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 Miller in 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 Lolita in 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, Lolita becomes 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 Lolita the 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 Lolita all 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. “We were not Lolita,” she insists, and “the Ayatollah was not Humbert.” 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.

Reading Lolita in Teheran is not an especially feminist treatise: Men, Nafisi makes clear, also deny their identities and desires in modern Iran. Nafisi watches them through the veil, always the veil, as they strain uneasily to avoid her gaze even as they endeavor to woo her back to the university she left in protest. (“How will a man know whether a woman he’s agreed to marry is bald?” asks Yassi, Nafisi’s youngest, wittiest student.) After Khomeini’s death, Nafisi reflects on the man not as a dictator but as a poet and scholar of Rumi who adored his blond granddaughter, who lost a significant war and who forcibly manufactured a republic that even loyal adherents recognized as a fraud. “Like all great mythmakers, he had tried to fashion reality out of his dream, and in the end, like Humbert, he had managed to destroy both reality and his dream.” If Lolita represents anyone, anything, to Nafisi, it is Iran: a country, and a people, whose obstinacy endures even after decades of beatings.

An evanescent bloom of tolerance shriveled after Khomeini’s death in 1989, and by the late ’90s, intellectual life in Iran had turned into a lethal shell game. A scholar who sponsored an appearance by V.S. Naipaul to standing-room-only crowds was found mysteriously murdered; a traveling group of writers (some of them, Nafisi implies, not even very good writers) were nearly pushed off a cliff in a bus commandeered by a driver in service to the regime. Nafisi and her husband and children left Iran for a new home in Washington, D.C., in 1997, but not easily; a country, Nabokov observed, keeps its citizens bound by their heartstrings.

She now teaches English to the lucky students of Johns Hopkins University, sharing her insights not only on Nabokov but also on the Iranian novelist Iraj Pezeshkzad, and her newest discovery, Zora Neale Hurston. A few of her students fled as well, to England, Canada, California. Three of her girls continue to meet in Teheran — to read, write, and remind themselves that while their physical beings have vanished under their veils, in their imaginations, through fiction, they will always be whole and free.

Azar Nafisi reads at Pacific Asia Museum, Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m. See Readings for details.

READING LOLITA IN TEHERAN: A Memoir in Books | By AZAR NAFISI | Random House | 347 pages | $23.95 hardcover

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