Apr 6, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir about Azar Nafisi’s years as a literature professor in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Initially she taught at the University of Tehran, but she resigned from her position when wearing a headscarf became mandatory. Being a big believer in the power and importance of literature even (or especially) at the hardest of times, she gathered a group of her most committed students and invited them to come to her house on Thursday mornings for a secret class, or a reading group. There, they read and discussed forbidden Western books such as Nabakov’s Lolita.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is divided into four sections, each devoted to a different author or literary work: Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Henry James and Jane Austen. When I began the book, I expected each part to focus on the group’s discussion of that particular author or work. The first section on Lolita does this, but the others go further back in time and cover Nafisi’s experience of teaching those books at university, of quitting her job and not knowing what to do, of the war between Iran and Iraq, and of eventually coming to the decision of leaving her country. This isn’t really a complaint – the fact that the book covered a wider range of experiences than I’d imagined is by no means a bad thing.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is subtitled “A Memoir in Books”, which is a very apt description of what the book is. It has a very personal feel, and for this reason it doesn’t provide a detailed political context for what was happening in Iran at the time.Again, this isn’t really a complaint, as Nafisi very much has the right to decide to write a personal book about her own experiences in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But I was glad that this wasn’t my first book on Iran. Having previously read the works of Marjane Satrapi and Shirin Ebadi, who emphasise the political context a bit more, deepened my understanding of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

This isn’t to say that those who have read nothing about Iran before will feel lost – not at all. All you really need to know is that Azar Nafisi is living under a totalitarian regime. The way she experiences these circumstances is easy to understand and relate to. That’s part of the power of this book – Nafisi makes it very easy for readers to imagine themselves in her place or in the place of one of her students: having the books we love taken away from us, being controlled, being scrutinised, being dictated to even in our most personal decisions.

My favourite thing about Reading Lolita in Tehran, however, was reading what Nasifi had to say about literature, about its role, about its relationship with life. In her discussions with her students, she asks a lot of thoughtful and pertinent questions about what literature is, what it does, and what we can reasonably expect it to do – questions which I find as relevant in a Western democracy as they are in a Middle Eastern totalitarian state. She shares her thoughts on literature’s ties with ideology, its political impact, its aesthetical value, and so on. Many of her classroom discussions reminded me of the conversations we book bloggers have had among ourselves: about the social impact of literature works, about minority characters and how they’re portrayed, about how to deal with racism, sexism or class prejudice in older works, etc.

Also, I absolutely loved her thoughts on what she calls the fundamentally democratic structure of the novel. She says:
A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and created enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way, a novel is called democratic—not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so.
This is, in a nutshell, the main reason why I’m so passionate about literature. I know there are exceptions, but for the most part novels never offer a simplistic view of life. Reading forces us to face how complex people and their motivations are. I suspect that books do this better than anything else, and if that doesn’t make us more sympathetic individuals; more respectful of those who are different than we are, I don’t know what will. And empathy and respect for diversity are, after all, at the heart of democracy.

Let me share another passage, one I found very moving and which also says a lot about why I love books:
In a period of twenty-four hours, fourteen missiles hit Tehran. Since we had moved the children back to their room again, that night I pulled a small couch into their room and stayed awake reading until three in the morning. I read a thick Dorothy Sayers mystery, safe and secure with Lord Peter Wimsey, his faithful manservant and his scholarly beloved. My daughter and I were woken up at down with the sound of a nearby explosion.
No, I didn’t include this just for the Sayers reference, though that’s part of it. The reason why this paragraph struck me was because the fact that we love the same author, the same stories, really made me appreciate our common humanity. It was moving to imagine several different people linked by a single story over time: in the 1930’s when Sayers’ books were first published, during WW2 in who knows what circumstances, in 2010, in the 1980's, in Europe, in Iran, then and now, here and everywhere. And this, the universality of literature, is another reason why I love it so. Not to mention, of course, its power to provide us with a safe place into which to escape.

Other bits I liked:
I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their reading to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathise, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

Our culture shunned sex because it was too involved with it. It had to suppress sex violently, like for the same reason that an impotent man will put his beautiful wife under lock and key. We had always segregated sex from feeling and from intellectual love, so you were either pure and virtuous, as Nassrin’s uncle had said, or dirty and fun. What was alien to us was eros, true sensuality. These girls, my girls, knew a great deal about Jane Austen, they could discuss Joyce and Woolf intelligently, but they knew next to nothing about their own bodies, about what they should expect of these bodies, which, they had been told, were the source of all temptation.
They Read It Too:
Trish’s Reading Nook, Kay’s Bookshelf, An Adventure in Reading, Jenny’s Books, Lost in Books, DogEar Diary, Reading and Rooibos, Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books, Michelle's Reading Room

(Did I miss yours?)

