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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life [Anglais] [Broché]

Tom Reiss

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Description de l'ouvrage

14 mars 2006
A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life.


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On the Trail of Kurban Said

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 andNino.Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about thebook: “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 café-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.

Barazon claimed to know the true identity of Kurban Said, and as the lawyer for the author’s heirs, he was insisting that it be acknowledged in the new edition of Ali and Nino or he would block publication. At the lawyer’s address, next to a shop where some old women were bent over tables with needle and thread, we were buzzed into a lobby that could have had the grime of the Anschluss on its fixtures. Mayer squeezed my arm with excitement and said, “It’s The Third Man!” Barazon’s appearance didn’t do anything to dispel the atmosphere of a Cold War thriller. He was a small man with a gravelly voice, a stooped back, and a clubfoot that made a tremendous racket as he led us down his book-lined hallway. “You have both come a long way to discover the identity of Kurban Said,” he said. “It will all soon become clear to you.” He ushered us into a room where a gaunt and beautiful blond woman with enormous glassy eyes was lying motionless on a couch. “Pardon me, this is Leela,” said Barazon. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” Leela said in a fragile, precise voice. “I must remain lying down because I’m ill. I can’t sit for long.” Barazon came directly to the point: the novel Ali and Nino was written by the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the second wife of Leela’s father, Baron Omar-Rolf von Ehrenfels, and when Baroness Elfriede died, in the early 1980s, having outlived her husband, all rights to the work had passed down to Leela.

Barazon produced a thick file of documents that backed up this story: publishing contracts, legal papers, and author lists from the late thirties, stamped with Nazi eagles and swastikas. Under the entry for “Said, Kurban” in the author’s section of the 1935—39 Deutscher Gesamtkatalog–the Third Reich’s equivalent of Books in Print–it said, in no uncertain terms, “pseudonym for Ehrenfels, v. Bodmershof, Elfriede, Baroness.” The Nazi documents seemed to tell a clear story–that Baroness Elfriede had been Kurban Said–but it was one that I believed to be untrue. I had become interested in the identity of Kurban Said in the spring of 1998, when I went to Baku to write about the city’s new oil boom– virtually the first signs of life since the Russian Revolution made time stop there in 1917. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, a tiny country that prides itself on being the easternmost point in Europe, though most Europeans wouldn’t know it. Its proximity to Iran and the fact that the majority of its citizens are Shiite Muslims can dominate your vision of Azerbaijan until you realize that the most impressive public building in Baku is not a mosque but a copy of the grand casino at Monte Carlo. Baku is the sort of city that has been beyond rigid ideologies and religions for a thousand years. Its name is said to derive from a Persian expression, baadiyekubiden, or “blow of the winds.” Being situated at the head of a desert peninsula jutting into the sea, the city is in fact one of the windiest places on earth–one dapper ninety-seven-year-old man told me how, as a young man, he and his family had worn specially made goggles with their evening clothes to stroll along the boulevards without being blinded by the sands.

Just before I left for Baku, an Iranian friend had recommended Kurban Said’s novel Ali and Nino as a kind of introduction to the city and the Caucasus in general, saying that it would be more useful than any tourist guide. I had never heard of it, and when I tracked down a 1972 Pocket Books edition, I was a little surprised by the cover. It featured two airbrushed lovers and an endorsement from Life: “If Kurban Said can’t push Erich Segal off the bestseller list, nobody can!” But there turned out to be something of the eighteenth century about the book, as if Candide had been written with realistic characters and the intention of sweeping readers off their feet. Each scene continued only long enough to spring some miniature gear that moved the mechanism forward. The reviewer in The New York Times had written, “One feels as if one has dug up buried treasure.”The novel revolves around the love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl and the progress of their relationship as they grow up; in the culturally tolerant world of old Azerbaijan, their courtship seems blessed, though they are constantly bickering: “ ‘Ali Khan, you are stupid. Thank God we are in Europe. If we were in Asia they would have made me wear the veil ages ago, and you couldn’t see me.’ I gave in. Baku’s undecided geographical situation allowed me to go on looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world.”

