Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Bruce Willis once observed that “art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” Ms. Nafisi took a much more unorthodox approach to that axiom in Reading Lolita in Tehran. The author lived in Tehran during the late 1970s. A professor of literature by trade, she applied its lessons to the vast cultural and political changes taking place in Iran during the time period. An innovative and engaging read resulted.

Disgusted by the repression and censorship of the country’s universities, Ms. Nafisi rebelled in the way she knew best. She started a book club with a group of her students. The book’s most interesting observations concerned Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Since the author taught this material for a living, she brought up a number of erudite insights. Her personal experiences during the revolution provided her with a unique way to apply those perceptions.  She observed:

The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. (Page 33)

And:

Humbert (the protagonist of Lolita), like most dictators, was only interested in his own vision of other people. (Page 48)

Ms. Nafisi also included anecdotes from before she resigned her position. I really enjoyed how she referenced examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. She wrote, “Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels—the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.” (Page 132)

Ms. Nafisi’s most incisive quote came when she compared the character of Jay Gatsby to the Iranian Revolution.

When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (Page 144)

For a work of non-fiction the author added some outstanding lyrical flourishes.

We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. (Page 172)

This was a period of hope, true, but when we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. (Page 276)

First, none of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them. (Page 330)

The author added some fantastic interpretations of Henry James’ work.

The truth is that James, like many other great writers and artists, had chosen his own loyalties and nationality. His true country, his true home, was that of the imagination. (Page 216)

…So many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that, for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within one’s self, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels, but is seldom used in James’ universe. What James’ characters gain is self-respect. (Page 225)

From a personal standpoint, I most enjoyed her commentary on various authors and their work. I should point out that the author also included condensed biographies of all the women who took part in the book discussions. It’s always refreshing to get a sense of true human drama in non-fiction.

Ms. Nafisi wrote, “Evil in (Jane) Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them.” (Page 315) After reading this book, I developed more empathy for those who experienced the Iranian Revolution first hand. The author and her students risked arrest or worse to study some great works of literature. The fact that most of us in the West can do so without fear of punishment is not something we should ever take for granted.

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