I told the literary agent how much I had enjoyed a recent book by one of the authors she represents. I should have added that at least four of my friends had also raved about The Bomber Mafia. This was not just cocktail chatter sucking up to an attractive woman. In the past I have also told her that I did not particularly like one of her author’s books. In that case, though, I had to concede that the rest of my history book group (reading yet another book about Lincoln) liked it very much.
The agent and I both have “cottages” in the same summer community. I first became aware of her a decade ago when she was instrumental in bringing Tom Reiss to the community to talk about his then-recent book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. I have told the agent that I admire that biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave and who was the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Reiss not only presented a fascinating portrait of this biracial man who became a French general during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, he taught me a lot about the French and Haitian racial relationships. The Pulitzer Prize the book garnered was deserved.
After Reiss talked, I went to have my copy signed and mentioned something that was in the acknowledgements—I think it was a comment about his mother. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone had read that section of the book. I felt a bit embarrassed to say that I was OCD enough to always at least skim the acknowledgements to see if I recognized any names. The author wrote a nice inscription, which included a comment about my thorough reading, and signed with a legible signature.
Sadly, I no longer have the book. A young woman who was pulling beers at my local Brooklyn biergarten was named Dumas, with the “s” pronounced. I gave her the book telling her she could learn about her ancestors. On the other hand, I was quite confident that the family of this Ivy League graduate from upper crust Charleston society was unlikely to have a biracial identity. Shortly afterwards, my barkeep Dumas moved on, and I never saw her or the book again. But I digress.
At this recent cocktail party, I asked the agent if she had book recommendations. She said that I might like an earlier book by Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. I had never heard of this biography but set out to read it. Instead of having my local bookstore get it for me, I borrowed it as an e-book from the New York Public Library. (I felt a little guilty about that. I don’t know how these things work, but I assume there are no royalties for the author or his agent when I download a book from the library.)
The Orientalist is a biography of Lev Nussimbaum, but in the book Reiss also recounts his own search to discover the facts of his subject’s life. During his research, Reiss encountered a coterie of colorful characters, often of suspect veracity. Even after Reiss’s extensive research (its copiousness astounded me), much about Nussimbaum remains murky or disputed. However, it does seem clear that Lev was born in 1905 to a Jewish family and was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, by an oil-rich father after his mother committed suicide when Lev was five. Father and son fled Baku permanently when the Soviet Union annexed Azerbaijan in 1920.
Nussimbaum, who died in Italy at age 36 during WWII, claims to have converted to Islam (the where, when, and even the if of that is disputed). Nevertheless, he is known to have adopted the persona of a Muslim prince and wrote a truly amazing number of books and articles about a wide range of topics under the name of Essad Bey. Many of the books were best sellers. (The accuracy of much of what he wrote is now disputed.) These books are mostly forgotten, but Nussimbaum still fascinates because, according to Reiss, he wrote (under the pseudonym Kurban Said) what is considered a classic of world literature, the novel Ali and Nino. The authorship of the novel is disputed in some circles, but I thought Reiss was convincing in concluding that Kurban Said was Essad Bey who was Lev Nussimbaum.
I learned much from Reiss’s book. I had known little about the world in and around Baku in the aftermath of World War I.
The Orientalist also reminded me why I have not become the book writer I thought I wanted to be. I am the author or co-author of several books about the law. A commonality in those books was that I was asked to do them—by a university press, by a co-author, or by an organization. There were other books that I thought I could write if only someone had asked me to write them. Alas, that is not how book publishing works. I did not care enough about any of the topics to drive me to do the months or years of work to put a book proposal together in hopes that a publisher would find it of interest. Such a proposal requires extensive research and a precis of the completed work. The agent told me that a good part of her job was helping the author to shape such a proposal, which may be forty pages long. The agent also told me that a writer has to be obsessed to do this, and it was clear that Tom Reiss had been obsessed about finding every possible nugget of information about Lev Nussimbaum. I have never had a comparable obsession, and thus, while I have written many law review articles that I knew I could get published, the book portion of the CV is scanty. (However, one of my books still appears to be in print. You could buy it and swell my royalties, which sometimes break the three-figure level in a year.)
Reiss’s book, however, also gave me the pleasure of discovering Ali and Nino, which I again got as a New York Public Library e-book, this time without any guilt since I knew no one involved with it. It is a love story of a Moslem man of Persian ancestry and a Georgian Orthodox Christian young woman set in Baku in the waning days of World War I and its aftermath. There are good reasons for its being regarded as a classic. It was marvelous.
The agent also suggested that I might like a new book by an author she represents, Dahlia Lithwick’s Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America. I bought a copy from my local bookstore, but for now I don’t feel like writing about it. It left me depressed.