The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life tells the story of Lev Nussimbaum, born in 1905 in Baku, then a cosmopolitan boomtown in the Caucasus. The Bolshevik Revolution rendered Nussimbaum—who became enchanted by the region’s inclusive approach to Islam and would soon restyle himself Essad Bey—a penniless refugee, and he carried the Orient of his imagination as he was chased around Europe by war and political upheaval. Nussimbaum kept reinventing himself: He became a literary sensation in Fascist Europe, posing in flowing robes and turbans and telling tall tales. He died in Italy of a rare illness in 1942, and, perhaps because of his elusive identity, his writing faded into obscurity until his story was rescued by journalist Tom Reiss.
How did you first come across Nussimbaum?
I discovered Lev when I went to Azerbaijan to do a magazine story about the Caspian oil boom. There were no guidebooks available in English at the time, but several people recommended instead a short novel set in Baku before the Russian Revolution: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story about a Christian girl and a Muslim boy—really a wonderful novel, with all kinds of rich detail about the city.
When I tried to find out more about the author, I found that nobody had any idea. There were all sorts of theories, all very contradictory. But by chance, while I was in Baku, I was introduced to a very old woman who suggested an answer. She had been at school with a Jewish boy, the son of an oil millionaire, who had left the city during the Revolution and never been heard of again. I decided to find out what had happened to him. And six years later, I think I finally have, though the story was stranger than anything in the novel—anything that I could have imagined, in fact.
Did the turbulence of the late 1910s and early 1920s somehow factor into Lev’s freewheeling self-reinvention?
Very much so. He refused to behave normally in the face of danger. He refused to acknowledge normal reactions, that you as an individual were supposed to be cowed and run away and hide. One definition of assimilation—a negative definition—is that individuals were supposed to cower and lose themselves to the machine, whereas Lev said, “I’m going to assimilate as a kind of weapon. You can’t define me, I will define myself. If I need to, I will become you even as you attack me.” Even as he’s becoming a victim, he insists on becoming the persecutor, so he becomes a Fascist. Which is when he becomes a disturbing character.
If he had a flaw as a person—which made him very hard to be friends or intimate with—it is that he saw himself as a historical actor, channeling these big historical forces—the languorous Eastern force, the dying monarchical force, the dynamic fascist force.
So he was a product of the times?
Lev would say no. He’d say, “I clash with the age. I love old people, and this is an age that worships young people. I love the desert against a world that loves modernity and progress.” He’s very much a child of the age, in that he sees himself as having to embody one of these massive forces. But that’s also why he’s not a child of the age, because he has this Byronic attitude, this Napoleonic attitude, as though he as an individual will be decisive, will affect reality. But the reality of the 20th century is the opposite: The forces control the individuals.
Lev dwells on Islam and the Orient, but he treats his Jewishness more obliquely, if at all. Did it occur to him that his fate, as much as he imagined himself in control of it, was the classic tale of the exiled, wandering Jew?
You could look at Lev in terms of other Jewish Orientalists. That was a way of faking and embodying a Gentile Western heroic pose—rediscovering the East—yet turning it on its head, because you were becoming a hero riding back to the East, but when you got there, you found out you were actually the son of the place you were invading. It’s the classic Jewish paradox: Where do I belong? This is the positive way of seeing the modern Jewish dilemma: I am from everywhere. The negative way is: No matter where you go, you find out that you’re a victim, that you’re unwanted and don’t belong.
What was it about Lev’s Jewishness that allowed him to wear it so lightly?
The Caucasus was a place where it wasn’t bad to be a Jew. I don’t think he grew up with a feeling of Jewish self-hatred. Any rational person would use his assumed identity to either hide or escape, but he uses it to hide in plain sight in such a flamboyant and ridiculous way that it almost becomes an open secret. It’s all a bit off, because he’s not trying to make it right. There are too many jokes in it, the pose is too ironic. And all his friends were Jewish.
So posing as Essad Bey didn’t mean abandoning his Jewishness, the way it might today?
Certainly to his friends, Lev as a Muslim prince was a profoundly Jewish character. The more he became Essad Bey, the more he became their friend Lev Nussimbaum playing Essad Bey. That became an expression of Jewishness, an expression of this idea of extreme elasticity, of the cultural personality that only a Jew could bring off.
Lev defied the strict classifications of anthropology in his romanticized studies of Caucasian peoples. Yet there’s a moment in the book, as the Gestapo is trying to get Lev deported from Italy, when he begs for an anthropologist to certify him as not Jewish.
Anthropology seems so bland and friendly now, but in the early 20th century, Jews could only be dissected badly by these fields. The Jews were extremely assimilated, it’s a different world than now. My definition of Jewishness, which may be stuck in the past, is these Jews who were assimilated, before the Holocaust and Israel—a kind of extreme assimilation. When you start to dissect it, the Jewish identity falls apart. When Lev used to fool around with his fake anthropology, there was a fundamental disrespect for that kind of investigation into people. I identified with that so deeply in Lev: Who the hell are you to put everything in a genre? Why does everything have to be so compartmentalized? We’re talking about human beings.
What about Lev’s own family?
Lev and his father lost everything. These Baku millionaire oil refugees that I have great sympathy for, they built everything, and it was undone and used against them. Lev had a lifelong identification with the collapsing old world. When he and his wife visited America and went to the Waldorf, there was always a sense that the father was brought along and given a lot of money to buy his dark suits and keep living like a millionaire. There was a fantasy that the son was giving to the father: Old Baku had never collapsed and he had never become a penniless refugee. No evidence remained that the father had to face that.
Did your research undermine your own assumptions about the era?
Lev’s life gave me a chance to work out through investigation all the mysteries that had been bothering me since I was a kid, the question, basically, of the Jew in the modern world. My particular pain is that the world of Jewishness that I identify with—the extremely assimilated, educated European and Russian Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries—is lost, and is not mourned enough.
All the anti-Semitic clichés are actually enormous compliments. There’s nothing better than to be rootless cosmopolitans who seamlessly merge into whatever society. That’s the greatest thing human beings can aspire to. Whether forced by duress, Jews became perfect modern human beings. After the Holocaust, one doesn’t really mourn for that—it’s too disturbing, seems like a mistake. And it’s hard to mourn for mistakes.
Lev’s self-reinventions probably seem like a mistake, too. What other “mistakes” did you try to rescue?
The liberal Fascists in Italy, who are probably the strangest, most obnoxious version of that. Who wants to bother with them? Why would you look at people who made such a mistake as to be Fascists and then think they could be liberal about it? What bastards. They shouldn’t even have a place in history. Well, my family are refugees from the Holocaust, and like many refugees, they have a surprisingly good view of Mussolini’s Italy. Yes, they were thugs, but my two great-aunts who escaped concentration camps were hidden in Italy. Italian Fascism almost divided into two halves, with a liberal strain that was almost philo-Semitic. They’re exactly the people that I want to give a place to in history.
So is The Orientalist in a sense a reclamation of your own family history?
My great-aunt just died, and that was the last link to this European past that in some ways I’ve been spending my whole life trying to get back to. It started through my great-uncle Lolek, to whom I dedicate the book—my great-uncle and his friends, these old Austro-Hungarian Jews that I used to hang out with, a generation of assimilated Jews that will never come back. I think about him every day. I wear his clothes because I like having him near. When I saw pictures of Lev, I saw my uncle, because temporally, psychologically, historically, he’s a Jewish man of that time.