Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran

THERE'S NOT A LOT I can write about this book that hasn't already been written many times over, I'm sure — it's among the top hundred most-read books on LibraryThing, where it's garnered nearly a hundred reader reviews; a Google search of the title yields 136,000 hits. Wikipedia notes that "it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over one hundred weeks and has been translated into thirty-two languages."

And it was published in 2003, five years ago; and I'm late getting to it. (And I owe Lindsey thanks for recommending it highly: she knows what I will wind up liking.)

The book recounts conversations among teacher (the writer, Azar Nafisi) and students (all young women) during classes, at two Tehran universities and in private, devoted to English-language literature. The four sections discuss Lolita, Pnin, and Invitation to a Beheading (Nabokov); The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald); Daisy Miller and Washington Square (James), and Pride and Prejudice (Austen), always counterpointing the discussion of the texts against that of daily life in Iran as it developed during the classes (from the last year or so of the previous government through the revolution and well into the present theocracy).

Reading Lolita in Tehran has been roundly criticized as Orientalist, propaganda, not credible. I suppose the chief objections to the book voice two points of view: either that it misrepresents contemporary Iranian life (and government, and society, and religion); or that it irresponsibly conflates fantasy with realistic depictions of social reality. I can't speak to the former objection, except to note that both Reading Lolita in Tehran and, presumably, social life in present-day Iran are far too complex to be reduced to ideological argument.

To many the second objection will be the more disturbing, because it is less immediately evident. Nafisi subtitles her book "a memoir in books," and that's just what it is — in books and in discussions of books. She uses her class notes (and those of a student, it eventuates) and her thoughts on these novels to organize the development, as she lived it, of her awareness of the impact of life in Islamist Iran on her own personal life. Along the way she develops what seems to me to be a keenly perceived, close-held, and articulately expressed kind of literary criticism; she's made me think about The Novel as I haven't, really, since school days, since reading Forster and Wilson and such.

To reduce her ideas to a ridiculous skeleton, she finds Nabokov treating, in his books, of the theft of identity, or rather (and worse) of the possibility of ever developing an identity. Fitzgerald's theme is the asserted right to a life of the imagination. Jame's is courage. Austen's is precisely the denial of colonialism and imperialism, through the assertion of private life and private pleasure.

But as I say this is a reductionist presentation of Nafisi's achievement. Behind and above these four writers, and her analysis, and her cumulatively persuasive and troubling account of the repressive state, there is always Scheherazade. The graceful counterpoint of literature and conversation, private and public life, imagination and restriction is conveyed in a constantly forward-moving narrative.

Fiction, the novel, the act of reading — these are endlessly troubling matters to any authoritarian government. Yet one of the sources of that trouble must be precisely the temptation that imaginative narrative presents to the authority: in denying its freedom to others it must deny that freedom to itself; and the human urge to narrative expression is innate and irrepressible.

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