I just finished Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist, a book I had been eager to read ever since learning that it existed—I’ve loved Ali and Nino for years (it was the subject of one of my first LH posts), and Reiss’s 1999 New Yorker article “The Man From the East” whetted my appetite for more about Lev Nussimbaum, who wrote the novel under the pseudonym Kurban Said in Vienna in 1937. He did a lot more research after the article came out and scored some lucky interviews with nonagenarians who’d known Lev or his family, and the book is enlightening, gripping, and very much worth your while. (Furthermore, it has a very well done website, with lots of pictures.)

I emphasize that because I’m going to spend the rest of this post complaining about it, and I wouldn’t want you to think this was comparable to my blasts at David Brewer or Simon Winchester, which were designed to discourage anyone from suffering through the books involved. No, this is a fine book that anyone who is interested in quirky personalities, the fate of rootless cosmopolitans in the Europe of the 1930s, or of course Ali and Nino will certainly enjoy. But it could have been better, and I’m going to explain why.

Basically, it’s suffering from excessive ambition on the author’s part and insufficient attention on the publisher’s part. This is a classic example of a book that needed the kind of detailed, knowledgeable editing publishers no longer provide. I can understand why Reiss wanted to widen the scope and talk not just about Nussinbaum’s life but about the historical events that determined its course: the Russian revolutions (he was born during the 1905 one and had to flee Baku after the October 1917 one), the Kemalist uprising that drove him (and many other non-Turks) out of Constantinople in the early ’20s, the rise of Nazism, and so on. The problem is that he simply doesn’t know enough to do a good job. He’s a reporter, not a historian; he’s great at unearthing documents and getting people to talk, but his instinct is to tell a clear, easy-to-follow story, and history doesn’t provide many such. Furthermore, he’s completely dependent on his sources; when he has a good one, like Philip Mansel’s Constantinople: city of the world’s desire, 1453-1924 for late Ottoman Constantinople, he does a good job, but when he depends on random interviews, memoirs, and so on, not to mention Nussimbaum’s own throughly unreliable novelized autobiography, he gives simplistic accounts riddled with errors.

Examples: On p. 42, he says “In August 1914, the czarist state mobilized its vast army—the largest in the world—and swept westward, gloriously defeating Austrian forces in some of the first great battles of the First World War. But by the end of Lev’s first year at the Imperial Russian Gymnasium, the Germans had turned Russia’s spectacular advances into a rout reminiscent of the debacle against Japan nine years earlier.” This exactly reverses the situation: the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg (in which Russia’s 2nd Army was wiped out by the Germans) took place at the same time as the defeat of the Austrians, the last few days of August, but it was the latter (especially the capture of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv) that mitigated the sting of the former. On p. 130 he describes the October Revolution thus: “While Lenin rallied his commissars, Trotsky led a ruthless attack with armored cars, machine guns, and artillery on the new democratic government offices in the Winter Palace” and adds in a footnote “The defenders of Russian democracy that day happened to be one of Russia’s first all-female army detachments, stationed around the palace in a largely formal capacity; the Bolshevik machine gunners made short work of them.” This is so bizarre I can only imagine his research consisted of watching old movies (there are no sources given in the Notes at the end); in fact, after a desultory bombardment that did hardly any damage, the Bolsheviks basically strolled into the Palace and marched the hapless ministers out. (I’ve never understood, by the way, what on earth those ministers thought they were doing sitting around the Winter Palace all day, waiting for the barbarians; you’d think they’d have either tried to organize a real defense or, like Kerensky, left town.)

When Lev and his father flee Baku in the summer of 1918, they do so by boat, crossing the Caspian and landing at a port town Reiss calls “Kizel-Su.” I presume he takes this term from Nussimbaum’s memoirs, but there is no such town on the map. He does provide a footnote saying “Kizel-Su is now Turkmenbashi, in the post-Soviet state of Turkmenistan,” but the town was not called Kizel-Su (or, in a more accurate orthography, Kyzyl-Su) before its megalomaniacal renaming, it was called Krasnovodsk. Yes, Krasnovodsk is the Russian translation of a preexisting Turkic name Kyzyl-Su ‘red water,’ but so what? That quaint local name does readers no good; it gives them an exotic frisson at the cost of making it more difficult to figure out what’s going on. This is a problem throughout—on p. 96 he refers to the “Jezids,” which is a cropped form of the Teutonic version of Yazidis, a (mostly Kurdish) Middle Eastern sect frequently known by the misnomer “devil worshippers.” They’re a fascinating group, but if you google Reiss’s term you won’t find anything but references to his book and a bunch of German pages. (This is the same uncritical use of German orthography I complained about here.)

