Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi

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“Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.”

I devoured this book in three short days and enjoyed it hugely. Later I was bemused to read a ton of online reviews and articles piling on the criticism, calling it too dry, too self-important, not academic enough (or too academic in one instance), too Western, too Iranian, anti-men, anti-Islam….. Crikey. I put my own review on hold for a few days while I mulled all this over. Is Nafisi’s tone a trifle imperious at times? Does she insinuate that Western literature is more worthy of study than Persian? I’m really not sure but I’m inclined to think no and in the end I decided that this approach to reviewing was going nowhere. Instead, I thought, I’ll just go ahead and write my own thoughts on Reading Lolita in Tehran, without further reference to the opinions of others. That’s probably for the best.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is, at its simplest, a memoir of Azar Nafisi’s experiences teaching English Literature in Iran. Her story starts in 1995 when, shortly after being forced to leave a university job for refusing to wear the veil, she decided to found a book group. She hand selected seven of her favourite former students, all female, and invited them to meet in her house once a week to discuss great works of literature, beginning with Lolita. She uses the group as a starting point for reflecting back in more detail on her experiences teaching some of these same works immediately after the Revolution in 1979, a time when the prevailing attitude amongst many of her students was that such books were decadent and immoral. In one of my favourite chapters Nafisi recalls asking her students to put The Great Gatsby on trial, to argue in favour or against the novel and to consider what makes it a great work of fiction or, on the other hand, a depraved monument to western capitalism.

I’ve said before that I love books about the love of books and this is just that. Only, it’s not just the love of books that Nafisi explores here but the universal power of literature. She describes spending night after night watching over her sleeping children with only Henry James and Dorothy L. Sayers for company as Iraqi bombs drop on the city around them. She and ‘her girls’ experience not just bombs but veils and prisons and floggings and ‘morality squads’ as they’re forcibly banished by the state from any visible form of public life. In such turbulent and oppressive times, Nafisi encourages her students to see books as a link to a life the regime can’t control.

“Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our little pockets of freedom.”

It’s telling, I think, that the girls’ favourite heroine becomes James’ Daisy Miller, a young woman unafraid to be herself. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that for all Nafisi’s admirable intentions, the irony, sadly, is that in writing this book she somehow obscures the personalities that should be shining out of it. Maybe it’s because she introduces her seven young students all too quickly at the start, because they disappear for a big chunk in the middle, or because it’s not really about them so much as it is about Nafisi. I’m not sure, but the women she claims to be giving voice to seem to get lost somewhere in the story and it’s sad. I’d have liked to have seen more of them.

On the whole, however, I don’t really feel like I have much to criticise with this book. Nafisi’s writing style is hard to define but I quite liked it. The chapters are short, there’s little direct dialogue and no use of speech marks to distinguish spoken word from narrative. It gives it an almost hurried, off the cuff, feel, like all these memories have spilled out of her head directly onto the page. She writes really convincingly about the novels she teaches and I was fascinated by some of her insights into characters I already know and love. At one point she describes the story of Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as a dance in which they are constantly being brought together and pushed apart, which strikes me now as the perfect way to describe their relationship.  Thanks to her, I’m also persuaded that the time has come to get over my fear of Henry James. I’m seriously considering reading Daisy Miller or Washington Square. How times have changed.

Towards the end of the memoir, Nafisi explains her difficult decision to leave Iran. She writes:

“ You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way again.”

If this had been my own book, and not from the library, I’d have furiously scribbled stars and exclamation marks in the margin here. It might sound trite but I’d been trying to express this very idea to a friend the other day and couldn’t find the words to say what I meant. There are some biggish (for me) life changes afoot and for the past couple of months I’ve been torn between excitement about what the future holds and the gloomy feeling that this phase of my life, the one I’m living now, is all set to pass away from me. Nafisi hits the nail on the head.

My thanks to Elizabeth at A Russian Affair for recommending this book.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I didn’t finish

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish.

They say the path to heaven is paved with good intentions. My particular path, wherever it may lead, is paved with unfinished books. I’m a relentless giver upper. I’d like to think that I’m better than I used to be, that I’m much more inclined to persevere with a book that I’m not enjoying, but I’m not sure if that’s really true.  As proof all I can say is that I’ve not given up on a book this year. That’s pretty good, non?

