil city’. About his mother he said very little, other than that she was the daughter of an ancient and aristocratic Russian family, who in some obscure manner had sacrificed her life for the Communist cause during the last decade of the tsarist empire.
To call Nussimbaum an inveterate liar is to do him less than justice. He was in fact a compulsive fantasist and self-inventor. The only child of Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement, he clung to his fantasies with such tenacity that they became the source of a precarious yet highly successful career as a writer and an authority on all matters ‘Oriental’ – a term that for him seems to have covered just about everything east of the Danube and west of China. (A gifted linguist, he wrote chiefly in German.) His creation of himself as a mixture of highborn Muslim and Russian aristocrat not only gave him the subjects he wrote about; it also enabled him to extend his life for a year or two after the Second World War had broken out. The older Nussimbaum died like any other old Jew dispatched by the Nazis to a death-camp in Eastern Europe. His son, who had taken refuge in Positano, died at about the same time: not because the Nazis had caught up with him in his semi-secret hiding-place, but from the hideously painful effects of Raynaud’s disease (described by Tom Reiss in this exhaustive biography as ‘an extremely rare disease that produces the effects of accelerated leprosy and gangrene’). By then he had published no fewer than 16 books, the first of which, Blood and Oil in the Orient, appeared in 1929, shortly before his 24th birthday; eight years later he brought out his first novel, and penultimate book, Ali and Nino.
The novel came out under the pseudonym of Kurban Said, a name he had adopted in order to get the book into print, since the Nazis had banned the publication of books by Jewish authors, and the real identity of Essad Bey had for some years been known to several organs of the German government, the Gestapo among them.
The books he produced in the single decade of his writing life ranged from general works, such as OGPU: The Plot against the World and Allah Is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World, to biographies of Muhammad, Lenin, Stalin and Reza Shah. Two days spent browsing among these volumes in the British Library left me with the impression that he was invariably to be trusted least whenever he claimed to be writing in strictly autobiographical mode, or to be commenting on events and customs observed at first-hand. This is especially true of Blood and Oil in the Orient, which purports to give an account of his childhood in Baku, and of the adventures he and his father went through during their escape, by circuitous routes, from the chaos in Azerbaijan and its neighbouring regions just before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. Most of the public events alluded to in the book – the marching and counter-marching of armies, the massacres and revenge-takings by whatever side happened to be in the ascendancy – are more or less verifiable. But the book’s general tone can be best conveyed by listing the titles given to the three major parts into which it is divided (‘In the Land of Eternal Fire’, ‘On the Tracks of the Lame Timur’ and ‘The Flight’) and some of its chapter-headings: ‘Zarathustra’s Last Temple’, ‘The Land of the Holy George’, ‘The Wild Jews’, ‘The City of Red Water’ and – my own favourite – ‘The Revolt of the Lepers’. Implausibilities abound, among them a palace in Baku with walls covered by ‘thick gold plates’ from which passers-by ‘broke off something for themselves’; and a nameless ‘dark canyon’ inhabited by a people called the Jassaians, whose womenfolk carried swords, did all the work, chose their future husbands and defended them subsequently, and ‘hid in the forest’ to produce their children.
You want Orient? Essad Bey will give you Orient, and plenty of it, mediated not, as you might cynically suppose, by the pulp fiction and boys’ adventure stories of the period, together with bits of Moore’s Lallah Rookh, Kipling, Lermontov, Byron and other visiting Westerners, but straight from the horse’s (or camel’s) mouth. What better guarantee of veracity could readers ask for than that the tales assembled in Blood and Oil should be vouched for by a haughty Muslim nobleman, born among his fellow Orientals and recognisable to them by the irresistible marks of his caste and creed? In the book readers will learn, for example, of Essad Bey’s boyhood ambition to join a crack unit of Azerbaijanis, known as the Wild Division, who could ‘bite through the throats of their opponents by a particular trick’ – unfortunately, nothing is said about how to carry it out – and will be humbled by the world-weary sophistication and condescension which enabled him to meet the many vicissitudes of his life with a dismissive yawn. For example: ‘Then began my dime novel’ – i.e. the story of his travels from Baku to Turkey and on to Paris – ‘which was distinguished from thousands of other dime novels in neither style nor structure. The only difference is that mine actually took place.’ Eunuchs, seraglios, daggers and murders abound, and so does improbably formulaic dialogue. ‘The face of the young man darkened; he put his rosary in his pocket and drew out his money bag. “If you don’t let the girl go,” he said, “I’ll get her myself. My guard is more numerous than your prison rats.”’ This is how we are asked to believe Nussimbaum senior rescued his future wife from a Baku jail.
