Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Apart from Moby Dick, this memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, hung me up more than any book I’ve ever read.  I received it as a gift from a dear friend of mine, Mary, for my 50th birthday.  Among other beautiful words, Mary wrote in the front pages, “This amazing book celebrates the power of literature and friendship and I chose it to symbolize our bond as friends and colleagues.”  Funny…but, the past couple of years, I’ve become very determined to make my way through all of the books on my shelves and this one, had been missed along the way.  I took breaks and read several other books at the very same time, but I slogged my way through these pages, mostly late at night.  Having made it to the finish line last night, I’ve got to say that I felt that I had been on a huge journey.  I was exhausted.  But, I was also extremely satisfied.

Now, I ask, “Why the slog?”

First…a short background, one that seems to be the description found on multiple sites, this one, Amazon.

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading.Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

Let’s be perfectly honest, I have never read Lolita ‘in Canada’.  Written by Vladimir Nabokov, this one really needs to move onto my ‘to do’ list now that I have read Reading Lolita in Tehran.  A classic, there are, what I feel to be, important, if not essential connections drawn between the women’s experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the ruthless antagonist of Lolita.  Very early on, I felt ill prepared for the number of similar contextual references made, especially those from Henry James and Nabokov.  While there were several literary references to Jane Austen, at the very least, I had read Pride and Prejudice.  I remember that once I put that one down, I had said, out loud, “NEVER AGAIN.”  I’m glad that I relished the experience of reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald because I DO feel that those relationships are key to this book, Daisy’s lessons, creating an emotional connection for me, finally, beyond the half way point. That’s where, I think, I got my stick-to-it-ness.

Of fiction, in 17, Nafisi writes…and I become finally bound to the book,

“Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me – Reader! Bruder! as Humbert said.  Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them.  What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).  We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others.

Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual.  How does the soul survive?  is the essential question.  And the response is: through love and imagination.  Stalin emptied Russia of its soul by pouring on the old death.  Mandelstam and Sinyavsky restored that soul by reciting poetry to fellow convicts and by writing about it in their journals. “Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances, ” Bellow wrote, “is also to reach the heart of politics.  The human feelings, Human experiences, the human form and face, recover their proper place – the foreground.”

What I’m saying, here, (about the slog) is that I spent a lot of time, feeling guilty that in my studies I had missed or chosen not to read so many books, in order that I could read so many others.  I am not saying that reading a book ‘made me feel guilty’, rather, there was a feeling under the surface, of regret. If you are a reader, you will understand what I am saying.  There are just not enough hours.

Do I think that you need to have read all of the books that were used as references before picking up Reading Lolita in Tehran?  I don’t know the answer…I seem to have found my way without.

Once I accepted that the writer seemed to be making a broader connection between literature and its power to transcend hardship and turmoil, I felt engaged and determined.  For a while, I suppose, my ego got in the way.

Some other observations…

Physically, the book is produced in a font that is way way too small for this little lady’s eyes.  Nicola of Goodreads says it much better than I can…

If the book has a drawback, it’s that it’s too long, tending towards repetition. In my edition, the font size is almost painfully small, in order to give the illusion that this 150,000-word tome is closer to 100,000 words. Be aware: it’s a book you’ll need to commit to reading. It’s written in a slightly confusing, fragmentary style — each chapter is divided into ~2,000 word chunks, some of which follow on from each other, some of which stand alone. The style is close to a stream of consciousness. Ironically, the first part is the most fragmentary, after which it becomes more chronological. I think the book could have been improved by a good editor and a better structure, but nonetheless: stick with it, even if the first part bothers you.

I thought that through such a diabolical and tumultuous time in history, that relationship between women-friends centered around literature,  was precious.  I know how it feels to sit with my friends in the movie theaters when everyone else has left the theater and the credits are still rolling…and we are still chatting about the plot or the characters or the actors or the technical achievements.  I know how it is to open a gift bag and find a beautiful new book from a book store…something new that I can read and share with others over a glass of wine.  I treasure my woman-friends for the same reasons that Azar Nafisi treasures(ed) hers.  I get teary sometimes when I think of the strength of women.  I feel proud, not only about my accomplishments, but about the accomplishments of my friends.  This is the profound truth that I am taking from the ‘reading’ of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Thank you, Mary…it took me almost 11 years, but I’ve now written my remarks on the inside jacket of this beautiful gift.  It well-serves to exemplify our bond of friendship and teaching.





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