The TTT theme this week is actually all about series  I didn’t finish but, for me, that’s just demoralising. I can’t think of ten series I did finish so I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number I gave up on. I decided that a list of unfinished standalone novels might be less alarming and would make me feel like less of a failure.

1. The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This got left on the backburner for nearly eleven years, which is quite shocking when you consider how much I enjoyed the little I read. It won’t be on the unfinished list for long as I’m currently giving it another try. [See here for the latest update].

2. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. If this was a competition To The Lighthouse would win hands down. I must have started this book, and cast it aside, at least five times. The first chapter is so familiar it’s like an old friend. If only I could get past it!

3. War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Since giving up on this I’ve listened to the radio play and read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I loved). They’ve convinced me that I didn’t give War And Peace a fair chance before and I need to go back and try again.

4. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I was so desperate to love this but couldn’t get beyond a third of the way through, both times I tried. It’s still on my shelf, waiting for that third (and hopefully final) attempt.

5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In all honesty, I probably won’t give this another shot. Maybe I’ll try the audio book instead. If I can stay awake long enough. Yawn. 

6. A Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James. Thanks to Mr James I now have a morbid fear of long, convoluted sentences that lead nowhere. They bring me out in a cold sweat. I’ve kept this book in the hope that one day I’ll conquer that fear.

7. The Master And Margherita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I still want to read this but it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. Sometimes if you fancy a light read, read something light. Don’t force yourself to read an epic piece of Soviet satire. Lesson learned.

8. The Magus by John Fowles. We just didn’t get on, The Magus and I. It was too vague, too clever, too postmodern…. and I got annoyed.

9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. My friend N always raves about how much he loves Murakami but I just don’t get it. I’ve tried. I really have.

10. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Am I really the only person who didn’t enjoy Cloud Atlas? Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

I am genuinely quite sad that I’ve never finished some of these; others, not so much.

Top Ten Tuesday: Nineteenth Century Gothic

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week’s theme is all about books I’d include on my syllabus if I taught a literature course of my choice.

I’ve included here a combination of books and short stories I’ve already read as well as ones I’d like to read:

1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This doesn’t need much of an introduction, does it? I know this book fairly well because I read it for A’level English and then again at university. It was a ground-breaking piece of fiction back in 1818 and an important landmark in the development of Gothic literature.

2. The Vampyre by John Polidori. This short story is worth reading alongside Frankenstein since they have similar origins. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of how they came to be written.

3. The Signalman by Charles Dickens. This wouldn’t be the blue bore without one reference to Dickens a week, right? You can find tons of examples of the Gothic in Dickens’ work but this short ghost story has always given me the heebie-jeebies.

4. Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not yet read this but it’s been on my TBR list for ages. Years ago I went to Whitby, the home of Dracula, with some friends and paid £3 to go on a ‘haunted house’ tour which eventually culminated in the four of us being chased shrieking through a dark cellar by a man in a mask. Absolutely mortifying.

5. The Hound Of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I was thirteen when I read this and it scared me half to death, until I realised the truth about the hound. If you were being pernickety you’d point out that this was published in 1902 and therefore doesn’t belong on my list. I’d say well, it was probably written in the years before that. I wouldn’t know, I’ve conveniently not checked.

6. The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This has been on my shelf for about ten years and I’ve still not got round to it. I love Oscar Wilde’s short stories and I can well imagine that any Gothic novel he wrote would be bloody brilliant too.

7. The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. This isn’t just one of my favourite works of Gothic literature, it’s one of my favourite novels in the world ever. It’s got wicked plots, villainous villains, mistaken identity, madhouses, ghostly figures in the woods…. Seriously, what’s not to love about this book?

8. The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. Aah, Mr James, my old nemesis, we meet again. I haven’t attempted this one yet but it sounds great. I just have to get over my appalling fear of Henry James.

9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I’ve never been able to decide whether I really love Wuthering Heights or really hate it! But I do like the way Bronte uses the moors to create that brooding intensity. What is it about the Yorkshire landscape that screams Gothic to so many writers?

10. The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve not yet read any books by EAP but I’m told this is a particularly good one. I also quite like the sound of The Pit And The Pendulum.

Doesn’t ‘Nineteenth Century Gothic’ sound like a font?