It is almost as if the author’s compulsion to live and write from within his Muslim or Oriental persona constantly vied with an impulse to overplay his hand, and thus reveal himself as a fraudster. But the former compulsion usually triumphed, at least in the eyes of many gullible reviewers. ‘Essad Bey est un historien; mais un historien qui a quelque chose d’un visionnaire,’ wrote one such reviewer, whose encomium appears on the back cover of the book on Islam, while Essad Bey himself boldly announced in the introduction to his Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus that ‘things which would be found in an encyclopedia will not be found here, in a book which has no wish to be confused with the heavy artillery of scholarship.’ His works were translated into 17 languages; he became a celebrated figure in Europe and the United States; he was photographed in a fez, in a turban, in a Circassian jacket and boots; he married a (German Jewish) heiress who took him to Manhattan – and abandoned him a few years later. A trope which recurs with tiresome frequency in his books, and in the unpublished letters and journals quoted in Reiss’s biography, is that of Essad Bey, the mystery man or boy, arriving in an unfamiliar country, city or school, being met with hostility or contempt, or with direct threats either to his life or manhood, and then managing to reveal his noble origins and disposition to the people around him. Whereupon they are instantly won over and become his servants, admirers, adoring friends.
In The Orientalist Tom Reiss plunges into the shallows and depths of the man’s life as eagerly as a spaniel after a stick. He follows, in person, the tortuous paths taken by Essad Bey across Asia Minor, Europe and the United States, and interviews everyone who knew him in his various manifestations or claims at least to remember what was said by others who did once know him. The length of the resulting cast-list poses problems and so does Reiss’s incorporation into the book of a series of virtually independent essays on such subjects as ‘Jewish Orientalism’, the end of the Ottoman Empire and the coming to power of Kemal Ataturk, the struggles in Germany between left and right before the Nazis took over, the White Russian diaspora in Paris and Berlin, and the energetically anti-semitic immigration procedures adopted by the United States to keep out Jews trying to flee from Hitler’s Europe. Informative though several of these essays are, they do mischief to the continuity of the narrative, and much the same can be said of Reiss’s way of handling metaphors. ‘The Russian Revolution . . . had unleashed vast new currents into Europe’; ‘The murder of Nabokov [père]’ had ‘put the death-blow to any hope that Lev and his father had escaped the spectre of revolutionary violence’; ‘The venom spat out at him had become . . . potently inchoate’; ‘Lev prescribed some positive images of Western culture on the double . . .’ And so on.
In many respects The Orientalist is reminiscent of other works on literary con-men and self-fashioners, among them Hugh Trevor-Roper’s life of the aristocratic sinologist and forger Sir Edmund Backhouse, or Bernard Wasserstein’s study of Trebitsch Lincoln (sometime Jew, Anglican priest, Buddhist, spy and gunrunner), or the classic instance of the genre, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo. Whatever the stylistic and structural faults of Reiss’s contribution to this galère, the story he has to tell is as bizarre as those just mentioned, and in some ways more poignant, for Essad Bey’s improbable success as a writer and a social figure in Germany and Austria (where all his friends and eventually all his enemies knew his identity to be both a charade and a life-choice he could never renounce) had the mark of doom on it throughout.
That Essad Bey was genuinely gifted as a writer emerges from the many passages which Reiss quotes from unpublished letters and a last diary-cum-novel he was writing at the time of his death. During my own limited British Library exposure to his work I was struck again and again by how supple and sardonic a polemicist he could be, and what a fierce opponent of those whom he truly hated, the Soviet Communists prominent among them. Here he is, for example, on an eager but inefficient thug charged with bringing the full rigours of Leninism into Asia Minor: ‘As it was quite clear that Okker was more gifted for philosophic speculation than for carrying out the duties of the Terror’, he was ‘soon turned into a poet and made head of the Literature Department of the People’s Commissariat’. And on the Soviet regime as a whole: ‘A great conspiracy and a random shambles’. His detestation of the Soviet Union led him to hobnob with many unsavoury right-wingers, and one cannot help wondering what might have become of him had the Nazis been ready to overlook his tainted Nussimbaum blood. But that they could never do. Of Islam as a way of life – at once exotic, hyper-refined and admirably ferocious – he had plenty to say; of Islam as a theological system, virtually nothing; of the political panislamists he met in Berlin he remarked merely that they disgusted him. Not surprisingly, a dozen factions among the panislamists soon produced an open letter accusing this ‘Kievan Jew’ of being a vile pornographic slanderer of the religion he had supposedly embraced.
The last book Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said managed to get published before his death was a novel, Ali and Nino – and its strengths make one wonder why he had not made the move into fiction at an earlier date. All novelists are licensed liars, and every novel is a game of ‘let’s pretend’ played by both writer and reader according to rules tacitly agreed between them. As a documentary and historical writer, Essad Bey had put into his work a pack of easily exposed lies about himself. However self-deluded he may have been, he must have known in some fugitive part of himself that his enemies would not fail to hold him up to ridicule for these claims. Hence the portentousness of so much of what he writes, its insistent knowingness, the lordly airs he puts on, the melodramatic, ‘Oriental’ flourishes he cannot restrain himself from including among his (sometimes) rational observations and insights. The most striking feature of his novel, on the other hand, is how relaxed and good-humoured it is (in its earlier chapters especially), how much more open and even tender its observation of character and recording of events, how much relish it shows for the workaday detail of the places and practices it describes. Of course the usual Essad Bey obsessions put in an appearance, and threaten to become as tedious and repetitive as ever, but for much of the book they are kept in check. It helps that the story, for all the incantatory bits attached to it, is essentially a simple one. Set in Baku, it is told in the first person by Ali Khan Shirvanshir, who is a member of a devout and distinguished Shia family tracing its descent from the famous Ibrahim Khan Shirvanshir, ‘who had once helped Hassan Kuli Khan cut off Prince Zizianashvili’s head’. Etc, etc. Nevertheless, the hero himself, and his family, and the locale, and even the hero’s beloved Nino, a Christian girl of Georgian origin and kittenish character, are treated with affectionate, deadpan satire, as are the Russian overlords of the city and the Europeans ‘beyond the mountains’, whose incomprehensible ways are wonderingly invoked from time to time.
As one might expect, the tale of Ali and Nino ends sadly. The young couple contrive to get married with remarkably little opposition from either set of parents; but after various adventures Nino is sent with their small child to safety in Georgia, while Ali remains behind to die a hero’s death in defence of the city against the advancing Bolshevik armies. According to Reiss’s introduction to the biography, since the collapse of the Soviet Union Ali and Nino has come to be considered the ‘national novel’ of the Azeris – a strange fate for a novel written in a European language by someone who clearly had a European audience in mind when composing it. Reiss then goes on to say that the novel ‘offers nothing less than a passionate endorsement of ethnic, cultural and religious mixing’: an interpretation of the novel that I am sure both Kurban Said and Essad Bey, the previous occupants of Nussimbaum’s fragmented mind, would have angrily repudiated. Once he had converted to Islam (under the auspices of the imam of the Turkish embassy in Berlin, according to his account), he appears to have been ready to proclaim the superiority of Islam over other faiths; and the novel itself takes care to inform the reader that the young couple marry only after Nino has agreed to bring up any children she might have as Muslims. Reiss has done a remarkable job in giving an account of the fantasies and grandiosities through which the only son of Abraham Nussimbaum and Berta Slutzkin felt impelled to live his vagrant life. But he does the man a disservice by trying to foist on him a ‘conversion’ to yet another religion: a benign, liberal, 21st-century multiculturalism. Of all things.