Jan/Feb 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Review by Judith Ferster

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.
Azar Nafisi.
Random House. 2003.

At once inspiring and chilling, Reading Lolita in Tehran recounts Azar Nafisi's years as an English professor teaching Western fiction in post-revolution Iran. Inspiring, because for Nafisi and her students, literature was a vital, necessary part of their lives; daunting, because the conditions in which they read were deeply hostile to everything Western and everything that Western fiction meant to them.

Nafisi taught English literature at various Iranian universities from 1979 until 1995. In 1997 she left Iran for the United States, where she teaches and directs the Dialogue Project at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Between 1995 and her departure for America, Nafisi hosted a weekly meeting of some of her most enthusiastic women students at her home for private discussions of novels by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen. The subtitle of the book indicates its range: Accounts of the book group are embedded in accounts of the teacher and students' tangles with the changing but arbitrary strictures of the Islamic state.

Because the memoir moves back and forth in time between the home-based book group and the years of classes in the university, the chronology is sometimes hard to follow, but all the periods traversed are unified by the memoir's two themes: the novels as expressions of individual freedom and the Islamic Republic's attempt to repress individual freedom. Western literature and the state are inimical and in desperate conflict. Nafisi had given up university teaching only after years of harassment, everything from complaints about her lax habits of securing her headscarf, occasionally letting a strand of hair escape, to attacks on the Faculty of Fine Arts for including in the curriculum "bourgeois" writers like Aeschylus, Racine, and Shakespeare.

Yet she understands the deep ties between Fine Arts and the Islamic Republic. The state's repressiveness is one of the reasons the novels became so precious. Ordinary pleasures get new meaning when they are snatched away and punished. When husbands beat wives for reading novels and attending book groups (272), novels become signs of rebellion. In a state that demands obedience on many scores, people treasure "parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran" (55).

The interlaced stories of what the women in the book group made of the novels and their run-ins with their families and Islamic authorities are riveting. As some of the students deal with pressures to accept arranged marriages, Jane Austen becomes an icon of freedom of choice in marriage partners. But living in a state that could punish the wearing of nail polish with flogging, fines, and imprisonment (271), that could subject women found eating in public with men to repeated, invasive tests of virginity (73), they could relate, in a way different from modern Americans in a navel-baring culture, to Austen's heroines, who live in a "community that keeps them under its constant scrutiny" (267).

The women in the group identify with Lolita because she is a woman oppressed by a man, deprived of her past and her individuality, shaped to represent and fulfill his desires (36-37). But Nafisi helps them avoid a reductive, allegorizing interpretation. She stresses that "we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert." Yet, the novel "went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives" (35). What in particular goes against the grain of totalitarianism is all the novels' subtle mix of judgment and sympathy for their flawed characters, in short the rich world of nuance and ambiguity.

That these traits are the sins that most irritate the Islamic Revolution comes into striking relief when we hear about Nafisi's encounters with revolutionary students, mostly male, in her classes before she leaves the university. Here, ambiguity and nuance become signs of decadence, and characters' behavior is consistently confused with authors' moral values. If the heroine of Washington Square disobeys her father, James must hate the family. Fitzgerald must be promoting adultery. Nafisi tells a student, "You don't read Gatsby... to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil..." But her indignant interlocutor remains convinced that "there is nothing complicated about having an affair with another man's wife" (133). In the black and white world of the revolution nuance is counter-revolutionary.

The only ideologue with whom I had any sympathy was the student who, citing Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, accused Jane Austen of condoning slavery because the master of the eponymous Mansfield Park goes off to tend to his faltering business interests in Antigua, probably a sugar plantation running on slave labor. Nafisi taunts the student with becoming as prejudiced and judgmental as Elizabeth Bennett before she learns the truth about Mr. Darcy and reports with satisfaction having "used my privilege as his teacher to have the last word" (290).

The student is making the familiar mistake of taking a character's actions as a sign of the author's approval, not noticing that the disorder in Sir Thomas Bertram's household mirrors the disorder in its overseas source of wealth. The author who thought of her novels as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush" might rather be appreciated for noticing the network of global economic ties that supports her characters.

In a time when, as we learn from the recent National Endowment for the Arts survey, there are fewer and fewer readers and fewer of them read novels, we cannot adopt the method Nafisi chronicles. Refugees from other totalitarian states have noticed before that comfort and ease of access make us take for granted what we hold dear under the pressures of scarcity and repression. If the only way to make literature "not a luxury but a necessity" is to make reading it risky, perhaps we cannot follow the path she describes. But reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in America should make us wary of letting fundamentalism close down options for expression and inquiry.


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