Monday, 6 April 2009

Read it...'Reading Lolita in Tehran', Azar Nafisi

During my last visit to Beijing, I visited the Beijing Bookworm, a wonderful bookshop/café/library. I treated myself to browsing amongst the shelves, something I spend hours doing in bookshops or libraries back home, but haven’t had the chance to do in China since my last visit to the Beijing Bookworm over the October 1st national holiday. I miss the atmosphere, the pregnant hush, the smell of books, the luxury of being able to pick a book out, flick through it, put it back and move on to the next one that catches your eye, when there are so many that you be there all day and not get through them all.

And despite the expense I came across a book I just had to buy, just had to be able to read then, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. My greedy reading of it has not lead to disappointed hopes. Instead it has been devoured, the literary equivalent of a slice of rich, succulent chocolate cake, and now I’m going to go back for a second helping, and read it through again, slower, to pick up on the nuances and shades that I missed the first time.

The book concentrates on the private literature class taught by Nafisi, especially the classes on Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen, and uses these authors as starting points for fascinating digressions about her times as a student radical in 70s America, living through the Iranian revolution and life as a woman and intellectual in 80s and 90s Tehran, and her and her husband’s eventual decision to leave Iran for the US. She also tells us the stories of many of her students, which can veer from the pathetic to the brutally horrifying without ever veering into sentimentality or idealising their struggles. This is something that makes the book so compelling, Nafisi never sugar coats any of the characters, including herself, indicating the character flaws that the regime both induces and encourages.

The discussion of the books manages to be intelligent and intellectual but never pretentious. I adore the writings of Nabokov and Austen, and wrote my 18,000 plus word long dissertation on Nabokov, so the sections on these authors were a book lovers delight, particularly because in discussing literature Nafisi focus on the humanity of the characters, the comments the writers make about human foibles and the role of imagination, empathy and consciousness, rather than trying to force the novels to fit around a critical theory hobby horse.

Whilst I am fairy indifferent to Fitzgerald, I confess to loathing James. After the tedium of Woolf, he was the author that most sucked my will to live when I was studying for my English degree. A Portrait of a Lady will always have a place in my heart, for entirely the wrong reasons. And yet, Nafisi managed to make Daisy Miller sound so interesting, so important that I think I might see if I can find a copy online and at least attempt to read it. I want to try and see what it is about Daisy that infuriated and inspired her students.

Every page of Reading Lolita in Tehran celebrates the power and freedom of imagination and the importance of this expression through authentic works of literature and creativity. It is also shows the mentally and spiritually brutalising effect of living in a repressive regime, and the manner in which the Islamic Republic actually alienates Iranian Muslims from their own religion by turning the personal and spiritual into a tool and emblem of state power. Moreover, it has reminded me, or perhaps rather reinforced, how fragile the freedom that those of us living in the West take and have taken for granted. And not just in comparison with countries like Iran or China, but what the results of the growing incursions on personal freedom that in Britain are justified in the name of our safety, of protecting us from terrorists, could be. It reminds us that the worst terrorism comes from an authoritarian state, that thinks in black and white, that believes that destruction of personal, individual liberty is justified in the name of a ‘greater good’, an ill defined war against that which is deemed evil and toxic to society.

But don’t take my word for it, buy it, borrow it, but don’t steal it, and see for yourself.


  1. Oh my! You like Amalie and "Secret History" is a favorite book? Despite our age difference, seems we might be kindred spirits! :) Thanks for checking out my blog and I'd love to know more about where you teach. My favorite students are my teenagers and I'd love to teach in an actual high school!

  2. I've heard of this book. I'm putting it on my reading list. Sounds too good to miss.

  3. I know "Reading Lolita" made quite a splash when it first appeared, but I didn't even consider trying it myself as I loathe Nabokov (sorry). Thanks to your post, I'm now rethinking that.

    I was just at The Bookworm last weekend. How funny it would have been if we had run into each other!