Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003)

As its title would appear to imply, this is a strange and fascinating hybrid of literary criticism and political/personal memoir, essentially detailing life for Azar Nafisi, a professor of literature and a woman, but most significantly an Iranian living through the Islamic revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. The operating frame here is that Nafisi has created a reading group, which she calls a "class," that meets in her home weekly to discuss various landmarks of Western (and Persian) literature, most of them at least tacitly marginalized by Iranian Islamic authorities: Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Henry James, Jane Austen, and others. (It should be noted, while we're on this, that Nabokov's Lolita, for one, is not particularly warmly embraced in many quarters of the decadent West either.) Nafisi skillfully interposes her personal  experience in Iran after 1979 and uses the literature and its themes and the conditions of life in Iran to reflect and enrich and deepen the understanding of one another. The first (and main) hurdle that I had to get over was the shocking level of oppression in Iran. I knew, but I did not know really, until I read this. It's particularly hard on women, of course, who must wear robes and veils in public under penalty of flogging and imprisonment. Women are also restricted from appearing in public with any man who is not her husband, father, brother, or son—also under dire penalties. Nafisi's discussions with her students of the books are lucid and illuminating, and her areas of focus are carefully chosen: the Islamic regime is compared to Humbert Humbert, Jay Gatsby becomes a potent symbol of forbidden individualism, and Henry James and Jane Austen are convincingly exposed as the radicals for human potential that they have always been. The stories of Nafisi's students, and her own eventual emigration to the United States, where she lives now, are full of heartbreaking details, but delivered always with a light touch. As much as my horror of Iranian life was viscerally confirmed, this book also provokes a feverish excitement of reading, a facet of literary criticism that I most deeply appreciate. I kept running to my shelves for more to look at, or look at again, and I finished this surrounded by stacks of books to read, in a pig's heaven.

In case it's not at the library.

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