46 comments:

  1. I've wanted to read this book for so long and your review made me more eager than ever! I think the combination of someone's thoughts on literature, in a certain political situation in a non-western country sounds like a great one. Thanks for the review and sorry for my weirdly unreadable comment.

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  2. Sounds interesting, I must say. I do love books about books! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

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  3. Thanks for this review of Reading Lolita in Tehran. I loved this book, and your comments stimulate me to re-read it. I particularly enjoyed the insights the author provides into culture, and into ways in which women resist oppression whether from the state or from the patriarchy.

    Yvonne
    http://lifelinesproverbsliving.blogspot.com

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  4. I really loved this book when I read it (pre-blogging), though I admit the two middle sections, where she concentrated more on politics, were less interesting to me than the ones that with her reading group. They WERE my first introduction to Iran's history, and I found them somewhat confusing. I could still follow along, but I had let go of any strong understanding of the conflict. But even 3 or 4 years after reading it, there are parts of this book that really stick with me and I still remember all the women from the reading group.

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  5. My book club loved discussing this book! We touched on many of the points you mention, and your review makes me want to reread it. The author also has a new memoir (Things I've Been Silent About) that I'll read eventually.

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  6. I have some reservations about Azar Nafisi as a person and political figure, but fortunately I didn't read anything about her until ages after I'd read (and loved!) this book. After reading it, I realized I'd not understood what the point of Lolita was, so I finally went ahead and read it. So, so good.

    Now that I know a bit more about Iran, this book has become even more fascinating to me. It seems to be a central struggle in Iran between the oppressive regimes of recent years and the country's centuries-long traditions of poetry and art and culture.

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  7. Someone actually gave me a copy of this and I'm still not sure I want to read it. Your review does help start the pendulum swinging.

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  8. I tried to read this book for my real-life bookclub a few years ago and just could not do it. I thought the writing was really horrendous - overly purple and florid - and I hated Nafisi. She just seemed so condescending and officious, it really turned me off. I only made it through the Lolita section, but what I really disliked was how she kept talking about her own interpretations of the book as if they were fact and not in fact colored by her own experiences. I was hoping for more thoughtful parallels between the books she read and her own real-world situation, but I felt the book didn't offer that at all.

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  9. I was soooooo close to buying her book, Things I've Been Silent About, the other night...and now I wish so much I had! I have a feeling I would enjoy it more than this one...because I have a feeling this one would just make me feel stupid. (No yelling at me--I didn't say I *was* stupid, just that I would *feel* stupid.)

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  10. Very interesting about the democratic structure of a novel. I always thought books were just banned in some countries because of their ideas, or even more broadly, of stimulating thought. But I never thought about it in the meta sense. Great observation by the author and catch by you!

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  11. I so admire people like the author and often wonder if I would have that kind of strength and purpose under the same circumstances.

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  12. I can't remember exactly how long its been since I read this one, but now that I'm thinking about it, it feels like forever! It's one of those books I would definitely re-read because I suspect there's much more to be gotten out of it on a 2nd run-through.

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  13. I really loved reading her thoughts and her students' on the books they were reading. I enjoyed hearing about the rest of her experiences, but I do almost wish there had been more of those discussions.

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  14. I love books about books and reading. Naturally, how we read and what we get out of literature will be coloured by our experiences and the society in which we live. But that makes it more interesting. I've seen this kicking around, so may have to investigate it further...

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  15. My book club read this back in '08 and found a lot to discuss. Personally I loved it for all the literary references (I went a bit overboard with the quotes when I reviewed it). Glad to see you enjoy it as well!

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  16. Nafisi does sound like the kind of professor who thinks her reading is the only "correct" one, but I admired her (as I admire you, Nymeth) for interpreting works of literature in a language she had learned, rather than the one she grew up speaking.

    I also like the way she shows instead of tells, like the part in which a Muslim student makes a pronouncement that fiction is merely a model for behavior, using The Great Gatsby as an example of a novel that "promotes infidelity"!

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  17. I read this book about a year ago, and only read Lolita this past month. I think I need to go back an re-read Nafisi now!

