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Reading Lolita in Tehranby Azar Nafisi


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#1 vagansmom

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Posted 15 March 2004 - 10:00 PM

I am starting a thread on this book in the hopes that it'll encourage others to read it and comment. An intriguing book: it is partly literary criticism, especially of Nabokov's writings and partly autobiography.

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.

#2 GWTW

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 08:04 AM

Is James, Henry James? And if so, is it enough to have seen the movies to enjoy the book? :)

#3 vagansmom

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 08:28 AM

Yes, Henry James, and yes, you definitely will get much out of it even if all you've done is seen the movies. In fact, you don't have to have read any of the books she comments on in order to enjoy her book. The only chapter that's heavily-laden with critical commentary is the first one on Lolita and even then, with my reading having been ages ago and not very enlightened, I still found much to ponder.

I reread my post and think it may sound harsher than I'd intended. I LOVED this book.

#4 TutuMaker

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 09:20 AM

:yes: Oh yea! Somebody else loves this book! My take on the parts that frustrate you, vagansmom, is that she many times was unclear in her own mind how she felt. I believe she was very torn about being an Iranian, and proud of that fact, but very much disliking what was going on in her country. I also read between the lines that, she was very unhappy, and her unhappiness could be attributed in part with disagreements with her husband about living in Iran. In addition to protecting those still living in Iran, I believe she was protecting her own marriage. That is my take on it anyway.

#5 vagansmom

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 12:14 PM

Tutumaker, I was hoping you'd reply to this thread. :D

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.

#6 TutuMaker

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 01:13 PM

Vagansmom, Yes and no. To a certain extent, I think Nafisi did change the way she explored James and Austen, but I think that also has to do with the content of those authors books. Don't get me wrong I too love Austen, but Austen's novels seem somewhat frivolous when one is living in a society where one can be executed for showing to much skin. Nabokov is much grittier and Lolita's experiences are closer to what the women in Iran were living. It would seem to me they would have a better handle on torture of the mind and body than the niceties of tea parties. I also don't think the men in her classes would even consider important what a woman author had to say, especially when making comments about men, as Jane Austen does.

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.....

#7 vagansmom

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Posted 16 March 2004 - 02:06 PM

Tutumaker, do you have an opinion about her "magician friend"? Do you think of him as a hero or a coward? What did you think of his conscious decision to eliminate all contact with her (as he did with every friend who managed to leave) once she left Iran? Do you think that was his way of protecting himself from the pain of his still being there? Do you find much of his behavior as serving to insulate himself?

Your sentence:

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.

They rant. They lecture. They scold. This incapacity for true dialogue implies an incapacity for tolerance, self-reflection and empathy.

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.

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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