“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.