Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Author: Azar Nafisi
I received this book courtesy of the wonderful Bex over at An Armchair by the Sea, who gave away some of her favourite books over Twitter. What a lovely thing to do–thanks, Bex. 🙂
Reading Lolita in Tehran really does what it says on the tin. After she quit teaching at the University of Tehran following the Iranian Revolution, Professor Nafisi started an informal literary class in her house for a handful of women. I say quit, although I was never sure if she jumped or if she was pushed. Either way, the key issue was her refusal to teach wearing the veil. This memoir traces the events in her life leading up to and following the event. It also loosely (very loosely) follows the stories of the women in the group as they try to live their personal and professional lives under the oppression of the Islamic Republic. Throughout the book, Nafisi interweaves their stories with discussion and analysis of several Western texts that were forbidden or contested in Tehran at the time of her class.
From a structural point of view, I think maybe this is what I wanted when I opened The Road to Middlemarch and Spinster. The book is split into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen. Nafisi writes a very intricate tale in which major life events are tied around the books she’s read, and vice versa: it is impossible to extract her own narrative from those of the novels she loves. I think that this is probably the case for most book lovers, and she communicates it so beautifully here. Often, more of the narrative will be relating discussions with her students about some nuance of plot than to major events in her life. Her two children are born within a paragraph of text, but several pages are given to a conversation about why, exactly, Daisy says to Gatsby You look so cool. You always look so cool.
This is not to say that the biographical and historical details are sparse. Far from it, in fact. I learnt a huge amount about the Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic from reading this book. Honestly, it was a subject I’d never given much thought to before, but I think that it’s very important. This is especially the case given the ongoing refugee crisis. Although, as far as I’m aware, there is not currently a huge exodus of Iranian refugees to the UK, this book gives some indication of what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime, something that we really need to understand if we’re going to provide sufficient and effective help to the affected people. It’s just that probably as much page space is given to the effect of the Islamic Republic on freedom of reading and teaching as on any other topic, much of it through the vehicle of layperson-friendly literary analysis.
There are a lot of people on Goodreads who complain that the literary analysis in this book is either too shallow or too deep. I think they are missing the point. The discussion contained within this book is neither particularly shallow nor especially deep: it is, instead, informed by a very specific context and setting. For example, I don’t think anyone sensible would argue that The Great Gatsby is a straightforward glamorisation of the American Dream. On the surface, therefore, pointing out that Fitzgerald deconstructs the tropes associated with that topic, decrying them as superficial, would itself seem to be a superficial analysis. However, for that time and that place, it was an essential point. America was being demonised in Tehran as emblematic of Western imperialism, by both Communist and fundamentalist Muslim groups. Gatsby in turn is challenged by radical students due to its perceived bourgeois, immoral American-ness. The reading of Gatsby as either promoting or deconstructing the American Dream is, therefore, the vital issue rather than the place to start.
We do not read books in a vacuum. Nobody does, and Nafisi and her students are no different. Everybody brings a unique set of experiences, a slightly different viewpoint. If I pick up something like Anna Karenina, and so do my mother and my best friend—none of us will read exactly the same book. We share some commonalities (all Christians, all women, all scientists), but in fact we have different life experiences, different perspectives—and we read books at different seasons. I keep using Gilead as an example, and I’m going to do so again here. For me, it will always be about dealing with loneliness, about the importance of friends who have become family, because that is what I needed to hear when I read it. If I read it for the first time now, even two months later, it might mean something completely different. Other people have read it as examining the complicated issue of predestination, or discussing generational tensions. It’s about all of those things, and none of them. In the same way, Nafisi’s interpretation of the novels she reads is necessarily coloured by her experiences under the Islamic Republic–but also by her personality, her preferences, all of the things that go towards making up a human life. This individual nature of any one person’s relationship to any one book, and the importance of that relationship, comes across strongly in Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Throughout the book, Nafisi uses the image of the blind censor to demonstrate the lack of interest that the regime has for nuance and interpretation and meaning: for some time, the state censor in Iran was literally blind. He would have synopses of books and films read to him before deciding whether they should be banned—considering only content, with utter disregard for context. The blind censor does not care what the individual creator meant by the work, and does not care what it might mean to other individuals This is used as a wider symbol for the Islamic Republic’s attitude towards individuality of any description. It’s in such stark contrast to the way Nafisi and her students talk about art, especially literature. At one point, in order to honour a former student who was executed in jail, Nafisi records the way Razieh talked about her favourite author:
You know, all my life I have lived in poverty. I had to steal books and sneak into movie houses—but God, I loved those books! I don’t think any rich kid has ever cherished Rebecca or Gone with the Wind the way I did when I borrowed the translations from houses where my mother worked. But James—he is so different from any other writer I have ever read. I think I am in love, she added, laughing.
This is one of the real strengths of the book, the way it is a testament to the timelessness of classic literature. I absolutely loved hearing how these women related to the same books I have read, in ways that were both very different and very similar to my own experiences. The only criteria Nafisi used to select the women for her class was that they must really love literature for its own sake. This comes through as a very strong theme. My favourite quote comes as Nafisi describes herself at a time when she had was rootless and depressed. Her identity as a woman and an academic, her right to exist as herself, were gradually being stripped from her, and so she read.
I became again the child I had been when I would indiscriminately and waywardly pick up books, slouch in the nearest available corner, and read and read. I picked up Murder on the Orient Express, Sense and Sensibility, The Master and Margarita, Herzog, The Gift, The Count of Monte Cristo, Smiley’s People—any book I could get my hands on in my father’s library, in secondhand bookstores, in the still-unravaged libraries in friends’ houses—and read them all, an alcoholic drowning her inarticulate sorrows.
Over and over again, Reading Lolita in Tehran demonstrates that reading and thinking critically about literature is simultaneously a source of comfort and a revolutionary act. By persisting in reading banned works of literature and discussing them, by having opinions of their own in a society that demands that women look and think exactly as they are ordered, Nafisi and her students stubbornly insist on carving out space for themselves.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Although at times I found it hard to follow (events are not presented chronologically, for the most part), I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that so clearly demonstrates the incredible value of reading. And, despite the fact that I’ve read lots of things that demonstrate the value of individual human lives, this made me freshly grateful for the diversity of opinions and experiences and lives in my small world and in the world at large.