CHATTO & WINDUS £17.99 (432pp). £16.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Lev was born into a wealthy family in the oil-rich, cosmopolitan port of Baku. In the turmoil following Russia's collapse in the First World War and the advance of the Bolsheviks into the Caucasus, Lev and his father fled to Istanbul, then to Paris and finally Germany, where Lev completed his education and took courses in Arabic and Persian.

In Germany, Lev converted to Islam, or at least pretended to. He took the name Esad Bey and went about posing as a Muslim prince from the Caucasus. In the post-war world of refugees, opportunistic capitalists and military adventurers, there were plenty of poseurs, as Reiss's unfailingly interesting narrative makes plain. What was distinctive about Lev was that he worked like stink, as a student and later as a writer. Moreover, he had real literary ability.

As Esad Bey, he published a string of books on history, biography and politics, most notably Blood and Oil in the Orient. When, in the 1930s, word of his origins leaked out, he published Ali and Nino under the name Kurban Said, to get round the Nazi proscription on Jewish writers.

There are strong autobiographical elements in the novel that Reiss draws on in his biography. Yet somehow the real Lev, or Esad or Kurban, eludes Reiss and us. Reiss never seems fully to engage with the psychology of the writer and what the man actually wrote. So Esad (let him be that) features as a somewhat ghostly figure moving through interesting places in interesting times.

Not so much interested in literary issues, Reiss is more a journalist with historical preoccupations. He excels at conjuring up the lost worlds of the inter-war period. Reiss vividly evokes old Baku with its polyglot quasi-Levantine aristocracy, Constantinople crowded with White Russian refugees, the beginnings of the German film industry at the UFA studios outside Berlin and, finally, the Fascist resort town of Positano, where Esad was to die in slow agony from Raynaud's syndrome.

We are introduced to the lost worlds of kursaals, cabaret shows, sanatoria and casinos, crowded with raffish aristocrats, ex-officers down on their luck, remittance men, small-time actresses and promoters of crank science. Reiss has a genius for diverting digressions and his readers are offered pleasant lessons on such matters as the European Jewish cult of Islam a century ago, the Yazidi devil-worshippers of Kurdistan, the history of the Russian Nihilist movement, the congress of Ottoman imperial eunuchs, the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the story of German settlers in imperial Russia.

One also gets a sense of what the political world of the 1920s and 1930s looked like to those who lived through those years, without the benefit of hindsight. Esad's father, once ensconced in Paris, traded on Azebaijani oil futures in the confident expectation that the Bolshevik phenomenon would be short-lived. Many of Esad's contemporaries were confident that the German bankers and industrialists who funded Hitler would easily be able to control that "little man" and, a little later, that Mussolini was the strong man destined to stand up to Hitler. The Orientalist is a biographical investigation in the tradition of The Quest for Corvo, A J A Symon's classic account of another eccentric literary fantasist. Though Reiss's book is not a closely focused biography and, at some level, his quest is a failure, the journey has been most entertaining and is definitely recommended.

Robert Irwin's novel 'Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh' has been re-issued by Dedalus

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn