Book 50: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi is a memoir told through books, and it works brilliantly in the parts where she does it right. In a country where foreign literature is viewed as decadent, and censorship is extreme, women gather to free their minds and dissect fiction. 

This is the second real life example we read this month where book clubs take on a pivotal role (I expect my members to write about our club in any upcoming memoirs). I feel like I have a small English professor living inside my psyche somewhere, and I relate to Nafisi so much (even parts that I find annoying).

What’s really interesting about this book is how she relates great works of American fiction to the revolution that turned Iran into the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nafisi links Lolita’s Humbert to the leaders of the Iranian revolution in that they both enforce their ideals on and thus consume the lives of others. She maps Gatsby’s obsession with resuscitating a distant past (and his demise) onto the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran: the pursuit of a remembered collective past wrecked their present lives in the name of a dream.  She fails to link, however, quite as effectively, Pride and Prejudice and Daisy Miller to her life. She does so in a more tangential and wishy-washy manner.

Her writing is in parts brilliant. i.e describing sounds as memories pressed between the pages of a favorite book like leaves or flowers, tumbling out when you rifle through the pages. She brings up lots of intriguing concepts: can fiction be considered immoral? Cultural interpretations of Islam. Gender discrimination. Literature as the only place where multiple and contradicting dimensions of a single personality can fully be appreciated. Carving out creative and personal space combats tyranny. These concepts can provoke interesting discussions, even if she tends to present us with things and just leave them there like a collection of loose threads. Nafisi, sir, if you don’t want to do the weaving, then we will.

On the other hand, she is often cold and distant. The way she talks about her personal relationships is confusing – you’re shocked that she has children then you don’t even know what her family status is half the time, you don’t really know what’s going on. Combine the love of literature professors for metaphor and the paranoia of trying to keep everyone’s identity a secret and you end up with a convoluted mess. She is at times repetitive & her work is poorly structured and unfocused. This is a slow read, at times too academic. She has whole chapters that are just literary analysis or just history without ever being tied to her life or the lives of those around her.

“The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted”

We are so used to certain emotions being cast in a specific light (i.e. love, we think of man & woman) but in the time of the revolution, she claims that ‘passion’ and ‘betrayal’ and ‘sacrifice’ were, for her students, political emotions and love was not between a man and a woman but between an individual and the state and or religion.

“How many events go into that unexpected and decisive moment when you wake up one morning and discover that your life has forever been changed by forces beyond your control?”

Is it me or does everything we read apply to our current situation? I found at least three quotes (including the one above) that resonated with being in quarantine. I guess that’s part of the magic of storytelling: you could be describing fluorescent baboons building a railroad on Neptune and we’d still find a way to link it to our lived experience. That’s a big part of this book: how do we treat the novel? How does fiction interact with our reality? How do we dive in? According to Nafisi we BREATHE novels.

She says how ancient countries obsess over the past but a new country like America obsesses over the future: one has the illusion of the past other has for the illusion of a dream. This doesn’t apply to Qatar though, since we’re much newer than the US and still obsess over two layers of the past (the collective past of the Islamic Empire, and the specific past of our country as we know it, which was only in 1971 (talk about new). 

I love how she said that only people who read literature can learn that every individual has multiple layers and different dimensions to their personality and only through literature do you thoroughly put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be able to understand that a person can have contradictory sides. In every other sphere of life it’s way too easy to just reduce people to the only aspect they’re showing you at any given interaction.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and each path could have been expanded into a work of its own if she focused. My friend broke it down clearly: “different books wrapped up in this text: 1. Chronicles of Nafisi’s book club 2. Nafisi’s career as a professor in light of the Iranian revolution 3. Literary analysis of Nafisi’s favorite books (& maybe 4. Nafisi’s relationship with “her” magician).”

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