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  18. I admit, since I'm not a huge fan of memoirs normally, this book has never appealed to me, but your quotes about literature ("reading what Nasifi had to say about literature, about its role, about its relationship with life") really makes me want to find this book and give it a shot!

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  19. I'm touched by the idea of literature being the common thread that connects us all. I guess we all know that, but it certainly is a vivid message here. I am intrigued though, when I read your review, then look at Steph's comments. Obviously there is some controversy!!!

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  20. I have had this book for yonks, but I was weary to read it as someone said it wasn't very good. However, knowing a bit about the background of Iran after reading the Persepolis books I think I may enjoy it more than they did. I always trust your book judgement and look forward to reading it.

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  21. This is one of those books I know I want to read again, I'm sure I didn't do so thoroughly enough the first time. Great review; you've pointed out so many things I glossed over in a way.

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  22. I have been wanting to read this book, and it has been on my list for a long time. I am glad to have read your opinions on it, because it is not exactly what I would have expected, and I am glad that now I know that. It still sounds like something I would like, and I am glad that it was such a good read for you!

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  23. I loved this book. Like you, I enjoyed her thoughts on literature and the democratic nature of novels. I was also fascinated by the group of women she described, who were so very different, and how each of them responded to the changes brought by the revolution.

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  24. I just read this too, not too long ago. I thought it was pretty good overall, but I really enjoyed your review.

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  25. I'm happy to hear that you liked this book, because I have it at home! I'm also half Iranian so I'm sure I'll find this interesting. Fantastic review!

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  26. What I took from this book was how amazing regardless of culture, age, sex, religion....how literature connects all of us!! Loved this one...powerful read!

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  27. This book has been on my "read this year" shelf for two years. Sigh . . . Maybe this year?!

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  28. Great review, Ana!
    The premise definitely piqued my interest so I'll have to check it out. :)

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  29. I read this book pre-blog, and it was my first Iranian read. I remember the quotes you pulled, and love them all--a novel is democracy, oh yes. While reading Satrapi I tried to imagine if her and Nafisi's paths would have crossed. Finally concluded that Nafisi left for good at about the time Satrapi returned...or not.
    Brilliant review!

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  30. I read this book a while ago (so, pre-blogging). I felt sometimes that Nafisi took on a very professorial-lecturing tone, and I struggled through those moments. But, for the most part, I liked this book-- especially when she would discuss the lives and struggles of her students.

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  31. I always worry when I see reviews of books that I love with a sort of unrestrained passion because I don't want the person to dislike them. This is one of those books, and I'm so glad that you enjoyed it! I know my copy has tons of passages highlighted where Nafisi talks about the importance of literature and what it means in society -- I've always loved those parts of the book.

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  32. I read this at the end of last year. I found it to be very powerful. I also loved what she had to say about books and literature.

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  33. I've been passing this book by for years and I'm not sure why - I love books, I love reading about the Middle East. So why haven't I picked this up yet? Not sure, but your review has persuaded me to crack open the spine at some point.

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  34. Iris: It's not unreadable at all! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did - all those things you mentioned were what attracted me to it as well, and I found it very satisfying.

    Andreea, you're welcome :) I love books about books too.

    Yvonne: Yes, I thought that was wonderful too :)

    Amanda: Yeah, I think I might have felt the same if I hadn't read Persepolis and Iran Awakening first. With that background, it was easier to make sense of her allusions.

    JoAnn: I heard of her new memoir for the first time just the other day! I'm very curious about it.

    Jenny: I actually know nothing about her or her politics, and now I'm scared to look it up! I guess I should be glad I read this without knowing anything too :P

    Elisabeth: Even if you don't love it, I think you'll find it worth reading.

    Steph: I can definitely see your point about the writing. I wasn't a huge fan either, and especially at first I thought it was really overdone. But as I read on, it stopped bothering me, so much so that by the end I had forgotten to mind it at all. I'm not sure if it got better or if I just got too distracted by what she was saying to notice how she said it. I didn't dislike Nafisi herself, though - I think that to survive as an English major, I developed a tendency to always read anyone's thoughts about literature as subjective, because regardless of how thoughtful and informed an opinion is, in the end it's just that. I guess this bias of mine made it not notice that she was presenting her interpretations as facts!

    Debi: Hmpf :P Well, it wouldn't :P

    Jill: I'd never thought about it that way either, but I thought it was just such an interesting idea! I love the thought of a well-structured novel being anti-totalitarian by definition.

