Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
The subtitle of this work—“A Memoir in Books”—shows us that Nafisi plans to discuss not only her life in post-revolutionary Iran under Islamic rule and the Ayatollah Khomeini, but also the books that she read during this period of her life and how and why they mattered.
As a young woman, Nafisi had lived in the United States. When she returns to Iran after the revolution, she finds it utterly changed. Her love of literature, her reading, has become a subversive activity. A professor at the University of Tehran, she loses her post because she refuses to wear the veil. She decides to hand select a group of young women who also love literature and to hold clandestine meetings at her house to discuss “immoral” books such as those by Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and of course, Nabokov, the author of “Lolita.”
The memoir weaves the discussion of these books with the lives of the young women attending the class at Nafisi’s house. I know that some of you are reading this book as a summer requirement for English 4 Honors. It is a great read about the power of corrupt government over the lives of freedom-loving individuals, and I think you’ll have a lot to discuss on this subject. But it’s also a fun analysis of many great books, and I realize that you will not have read most of these. I loved Nafisi’s class’s discussions of “Washington Square” by Henry James and of its female protagonist who is neither very smart nor very pretty—and who is manipulated by everyone important in her life. But then, I think it’s unlikely that you will have read this book. Again, when I see one of the women in the class say, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife,” I wonder if you’ll know that she is paraphrasing the opening of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—and to great effect.
There is much in this book for those who haven’t read the literature Nafisi discusses. There is so much more for those who have. If you have the opportunity in any of your classes here at COHS to select a novel for analysis, you could have a great time with one of the works discussed in “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and comparing Nafisi’s class’s analysis of the book to your own.
The following are ideas from “Reading Lolita” that I think will make good discussion points about your summer reading:
“That room, for all of us, became a place of transgression.”
“‘Reality has become so intolerable. . . that all I can paint now are the colors of my dreams.’ . . . I like that. How many people get a chance to paint the colors of their dreams? . . . This class was the color of my dreams. It entailed an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile.”
“I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free.’”
“If she gets into a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women.”
“Much later, when I read a sentence by Nabokov—‘curiosity is insubordination in its purest form’—the verdict against my father came to mind. . . . Every great work of art . . .is a celebration, an act of insubordination against betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”
“We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich.”
“The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other. That is why, in their world, ritual—empty rituals—become so central. There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.”
This book invites the reader to think about rules and their basis, laws and those who lose and gain by them. I liked the feisty readers who met and discussed a book that shocked me when I read it as a young adult. Back then, I thought loving a preteen was shockingly perverted. I guess I still do, but writing/talking about it, in the days of television, no longer feels wrong. It could even be protective, putting girls on their guard against predatory lovers of their mothers. I think the Library Lady’s take on this book is just right: if you can, read some of the books they discuss with or after this one, because those shades of meaning will make it that much the richer.