Reading Lolita in Tehranby Azar Nafisi
Posted 15 March 2004 - 10:00 PM
Azar Nafisi, the author, was a professor in Iran from the beginning of the Islamic Revolution there until 1996. For two years, she secretly taught Western literature in her own home to a group of hand-picked young women.
The book is separated into four long sections plus a brief epilogue. The sections are titled Lolita, Gatsby, James, Austen. I found the very first section, on Lolita, to be the hardest since I'd (sort of) read Lolita when I was very young and, reading on my own as a naive 17year old, really didn't understand the book. Now I have to go back and give it the read it deserves. This first section of Nafisi's book is written more as a critique of Nabokov's writings than anything else. I remember wishing there'd be less on that and more about the lives of the Iranian women reading the books.
By the last section - the one entitled Austen, the opposite held true. While I was still interested in the lives of the women Nafisi had introduced us to, I wanted more literary criticism about Austen's books and most especially, I wanted to hear from the women reading them. What did they think of Austen's characters? Of the conflicts? There was plenty of discussion about Humboldt (Lolita, within the pages of this book but by the time the author got to the section about Austen, it was slim pickings. And that disappointed me.
I guess it was to be expected because Nafisi had earlier written a book, a literary critique, of Nabokov so she probably mined that research to create her chapter on Lolita. The next chapter, Gatsby was still quite satisfying because, not only are we treated to the thoughts and feelings of the women reading The Great Gatsby (and there is a wonderful section where the book itself is put on trial within Nafisi's classroom,iwth Nafisi herself acting as the book), but we also really begin to know some of the people in Nafisi's life.
But that too is necessarily problematic. Nafisi had to protect their physical safety so she, of course, changed much about these real-life characterizations. That was fine but I felt often, through this book, that there was so much she left unsaid, not just about individual people, but about her own relationship with Iran. I had so many questions about how she managed her own life all during those nearly two decades but I think, again, that, in order to protect individuals still living in Iran, she had to be very deliberately careful in what she said and what she left out. I both respect it and am frustrated by it.
And I really was frustrated by how her book didn't seem to carry its theme all the way through to the end. The first two chapters did so quite nicely, not so the last two sections. By the time she got to James and, especially, Austen, I felt as though she were straining to find instances where she could compare and critique. It was both too studied and too thin. So that was a disappointment.
My saying all of this makes it sound as though I didn't like Reading Lolita in Tehran but nothing could be further from the truth. I was fascinated by it; it inhabited my dreams as well as my awake time. I was greedy for more of what she dangled in front of us. She writes well, her topic is compellingly complex; I wished she'd been able to say more.
Posted 16 March 2004 - 08:04 AM
Posted 16 March 2004 - 08:28 AM
I reread my post and think it may sound harsher than I'd intended. I LOVED this book.
Posted 16 March 2004 - 09:20 AM
Posted 16 March 2004 - 12:14 PM
I too thought she was carefully protecting her marital privacy and of course I respect that. I wonder what he is doing professionally now? In Iran, he apparently was a very well-respected architect who received the most prestigious and creative projects. One can only imagine how hard it must've been for him to leave all of that.
That was something I really loved about this book. It gave us an idea of how the disparity between the lives of men and women created such terrible rifts in even the best of marriages. But I have so many questions for Nafisi's husband!
Did you also think that the form of this book lost its way by the final two sections (James and Austen)? Because I am such a Jane Austen fan, I so looked forward to the Austen section. I really wanted to read all the literary references and was disappointed that they were few and far between. After so much detail on Nabokov, I expected the same treatment of the other authors.
Posted 16 March 2004 - 01:13 PM
I too, want to hear what her husband has to say. I want to know if they are even still married, if he is still in the U.S. I would also like to hear from her children. Do they remember the bombings? Too bad books aren't interactive, so you can get all the questions you have answered, but then I wouldn't stay up nights pondering these same questions and how they relate to me and my life. On thThis book is far deeper than it seems at first glance. Even months after reading it I still think about the authors words and her reactions to events and people in her world. It seemed so dangerous to have the ongoing liasion with her "magic" friend. I kept wanting to ask her, why?
I hope she writes a sequel, or at least an update on her own family in additon to the women in her reading group. But if wishes were horses.....
Posted 16 March 2004 - 02:06 PM
but Austen's novels seem somewhat frivolous when one is living in a society where one can be executed for showing to much skin
I thought, actually, that Nafisi proved her point that Austen's novels AREN'T frivolous at all, but actually very relevant to female readers in the Islamic Republic. She stated, in fact, that Austen was considered dangerous to a society such as Iran's, because, in Austen's novels,
there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist. There is also space --not just space but a necessity--for self-reflection and self-criticism...We needed no message, no outright call for plurality, to prove our point. All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative.
Nafisi also alludes to all those unsympathetic characters that people Austen's novels.
Very easy to picture certain of her more reactionary male acquaintances in that description. And then elsewhere, Nafisi tells us that her "girls", the young women whom she taught, nicknamed a male classmate from their university days "Mr.Collins" (a pompous clergyman in Pride and Prejudice) because of his overall rigidity and then his startling proposal of marriage to one of the young women in her class.
They rant. They lecture. They scold. This incapacity for true dialogue implies an incapacity for tolerance, self-reflection and empathy.
And also somewhere in the book, Nafisi tells us that her young female students gave themselves the nickname the "Dear Jane Society". Please, please tell me more! Although I can guess, she never fully explained why. But obviously her students felt a strong affinity to Jane Austen.
How I would love to know more! :yes:
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