And there’s plenty of plain old sloppiness. He refers to “Ku Damm” [sic: should be Ku’damm] and “Kurfürstendamm” as if they were two different Berlin streets. He says “Leonid Pasternak” when he means Boris (Leonid’s son). On p. 147 he says Lenin was sent through Germany “in a special sealed train”; the train was not in fact sealed, and this has been known for decades. (And on the previous page he says “the centrist democrats in Moscow had allowed Lenin to operate in Russia in the hope that he would defend constitutional government,” which seems more than dubious no matter what he means by “centrist democrats in Moscow” and “allowed.”) On p. 153 he says the Freikorps “insisted on referring to [the Baltic states] not as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania but by their Germanic names: Kurland, Livonia, and so on.” This is ridiculous: Latvia did not exist as an official entity until it proclaimed its independence on November 18, 1918, and it was not recognized internationally until 1921. Before that “Latvian” was an ethnic designation, and the people so named lived in the Russian provinces of Kurland (Courland, Курляндия) and Livonia (Ливония, Лифляндия). These were not “their Germanic names,” they were their names, and nobody called them anything else. On p. 170 he refers to “the surrealist poet Andrei Belyi.” On pp. 224-35 he discusses “the Valley of the Khevsurs, or Khevsuria” in terms that make it seem like an invention of Nussimbaum’s, and makes fun of a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune for trying to “pinpoint it on the map,” when in fact the Khevsurs are a real people living in a real region (Georgian Khevsureti) north of Tbilisi, near the Chechen border. On p. 231 he gives Vámbéry‘s original name as “Wamberger” instead of Bamberger, and the plural of Bildungsroman as “bildungsromanen” (instead of -romane). And so on.

In general, there’s a lot of what he doubtless thought of as useful background material but comes across as padding. He can’t mention a person, place, or event associated with his subject without going into a long (and frequently error-ridden) excursus on it, to the point where the reader can lose sight of poor Lev altogether. None of this is fatal; as I say, the life he’s describing is a fascinating one, and the reader can skim as necessary (and take the historical asides with several helpings of salt). But a good editor would have trimmed the book by fifty to a hundred pages and fixed a lot of the errors in the remaining text, and I wish Random House (a great old name in publishing) had seen fit to provide one.


  1. I’ve been meaning to write something about this book for some time. I really loved the digressions in the context of the book as a whole, and am disappointed to find that they’re inaccurate. I was amazed at the breadth of his scholarship, wrongly so it seems.
    Said reminds me a little of Sir Edmund Backhouse, a very erudite forger of Chinese Orientalia and porn. (“The Hermit of Peking”).
    I’ve been told that “the Jew as Oriental” is a theme un Joyce’s Ulysses, though I haven’t seen that myself.

  2. Mike Nichols, the American filmmaker (etc.) appears at some place in the book as an infant in Berlin.

  3. Maybe. He (Nichols) denies it’s him.

  4. Just because the picture’s ugly-looking. Hollywood is vain, you know.
    His presence on the scene was not questioned, I don’t think.

  5. ужасный!
    I saw a comment by you on MF the other day about the value of editors, and somehow I knew it was prompted by this book…

  6. Thank you for the extended critiques. I’ll have to add links from below the excerpts from The Orientalist that I posted a while back. The things that most appealed to me were not the “facts” but the storytelling, especially the identity construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Nussimbaum was sort of an anti-Zelig, always looking for a way to stand out as exotic. A bit like Yul Brynner, who was also a notorious architect of his own changing persona?

  7. Richard Hershberger says

    This post nicely illustrates why I avoid history books written by journalists. They almost always have more storytelling than history. If it on a subject I know I have the urge to throw the book against the wall. If it is on a subject I don’t know I worry about internalizing misinformation.
    What caught my attention in the present case was the part about the opening Eastern Front battles of WWI. Not only was this an error: it was an error trivially easy to research. I just checked the Wikipedia entry on the Eastern Front of WWI and it gives an accurate chronology and some decent analysis. A writer less reliable than Wikipedia perhaps ought not be writing history.

  8. The fact that Nussimbaum, Said and the other virtual Nussimbaums were all big liars can’t help much. Parrott’s biography of Jaroslav Hasek suffers from the fact that Hasek himself and many of his friends, were all incorrigible liars, and worse, Hasek really was “a legend in his own time”, so that people who didn’t even know him were only too happy to attach jokes and anecdotes to him.
    Perhaps Reiss just entered the Nussimbaum reality.

  9. The things that most appealed to me were not the “facts” but the storytelling
    Right, and he’s a good storyteller, but if he’s going to add facts to beef up the story he should take the trouble to get them right.
    Perhaps Reiss just entered the Nussimbaum reality.
    Yeah, I think he was trying to avoid that fate but in the end couldn’t extricate himself. He could at least have replaced his ill-digested gobbets of history with extended quotes from Lev’s memoirs, which would have been more entertaining and less liable to mislead (because obviously mythical).

  10. Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Woman Warrior” was another book where I couldn’t tell what was fact and what fiction. I read it as fiction but realized afterwards that it wasn’t clearly labelled as such. One of the characters in the book was an aunt who was fluent in “talk-story”, which seems to be highly embellished versions of real life.
    See, Reiss was like Borges, inventing an imaginary Europe….I still feel a pang when I think of those lovely girl soldiers mowed down by the beastly Communists. I wonder if they had cute uniforms.

  11. Just ordinary uniforms.

  12. But those look like skinhead Communist girl soldiers, not cute Menshevik girl soldiers with long flowing tresses.

  13. I too felt that this was a book long on hype and short on delivery. There ought to be an internationally-accepted tax deduction for those who can prove they bought a book which massively failed to deliver. Or at least an internationally-accepted term…

  14. Emerson, for your education:
    *Mensheviks (girls or otherwise) were communists as well.
    *Mensheviks (girls or otehrwise) definitely didn’t defend Zimny Palace.
    *All soldiers (girls or otherwise) were given close-cropped haircut so as to minimise lice infestation.

  15. But Tat, I apparently spelled Menshevik right, and that was what I was most worried about.
    That, and the cute soldiers that apparently didn’t exist.

  16. I knew that my charity was misplaced.
    Oh well; it’s all a matter of Book(keeping).

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