Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. 

Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan.  He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe.  His enduring masterpiece, Ali and Nino–a story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaust–is still in print today.

But Lev’s life grew wilder than his wildest stories.  He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity–until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal.  His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereck–also a friend of both Freud’s and Einstein’s–was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States.  Lev was invited to be Mussolini’s official biographer–until the Fascists discovered his “true” identity.  Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last book–discovered in a half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyone–helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. 

Tom Reiss spent five years tracking down secret police records, love letters, diaries, and the deathbed notebooks.  Beginning with a yearlong investigation for The New Yorker, he 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.  Reiss’s quest for the truth buffets him from one weird character to the next: from the last heir of the Ottoman throne to a rock opera-composing baroness in an Austrian castle, to an aging starlet in a Hollywood bungalow full of cats and turtles.

As he tracks down the pieces of Lev Nussimbaum’s deliberately obscured life, Reiss discovers a series of shadowy worlds–of European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientalists–that have also been forgotten.  The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth century–of the origins of our ideas about race and religious self-definition, and of the roots of modern fanaticism and terrorism.  Written with grace and infused with wonder, The Orientalist is an astonishing book.

"A wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct... Mr. Reiss's quest takes him right through the looking glass [and] what a tale it is–mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible.  Mr. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own."  

  --The New York Times

"Thrilling, novelistic, and rich with the personal and political madness of early-20th-century Europe." 

  --Entertainment Weekly

"Tom Reiss furnishes not only the riveting story of how Lev Nussimbaum became Kurban Said but also a sympathetic, elegant and extraordinarily affecting account of how his protean identity arose from a climate of near-constant upheaval... Reiss' storytelling panache and wry narrative voice make even his 10-page histories of White Russian émigré politics or Baltic German treachery in interwar Berlin spellbinding." 

  --The Los Angeles Times

"A brainy, nimble, remarkable book...what boosts this account above a mere true-mystery yarn is Reiss' dead-on cultural analysis, his record of the failed ideas that almost destroyed the world." 

 -- The Chicago Tribune

 “Mr. Reiss's book fills the reader with admiration. Tracking a life across so many cultures and disguises, far-flung places and languages, he must have endured an odyssey comparable to his subject's… The modern world had given up on [Lev Nussimbaum]. It had, as Mr. Reiss says, ‘left him without an audience.’ He has one now.” 

  --The Wall Street Journal



"Rarely in the literary annals of identity confusion has there been a tale as gripping as Tom Reiss' far-reaching detective work exploring the life and times of Lev Nussimbaum... a captivating and disquieting parable of the mystery of identity...endlessly fascinating... a truly page-turning meditation on the meaning of homeland and the endless capacity of the imagination to transcend the violence of society's capricious labels."

   --The Miami Herald

 “Tom Reiss has written a spellbinding history of Mr. Nussimbaum's deceptions... Mr. Reiss has uncovered diaries and letters and Nazi collaborators. He takes us with him as he follows shadowy leads through the streets of Vienna, interviewing relatives and publishers. It may be part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga, but The Orientalist is completely fascinating.”

  --The Dallas Morning News

"For sheer reading pleasure, for insights into the biographer's world, and for the rediscovery of a major literary figure, this book cannot be bettered."

 --The New York Sun

"The Orientalist" is rich in characters and exotic settings, the tale veering from Constantinople to Hollywood, from the Black Sea to the Amalfi Coast.  Reiss' tale is fantastic... graceful and powerful."

  --San Diego Union-Tribune

“The inter-weaving of biography, investigation and geopolitics [is] so elegant.” 

 --The Economist


"A page-turner of epic proportions."

-- Booklist

“Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.”

--Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

“I greatly enjoyed Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist, for its mingled scholarship and sleuthing, and for so elegantly solving the puzzle of one of the Twentieth Century’s most mysterious writers.”

--Paul Theroux

“’The Jew is most happy when he remains a Jew,’ Albert Einstein is quoted as saying in this fascinating story about a man who extravagantly rejected this principle.  Lev Nussimbaum didn’t so much embrace a new religion as invent one.  Tom Reiss’s investigation into how he did this, and why, reads like a thrilling detective story peopled by unforgettable character and shadowed by the dark forces of 20th century history and, above all, by the mystery of human character.”

 --Jonathan Rosen

"Biographical subjects don't come much stranger, more fascinating or more elusive than the Orientalist of Tom Reiss' compelling new book... "The Orientalist" tells both the tale of Lev's remarkable life, and Reiss' pursuit of the story, a literary and biographical sleuthing job of epic achievement...deeply moving." 

--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Marvelously written, and imbued with scholarly thinking on a forgotten tradition of Jewish-Islamic accord."

- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist is a remarkable story of East meeting West, and the fantastic historical figure who stood astride both worlds, during an almost equally fantastic moment in time.  This is history and biography that reads like a great novel.”

--Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

"A book of mystery and transcendent irony."

--The New York Post