Thursday, March 31, 2011

Throwback Thursday: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi 2004
Random House

IQ "An absurd fictionality ruled our lives. We tried to live in the open spaces in the chinks created between that room which had become our protective cocoon, and the censor's world of witches and goblins outside. Which of these two worlds was more real and to which did we really belong? We no longer knew the answers. Perhaps one way of finding out the truth was to do what we did: to try to imaginatively articulate these two worlds, and through that process, give shape to our vision and identity." pg. 26

From 1995 to 1997, Azar Nafisi and seven of her most committed female gathered in her house to discuss Western literature, the classics that have been forbidden. They gather ever Thursday morning to discuss Vladmir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen and other greats. This book covers each of the above mentioned authors, but many others are discussed for a bit as well. Not only does the author talk about herself but she reveals an intimate portrait of each one of her young students as well as what life was like in the early days of Islamic Republic and at the end of the 20th century. The author was a professor at the University of Tehran but she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil.

If you don't want Lolita, The Great Gatbsy, Washington Square (or Daisy Miller) and Pride & Prejudice to be spoiled for you, don't read this book. I didn't mind since I'd read two of the four. Also I'm ashamed to say I'd never even heard of Henry James. Not sure where I was when people talked about his classics. Lolita I knew the gist of, but it's sounds so much more suffocating and horrifying than I anticipated. I do want to read it, if only because I think the experience will be all the richer after having read Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book is divided into four parts, each part named after Fitzgerald, James, Nabokov or Austen. What really drew me to this non-fiction story was how easily (or so it seemed to me) the author was able to make comparisons between the lives of herself and her students in Iran with the lives of those they were reading about in books. For example in talking about Lolita she states "I added that in fact Nabokov had taken revenge against our own solipsizers; he had taken revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini, on Yassi's last suitor on the dough-faced teacher for that matter. They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all soplipsists who take over other people's lives. She, Yassi [one of the seven students], had much potential; she could be whatever she wanted to be-a good wife or a teacher and poet. What mattered was for her to know what she wanted" (pg. 33).

Unlike Lipstick Jihad this book is much more distressing to read because the rules are so much stricter. Lipstick Jihad took place in the early 2000s, this book is from the '70s to the '90s and I highly recommend both, or at least that you read this book and then one set in present-day Iran so you can see the changes. It's rather astonishing. I do think at times the author waxed on philosophically a bit too much, talking more about the books than life in Iran and/or her students. In fact, I do wish we had gotten to better know the seven girls; Yassi, Mahshid, Manna, Azin, Nassrin and Mitra. We get glimpses of their personalities, but I think the author only lightly touched on the complexities of their lives. Perhaps she couldn't go into much detail for fear of getting them (or herself, loved ones, etc.) in trouble. Stylistically I wasn't a huge fan of how the book was told. The passing of time was confusing and the conversations weren't italicized or put in " " so I wasn't always sure if the author was having an actual conversation or just thinking in her head. What bothered me most was once we hit the 2nd or 3rd part, the book became less about the author/teacher AND the girls and more about just the author. I had been expecting equal playing time so to speak so that surprised me. I also had high expectations for the Pride & Prejudice part, I think the comparisons fell flat except when talking about Iranian society and British society of the 19th century. It was truly sad to read about these young women who knew nothing about relationships but still yearned for their Mr. Darcy, even though he seemed very, very far away indeed. I did however really like this lengthy quote "Mr. Nahvi was one of the few students in whom I was unable to find a single redeeming quality. I could say, like Eliza Bennet, that he was not a sensible man. One day after a really exhausting argument, I told him Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you to be sure-you are as different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquittance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the west. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute-decadent vile corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!" (pg. 290).

Reading Lolita in Tehran delivers excellent literary analysis with the bonus of raising the curtain off of life in Iran during the early days of the Islamic Republic especially concerning what life was like for students and teachers. It's hard to read about the suffering the people went through, the jobs lost, the rather ridiculous-sounding rules, and worse, the interrogations and the executions. I found it especially sad at how people bewail the brain power that is leaving Iran. I think I can understand why young people wouldn't want to stay, but I can also see how others would see it as betrayal (i.e. why don't they stay and try to work with the system to make Iran better). This is not a book for you (I don't think) if you don't like learning about Iran and/or reading literature analysis. The story is slow-moving but that allows for plenty of details about life in Iran, although I do think the seven young women the book was supposed to be about as well, got pushed to the side towards the middle and end of the book. The transitions and passing of time was confusing as were conversations held, but I can't help but marvel at how this book manages to take seemingly unrelated topics and show how they are similar, to illustrate how classics can literally be applied to people's lives ANYWHERE. Even in what we may think of as a repressive society. For most of the book the literary references went completely over my head, but I found the analysis fascinating and I definitely intend on re-reading this book after I've read (or re-read) each of the main four classics. I'm particularly excited to read some Henry James (I definitely didn't get her comparisons when it came to his work and Iran but that's probably because I know nothing about him or his work)! My favorite part is when they put a book of his on trial in class. It was a lot of fun to read about, but stomach-churning at how much disgust some students had for the book, not all though and that was reassuring.

Disclosure: From library

PS I had quotes picked out from each part

On the Great Gatsby "[w]hat we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible beautiful dream impossible in its actualization for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven. This is what we had in common, although we were not aware of it then. [...] When I left the class that day I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby's. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?" (pg. 144), powerful! And I actually understood that connection (it helps that we just finished studying Iran).

On Washington Square "[t]hus, Dr. Sloper commits the most unforgivable crime in fiction-blindness.[...]This I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. [...] I think most of my students would have agreed with this definition of evil, because it was so close to their own experience. Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all the others flowed. My generation had tasted individual freedom and lost it; no matter how painful the loss, the recollection was there to protect us from the desert of the present. But what did this new generation have to safeguard them? Like Catherine's, their desires, their yearnings, their urges to express themselves were manifested in bizarre ways." (pg. 224) I don't know if I agree that they expressed themselves in 'bizarre ways' , their ways of expressing themselves were merely differently from what one might expect. Honestly I think it was more of a generational thing. Maybe the author just didn't get 'young people'. Ha