Saturday, March 21, 2009

good but slow

The history in this book was interesting and valuable but I found it hard to stay with - it a little didactic.

My main problem with the book was that it seemed speculative rather than a carefully researched account. The background history seemed solid, but clearly there were many liberties taken in describing Lev's life - just made up details no one could possibly have remembered. It seemed a kind of Truman Capote style fictionalized "truth," without admitting as much.

For example, early the book the author describes visiting a small apartment with "12 cats." Did he count them? A small apartment with 12 cats would have been unbearably smelly. I think he just made that detail up.

So it made me wonder what else he was making up. The story of Lev's mother -- which he first identified as speculative, but then slipped in as fact, really annoyed me. The author needed something colorful, so he fabricated a colorful figure, drawing stories he heard, but I began to even wonder about the stories.

I didn't find Lev all that fascinating. He looked like a spoiled self-satisfed man, a bit too pleased with himself. I could not relate to him.

The real mystery is why we are reading this book instead of Lev's. If it was that great, we should go to the source. I didn't understand what the author was adding (apart from the speculations which I did not believe).

When the author writes something like "Lev glanced around nervously" was he paraphrasing what Lev wrote or just doing the Capote thing? The whole book is that kind of material.

I think the history is very valuable in this book. I probably would have preferred a straight history without the hindrance of Lev. And I never understood why a European Jew would want to be an "Orientalist," imagining himself a Muslim.

Friday, March 20, 2009

the Orientalist, Keep the History Coming

I read the Orientalist some time ago now. I'll start with just a couple words about how I remember it a few months on. The thing I took most from the Orientalist was an interest in the history it covered, and also a broader sense of how truly rich and vast human history is.

And here are my comments from shortly after finishing (apparently the last draft was saved on December 17th):

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot. A very rich, thorough, and at times confusing history of Eurasia. In fact there was so much in there I feel like I missed half of the book thanks to my poor knowledge of the region's history. But a clever device intertwining Lev's life with the history of the region.

When I first started reading I had trouble getting into it. In retrospect I think he went too into the detailed and hard-to-follow family history of Lev. I know it was important - actually more than important. I think the author felt it a central point to his book, but I could not follow those names only a couple pages in. I think a shorter version of that or getting into the nitty-gritty later would have been better. A reader only partially interested could have felt overwhelmed quickly if not paying careful attention.

The next part of the book I remember a lot was the chapter "the escape", which was fascinating. Hearing about their travels left me feeling mesmerized for the Orient, let alone Lev who was there. The crazy messenger who expected a bribe but came up without the lightest hint of venal inflection to his voice (in Lev's view) was great. Then Lev worrying he'd turn into a pleasure boy! But of all the craziness I think my favorite part was when Lev and the Armenian's truck broke down leaving them riding on horses with fake business papers claiming they were fishing expects out collecting fishing supplies by horse. And, of course, the unlikelihood of Lev running into his father in that village to escape possible death was straight out of hollywood.

To mention one more incredible situation was when Abraham and Lev got into Constantinople because the British were in charge and waived the first class passengers through citing they were "above political suspicion" just because they were rich. This chapter also introduced me to the important history of the Young Turks and their disastrous effort to modernize Turkey and then scapegoating the Armenians.

Lev's arrival in Berlin is where I became more interested in the history than in Lev's life. Reading about the Russian's huge influence in Germany was news to me! I had no idea the gravity of the Russian emigres presence had in Berlin. And Lev being caught in the middle of multiple revolutions must have been an unreal time period to be alive. It impressed on me how far behind Germany and most of the european countries were even in the 20th century. Reiss also selected some really choice individuals to follow in a few chapters about this topic. I thought Walther Ratheneu was a particularly interesting one. Being into the assimilation of Jews into Germany and holding such a high post after being an amazing businessman. At the time he must have been just about the most obvious target alive in Germany. I remember reading the sentence about him musing over his own assassination and just nodding. But what truly got me about this man was that after crying when Germany instigated WWI he then proceeded to be one of the most clever logistical organizers to the German's offensive. Setting up the Imperial Raw Materials Office after being laughed at for suggesting the war might last up to and over a year. Reiss said this may have prolonged Germany's war effort for 1-2 years!

It was the carefully selected history and the way it affected people and was perceived by people that really made the book for me. When Reiss went to the Italian village and the villagers refused to believe him regarding the grave is a great example of how much perception rules. Maybe someone else can retell this story for me, I've forgotten exactly what happened.

This is a perfect book for me to re-read, even soon, because even re-reading what I wrote in December I found I'd forgotten some of it.

The Orientalist: A story of a remarkable life among the Bolsheviks, Ottomans, and Nazis

I won't forget having to drag myself through some of the slower sections of The Orientalist, but in the end it's a great story set at a pivotal time in history. I'm glad to have read it. To me, the best part of the book is how the author Tom Reiss uncovers the story of Lev Nussimbaum. I was interested to read about Lev's bizarre and tragic life and I loved hearing about all the people that the author tracked down in pursuing Lev's story.

It amazed me that the confusion created by the historical events of the first half of the twentieth century was so great that, even in modern times, many people did not know that Lev was in fact the author of a classic work of literature that has come to help define a large city. This was a great mystery that really set the stage for Lev's story. His reinventions of himself clearly led to the confusion and it was cool to see how those reinventions were in part a response to the historical events that dominated his life.

I got a little bogged down in some of the wide historical digressions. I kept thinking: get back to Lev! Clearly Lev lived in an interesting time and place, and furthermore, he was really part of the action, not just a bystander. In light of his participation as a writer (especially as a biographer) in events of massive historic magnitude, it made sense to set the historical stage. However, there is such a thing as too much information and there were definitely some parts of the book for which I knew I was going to forget the details almost immediately after I read them.

One historical aspect I did enjoy reading about was the feuding political parties of the era. Hearing about the epic struggles for power between communists, Nazis, and monarchists of all varieties makes our current debates between democrats and republicans look like pretty tame. It was truly remarkable (and quite unfortunate) that Lev's life brushed so closely with both the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the Nazis. Obviously Lev payed dearly for these brushes with evil regimes, his father losing his livelihood to the Bolsheviks and Lev to the Nazis.

My general impression of Lev was that he was a pretty weird guy. His bizarre personality, especially his fetishizing of Muslim culture, left me to wonder whether he was naturally a wannabe/poser or whether the extraordinary circumstances of his life somehow brought on an identity crisis. I think his chosen identity is not so different from a suburban white kid who fetishizes gangster rap. I was interested to learn that the dagger-wearing Muslim shieks were in those days considered symbols of virile masculinity, much the way rappers are today. I think we may have discussed this theme of self reinvention in other books, but I can't remember the context now. Maybe someone else remembers.

At some points in the book, I found myself wanting to know a little bit more about Lev's personality. For example, I was left curious about how his divorce unfolded. On the one hand, it sounded like Lev was being cheated on; on the other hand, it sounds like Lev was being abusive with his morbid rants, but I couldn't quite tell if those morbid rants were factual or invented. What was he really like to hang out with? Would he really act that way?

All in all I enjoyed the book. I think what I most took away from it is the powerlessness that can befall anyone who is caught in the wrong historical moment. Thanks to Chris for recommending this book and getting us copies!