    Kathy: I think we'd surprise ourselves if we were ever under those circumstances. People are often more resilient than they realise! But let's hope we never have to find out for sure, of course!

    Andi: I can definitely see what you mean, and I'd love to re-read it in a few years. Especially after I finally get around to read Gatsby and more James.

    Avid Reader: Those were my favourite parts as well.

    Chasingbawa: I agree; that definitely makes it more interesting :)

    Heather: Added your link; thank you!

    Jeanne: As I was telling Steph, I think I just filtered that out because I have a tendency to ignore authoritative statements about literature :P And wasn't the Gatsby trial fascinating?

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  35. Carina: I think I'll revisit it too after I've read more of the books she mentions.

    Rebecca: I'm not too crazy about memoirs either for the most part, but I tend to like ones that involve reading and books.

    Sandy: I can see how not everyone would like it, and I wasn't too crazy about the writing either :P But I did like Nafisi herself. Anyway, this seems to be one of those books that divides opinions!

    Vivienne: I'm sure not everyone would enjoy it as much as I did, but I'd say give it a shot. And yes, having read Persepolis first helps!

    Jeane: I'm sure I missed a lot too, especially as I haven't read Gatsby or any James other than The Turn of the Screw :P

    Zibilee: It's always good to go in knowing what to expect :)

    Stephanie: Yes, her students were fascinating, weren't they? I wish there had been more about them!

    Michelle, thank you!

    Emidy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Staci: Yes, absolutely! I loved that about it too.

    Natasha: I hope you enjoy it whenever you get to it :) And lol, I have many books about which I could say the same :P

    Melody, I think you'd like it!

    ds: Yes, they seem to have been in the country at different times. I kept wondering too if she knew Shiran Ebadi, since she's such a well-known figure in the struggle for women's and children's rights. But someone I don't see them getting along, as Ebadi is a big believer in changing the system from the inside and Nafisi has such a hard time being a part of it at all. But anyway, it's so interesting to see how all these different intelligent and educated women reacted to their circumstances.

    Valerie: She was lecture-ish at times, yes, but honestly it all just made me miss my literature professors and their lectures :P

    Kim: lol, I know that fear :P Those parts really stood out to me as well.

    Jehara: Wasn't it fascinating? And so relevant no matter where or when you live.

    The Book Whisperer: It took me forever to get to it as well :P I hope you enjoy it when you pick it up!

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  36. I love the way you were struck by one book impacting so many people through the ages and decades. That's such a lovely and powerful thought :-)

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  37. I enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago (I was not sure I would).

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  38. This was one of those books that I picked up and read immediately when I saw it in a bookstore. I loved the discussions on reading and books as well as the members of the book club. Have you read her second memoir?

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  39. I read this a few years ago but would love to re-read it after reading the many works of literature that the author references (especially Lolita). I did feel a bit lost at times in those sections where she was referring to certain works of literature that I haven't read but her story of her reading group of women who stand against totalitarianism is very powerful!

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  40. "Reading forces us to face how complex people and their motivations are." -- You really hit the head on the nail with this statement! So true and one of the reasons I absolutely love reading.

    Also, this makes me glad I own both this book and Persepolis, and have your sage advice of reading Persepolis first!

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  41. I have had this book for so long, but have put off reading it until I read Lolita (which I seem to refuse to pick up for an unknown reason). Thanks for the review!

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  42. I really liked this book too, especially the descriptions of how literature and life are intertwined for the author. I do wish I'd been more familiar with some of the texts the author references in the book though. I kind of felt like I was missing out as a result.

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  43. If you ever get a chance to see her speak, do it--she's an amazing presence. I was in a room packed with English teachers (I was, in fact, sitting on the floor, the only room left even though we showed up half an hour early); she spoke past the time she'd been allotted and we were so mesmerized we didn't even notice, and when she apologized, we wanted her to keep going.

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  44. I'll be receiving this book this week and am really looking forward to reading it. You've written a good review that gives me a good idea of what to expect from the book.

    I have a question - is it necessary to read the books referenced in this book (like Lolita, etc)? I don't want to feel lost while reading this book. I have only read Jane Austen from that list.

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  45. Thanks for reviewing this book. I've been wanting to read it for quite sometime so I'm glad I was able to read your review.
    If you curious about books on Iran, drop by my book blog. I've reviewed about four or five over the last year.
    Nice blog you have! I will have to drop by more often.

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  46. I've always wanted to read this book and now that I've read your review, I know I should. I love the passages you've included in this post. Thanks, Ana!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.