Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - Azar Nafisi This did lure me in and eventually beguile me, but certainly not from the first. Nafisi warns from the introduction that she would be changing details of the people presented not just to shield them from persecution but protect their privacy. I admit, I’ve become wary of creative non-fiction that adulterates the truth, especially those done in “literary” styles--and this memoir is that. It’s written in first person present and eschews the quotation marks that so many literati seem to have a grudge against. Moreover it reads like a novel, including the kind of details recalled years later I doubt you could remember even a day later, such as the line: “She attacked the cherry tomato that kept slipping from under her fork and did not begin again until she had finally speared it.” But this is subtitled a “memoir in books” and both sides of that pulled me in. The frame for this tale and inspiration for the title is essentially a book club. Nafisi, who taught Western literature at the University of Tehran, together with seven of her most committed female students met each week to discuss a book. So part of this book focuses on that literature, but also on life in the Islamic Republic of Iran and how those books illuminate the experience of trying to find a private space and ability to keep the mind and soul alive in a totalitarian society. There are four sections to the book: Lolita, Gatsby, James (Henry James, with the main focus on Daisy Miller) and Austen (with the main focus on Pride and Prejudice). The first section focused on a book I hadn’t read--yet--Nabokov’s Lolita. I’ve seen it listed in Playboy’s “25 Sexiest books.” I’ve heard the prose is luminous--and having read the opening pages I can attest to that. But it’s also the first person story of a pedophile and his “affair” with a twelve-year-old girl, and knowing that its very lyricism repelled me. Nafisi intrigued me at the start when she said Lolita was the “work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in Iran.” Her take on the novel wasn’t one I had thought of or was expecting, and made me want to read the book. It was soon obvious to me why those girls took such chances to privately study with Nafisi--she’s a gifted teacher. I definitely resonated with her theme throughout the book that great literature is civilizing both because it teaches us empathy and unsettles our preconceptions. The next section was about Gatsby and I think precisely because it’s a novel I’m very familiar with and read more than once, the literary discussion, though of of interest to me, was less striking than Nafisi’s account of revolutionary Iran--where she responded to her students denunciation of the book by putting Gatsby on trial. This is a land where pink socks or how you bite an apple can get you punished and refusal to wear the veil can get you “punished by fines, up to seventy-five lashes and jail terms.” The third section on Henry James focused not just on Daisy Miller, which I haven’t read, but Washington Square, which I have. Here again what was more striking to me was her story of living in Tehran during the Iran/Iraqi war that lasted through almost all of the 80s. With the two middle sections the emphasis was on experiences in Nafisi’s past, with Austen we come full circle and the scene is set back in the "present" with her circle of seven students. This was also the section where I knew and loved the author examined best--I not only have read all six of Austen’s mature novels (more than once) but her epistolary novella, her abandoned novel and the one left uncompleted at her death. So unsurprisingly perhaps, this section wasn’t the revelation to me in the way the one on Lolita was, but there were insights I appreciated--I felt Nafisi “got” Austen. She wrote one cannot read the famous “opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice and not grasp that [fun and enjoyment and playfulness] was what Austen demanded of her readers.” All in all I loved Nafisi’s humaneness and the sense you got that literature is vitally important--not just a diversion, but an exercise of the imagination that allows an individual to grow. The insights into literature and her passionate love of books was just as compelling to me as the insights into and picture of life in Iran.