Over the course of its history, Azerbaijan had been conquered by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Ottomans, and the Persians. Finally, its “undecided geographical situation” was resolved when the Russians captured it in 1825. During the period of czarist expansion in the Caucasus, so vividly recounted by Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin, Europe discovered Baku and Baku discovered Europe. And everyone discovered oil. Lots of it. In Baku you did not need to drill for the stuff–it sat on the surface of the earth, in black ponds,sometimes enormous lakes–and the flow could be so strong that crude occasionally swallowed wholehouses along the Caspian shore. The walled caravan outpost soon became the center of the burgeoning global oil industry–supplying more than half the world’s crude–and the result was a fabulous nineteenth-century city built on the profits: extravagant mansions, mosques, casinos, and theaters from the period when the city was home to the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and dozens of local Muslim “oil barons,” as they were called. There was Mir Babayev, a popular singer who, after discovering oil on his land, spent the rest of his days searching out his record albums and destroying them because he preferred to be remembered as an oil magnate. And there was Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, who made his fortune when an earthquake struck his land, flooding it with oil; he built the first school for girls in the Muslim world. Building wars sprang up. Moorish palaces still sit next to Gothic manses, and Byzantine cupolas next to bejeweled rococo pavilions. The locals styled themselves cultured Europeans and “modern Muslims,” right up to the point when the Bolsheviks decided they were decadent bourgeois and swooped in to crush them.

But Baku oil fueled Stalin’s Five Year Plans, and during the Second World War, Hitler wanted Baku’s oil so badly that he redirected the entire Russian campaign to get it. In September 1942, his general staff presented him with a giant cake in the shape of the Caucasus. A newsreel of the occasion shows the führer cutting himself the piece with baku spelled out in frosting. “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler shouted at a top commander, and he sacrificed the entire German Sixth Army at Stalingrad rather than redirect a single division out of the Caucasus to come to its aid. If they had succeeded in grabbing Baku, the combined Nazi armies would have controlled one of the greatest strategic energy reserves in the world–not to mention one of the most strategic pieces of territory, the land bridge between Europe and Asia–and, with the Soviet Union deprived of its oil, the Nazis would have for all purposes won the war. Instead of victory, the push for Baku brought utter defeat on the Russian front, and less than three years later, Soviet armored divisions, tanked up with Baku oil, were at the gates of Berlin. After 1945, rather than being rewarded for having fueled the Russian victory, Azerbaijan saw many of its citizens deported to Siberia and its oil industry allowed to languish. The fin de siècle oil-boom city was deliberately ignored, forgotten, taking on a deserted, vaguely eerie quality, so that even today it is possible to imagine that one has wandered into some unusually sooty Right Bank neighborhood in Paris, mysteriously abandoned by its inhabi...

Revue de presse

“Spellbinding history . . . part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga . . . The Orientalist is completely fascinating.”
–The Dallas Morning News

“Rarely in the literary annals of identity confusion has there been a tale as gripping. . . . A captivating and disquieting parable of the mystery of identity . . . truly page-turning.”
–The Miami Herald

“Sympathetic, elegant, and extraordinarily affecting . . . Reiss’s storytelling panache [is] spellbinding.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Thrilling, novelistic and rich with the personal and political madness of early-twentieth-century Europe.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“A brainy, nimble, remarkable book.”
–Chicago Tribune

“A wondrous tale, beautifully told . . . mesmerizing, poignant, and almost incredible. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own.”
–The New York Times

“For sheer reading pleasure . . . this book cannot be bettered.”
–The New York Sun

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.3 étoiles sur 5  103 commentaires
114 internautes sur 121 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 What a glorious trip 1 mars 2005
Par Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader - Publié sur
Fantastic in both senses of the word, this biography of Kurban Said--or should I say Essad Bey or Lev Nussimbaum?-is impossible to put down. The book's subtitle is "Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life," but fortunately much of the subject's life remains tantalizingly unexplained. Author Tom Riess does a masterly job following Lev's trail, but how nice it is to know that even with the marvels of the internet, the hard work of a very dedicated writer, and the discovery of deathbed papers, so many details of a life lived completely in the 20th century and in the spotlight on several continents can remain a mystery.

So who is this book about? As Kurban Said, he was perhaps the author of "Ali and Nino," the story of love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl set in the central Asian city of Baku just before the Russian Revolution. It has never been out of print since its publication in the 1930s and remains very popular in any number of languages. As Essad Bey he was the author of biographies of Stalin and Nicholas II and a book on the Azerbaijani oil industry. He was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer. His socialite wife claimed not to know who he really was, and their divorce made the tabloids. As Lev Nussimbaum he spent his life fleeing one hideous revolution after another, but still managed to die of natural causes. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Reiss is a fluid, vivid writer who captures the mystery, excitement, and plain oddness of this subject's life. He places Lev's story (he calls his subject Lev) brilliantly within its historic context, and his depiction of the Russian revolution in central Asia is terrific. This author is a guy who jumped at every chance to sift though trunks of crumbling correspondence ignored for decades in the storage rooms of country houses, and, in one case, willingly sang selections from popular musicals for an ancient aristocrat who allowed him to look through stacks of her family's letters. If anyone is up to recording Lev's amazing life, Tom Reiss is it.

I was sorry when "The Orientalist" ended. I look forward to whatever mystery Tom Reiss takes on next.
78 internautes sur 84 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Cultures, Histories, and Enigmas 6 mars 2005
Par David H. Schmick - Publié sur
This is simply the best book I have had the good fortune to read in quite some time, in fact years. It ranks better than the five stars I can award, and it is indeed a work of art...a masterpiece. Reiss has conceived a book which reads like a novel, has the expansiveness of a travelogue, and a concise history of both the eastern and western worlds from the turn of the 20th century to the rise of Hitler.

We visit many countries here...Azerbaijan, Persia, the old Soviet Muslim republics, Russia, Germany, Italy, France and more. However much seems to center on the Ottoman Empire and it's influence on all of the other cultures between 1905 and the thirties. We are also priviledged to entertain first hand information on the Cossacks, the Russian Revolution, the Spartacist Revolt, and the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. We meet and are exposed to the thoughts and lives of so many famous people of the era.

The expanse of this book and the information contained within is a goldmine for both historians and literary types. It offered me so many opportunities to leave the book and to explore so many other books that it was definitely worth reading for just that. The main character, who went through more incarnations than Madonna and Michael Jackson combined, is absolutely compelling.

I could not in any way wish to obtain more from any book.
36 internautes sur 37 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Many Faces of Esad Bey 22 février 2005
Par Richard M. Murphy - Publié sur
In this gripping account of an Azeri Jewish writer named Lev Nussimbaum who reinvented himself as a Muslim Caucasian prince named Esad Bey and became the toast of Weimar Berlin, Tom Reiss sketches a parallel history of Europe and Asia between the wars.

Nussimbaum was both a walking clash of civilizations and a talented writer who left us one great romantic novel, Ali and Nino, the story of a doomed love affair between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl set in Baku during the final years of World War I. Nussimbaum himself came of age in Baku, a cosmopolitan, oil-fuelled boomtown poised between Christian Europe and Islamic West Asia.

To the people of this region, history itself must have seemed to be dissolving along with the Romanov and Ottoman Empires. It was the perfect era for a master shape changer whose own biography is no less fantastical than those of his characters. After a comfortable childhood in Baku, where his father made his fortune in the oil industry, Nussimbaum spent the remainder of his brief life as a stateless refugee. Reiss follows the young writer from Baku to Iran, Istanbul, Germany, Austria, the United States and finally the resort town of Positano on the Italian Amalfi coast, where Nussimbaum died penniless and alone after experiencing international literary celebrity while still in his twenties.

Reiss definitively solves the 80-year mystery of Esad Bey's identity. His intimate, ironic portrait turns many histories on their heads, not least the beginnings of Soviet communism and German fascism. But in the end, "The Orientalist" is a tragic story of one man's doomed effort to transcend history. Like some Hegelian surfer dude, Nussimbaum was ultimately crushed by the same wave that had carried him to stardom.
22 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A powerful question 16 février 2005
Par Doctor Haushka - Publié sur
Who was "Kurban Said"? This was maybe not the most pressing question in my life before I began reading this scholarly yet utterly readable and fascinating book. But the question at the heartv of the book soon became a deeply meaningful, many-layered one. It not only asked about the mysterious real life-- lives? -- behind the name, but somehow it also began to ask something (or say something) important about the forces that caused the twentieth century to go as it did.

A pretty powerful question, as it turns out! For a proper answer, every page of Reiss's gorgeous, plaintive, and meticulously researched book is required. And was enjoyed.(Reiss can be quite amusing as well.)

In the heartbreaking end, Reiss leaves no doubt about the strangeness and the complexity of things: world events, the human psyche, etc.

That's on one hand.On the other, he leaves no ounce of doubt about the true identity of Kurban Said either. He even gives him the last word.A very sad end to the really amazing story of a man who tuly was a victim of history, and then became a victim of himself.
15 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An exhilerating and exhausting read 17 novembre 2006
Par Greg Lestikow - Publié sur
The story of Lev Nussinbaum--or is it Essad Bay--is much more than the biography of one man. Through his one enigmatic character, ___ is able to explore entire cultures and literally hundred years of complex history in one of the most conflicted regions in the world. In this way, ___ uses Nussinbaum as a window into issues and events ranging from the Eastern European oil boom to insitutionalized racism and, yes, even into love. Despite the fact that the window is often cloudy--due to Lev's unrelenting travels and embellishments--I felt as though I was given a crystal clear view of a society I know almost nothing about. I learned more about European history than in any Western Civilization class, I was more horrified by the atrocities committed by almost every party than I have in any WWI or WWII movie and I ventured deeper into the recesses of human behavior than any university Psychology professor has ever been able to take me. This book is an absolute success precisely because it refuses to be constrained to only one man. And it works especially well because Nussinbaum the Chameleon, also refused to be only one person.
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