By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Illustration by Jordin Isip|
For two years in the mid-’90s, a decade and a half into the revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran, eight women convened every Thursday morning in Teheran to talk about the literature of the English-language canon. This was no ordinary book club; living under laws so repressive that a wisp of hair escaping from a veil could be interpreted as rebellion, reading and discussing Western fiction, if not precisely illegal, was enough to arouse suspicion. Men could not participate, because such mixed gatherings were illegal; the women read from photocopies of books, as the bookstores and libraries had been scoured of everything that did not promote revolutionary values. The weekly sessions became essential to the survival of each woman’s individuality under a regime that had rewritten their histories, and hence their identities, according to its own strict ideals. “For that suspended time,” writes their professor and friend Azar Nafisi, “we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic. We articulated all that happened to us in our words and saw ourselves, for once, in our own image.”
Nafisi’s account of those years, Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books, expands outward from the discussions among her students to her own history in Iran and the United States, from her genteel childhood before the revolution, when her father was the embattled mayor of Teheran, to her exile in 1997. It is a quietly magnificent book, written with the descriptive precision of an ardent Nabokov scholar reveling in the novelist’s painterly style and the self-effacing tone of a woman laughing conspiratorially among her friends about her cravings for coffee ice cream smothered in walnuts. It is also an astonishingly affecting work of literary criticism — the urgency with which Nafisi regards Nabokov, Austen and Fitzgerald is magnified exponentially and in direct opposition to the increasing pressure from Iranian authorities to contain her; her passion is irresistible.
It is an odd side effect of fascism, this enhanced appreciation of the ordinary. “We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted,” a shadowy intellectual consort she refers to only as “the magician” observes as they share a croque monsieur. “One could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich.” Henry James is no longer the familiar predecessor to Edith Wharton, his allure dulled by the expectation that we all read Daisy Millerin college because it was there, on the syllabus. No longer is Austen uncool, potentially offensive to the politically sensitive (it was Palestinian-American critic Edward Said, explains Nafisi, who gave the Iranian Islamists their ideas about Austen condoning slavery). The Western canon, so free and full of hope, is precious again.
Nothing invigorates expression like its repression. In Reading Lolita in Teheran, books cannot be abandoned, put down, neglected or forgotten without fear of oneself slipping into the void of nonexistence. Nafisi reminds her students that the 19-year-old Nabokov refused to set aside his pen even as the bullets of the Russian Revolution whizzed by his head; later in the book, during the Iran-Iraq war, Nafisi sticks with Henry James by candlelight even while Iraqi bombs pound Teheran.
Still, Nafisi understands, her choice of books is perplexing to the Western reader. “Are you bewildered?” she asks. “Why Lolita? Why Lolitain Teheran?” The answer is both plain and startling: Lionel Trilling and others have interpreted Nabokov’s saga of an effete middle-aged man and his captive child concubine as a great love story; Western feminists have excoriated Nabokov for his erotic ode to pederasty; and Nafisi’s peers in Iran’s hijacked universities use it to show how young girls can hold sway over pious men (fascist regimes spill over with ironies). But Nabokov wrote the book with the image in mind of a caged gorilla who is taught to draw, and produces as his first masterpiece a picture of himself behind bars.
Under Nafisi’s tutelage, Lolitabecomes most of all a story of defiance. Lolita herself is a paragon of everyday courage, of the individual’s insistence on bringing itself into being; Humbert Humbert, the dictator who feigns benevolence and exerts a debilitating control over his charge. Nabokov embedded in Lolitathe consequences of totalitarianism on the human soul, as well as the individual’s ultimate triumph. It is an interpretation that makes a thrilling sort of sense: Side by side with Nafisi’s book, I read Lolitaall over again, marveling anew not only at its layers of meaning, but at the way Nabokov described the sound of ice cubes when they drop into a glass of liquid, “emitting rasping, crackling, tortured sounds as the warm water loosened them in their cells.”
Nafisi warns the reader not to take any metaphor too far. “A novel is not an allegory,” she scolds her leftist students who would stop her from teaching such counterrevolutionary texts as The Great Gatsby. “It is the sensual experience of another world.” It trivializes fiction to require that it stand for something, she says. That’s what fascists do. “Wewere notLolita,” she insists, and “the Ayatollah was notHumbert.” Her suspicion of such interpretations traces back to her own political disillusionment: Once a young leftist who marched in the streets against the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi and his U.S. backers, Nafisi began her teaching career at the University of Teheran in the first days of the revolution, “innocently and with feelings utterly inappropriate to the circumstances” trying to teach the ideology of radical American populist Mike Gold alongside Fitzgerald. But as her beloved novels began to disappear from the bookstores, she began to re-define her ambitions: Her fight against the Islamic regime became not a political one, she explains, but an existential one. Her insistence on studying and teaching the novels of “colonial writer” Jane Austen defied not the ruling ideology’s lofty ambitions for a classless and morally pure Islamic society so much as its contempt for the subtle complexities of human relationships that mark each of us as unique. “These girls, my girls, knew a great deal about Jane Austen,” Nafisi writes, “but next to nothing about their own bodies.” Nor did they know, as one student admits, how to be happy. The regime turns life flat and simple and gray; fiction returns it to its messy, dangerous colors.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city