Three factors combined to make me finally pick up Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, which I’ve owned approximately forever. First, the TBR Dare has me focused on my own shelves. Second, one of my goals for 2011 is to read more memoirs. And third, the World Party Reading Challenge country for January was Iran. The result was that I finally got around to reading this book!
About the Book:
Reading Lolita in Tehran is Azar Nafisi’s account of living in Tehran and teaching Western literature off and on at its universities for nearly twenty years, from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. Nafisi returned to Iran during the Iranian Revolution, stayed through the long years of the Iran-Iraq war, and eventually moved to the United States in 1997.
The book is divided into four parts, with each part named after a Western novel or author: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen. At the beginning and end, in Lolita and Austen, are Nafisi’s recollections of the secret all-girls book group she held weekly at her home during her final years in Iran. In the middle, in Gatsby and James, Nafisi recounts her earlier experiences, teaching and living in Iran. In each section, the title book or author is woven into Nafisi’s tale.
Reading Lolita in Tehran was a slow read for me, but not in a bad way. It covers a whole lot of ground in depth: twenty years of Iranian history and politics, a fair number of classic Western novels, and, of course, Nafisi’s personal experiences as a teacher, woman, mother, friend, and mentor in a turbulent, unstable country. At times, it was like reading a history book; at others, like listening to a college-level literature lecture. There was far more in Reading Lolita in Tehran than the memories of a single life, though of course it was that life which held everything else together and gave the vantage point from which the other aspects were viewed.
The history was difficult for me to follow at times. Because Nafisi doesn’t narrate her story chronologically, and because I’m relatively new to Iranian history, I had a lot of trouble remembering who was who and what happened when to cause what. Instead of perceiving clearly defined time periods, I instead felt the weight of history as an indistinct force coloring the daily lives of the country’s inhabitants. If asked to reconstruct a precise timeline, I would fail miserably; yet I am left with an overall sense of that time.
The novels and authors around which Nafisi shaped her memoir were mostly familiar to me. I’ve read Lolita and The Great Gatsby and a novel each (though not the ones Nafisi discusses) by James and Austen. Still, I felt as I read that I should have made a reading list for myself and checked off each book before tackling Reading Lolita in Tehran. I think I would have gotten much more out of it had I been able to understand Nafisi’s examples and comparisons not just from her brief explanations, but from having recently read the works discussed myself. The works and authors she teaches are deeply entwined with Nafisi’s memoir, and I do think there’s a deeper level one can reach if one is familiar with everything Nafisi cites.
The parts most in line with my idea of memoir–the personal experiences, memories, feelings–were also the easiest for me to relate to. It was here I could most clearly see life in Tehran: in Nafisi’s relationships with her family, friends, coworkers, and students; in the requirements that made her bristle and the concessions she fought against making; in her struggle to balance her need to stay true to herself against the danger of going against authority. Nafisi tells her own story, but she also weaves in pieces from the stories of those around her, giving her own narrative a context.
One passage in particular stuck out to me as a concise example of life in Iran in the late 1980s. At one point, the government has allowed censored, untranslated films by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky to be shown. Though most people had never heard of Tarkovsky and did not speak Russian, Nafisi relates that people turned up in droves to see the films. She writes:
“Looking back on that time it seems to me that such rapture over Tarkovsky by an audience most of whom would not have known how to spell his name, and who would under normal circumstances have ignored or even disliked his work, arose from our intense sensory deprivation. We were thirsty for some form of beauty, even in an incomprehensible, overintellectual, abstract film with no subtitles and censored out of recognition. There was a sense of wonder at being in a public place for the first time in years without fear or anger, being in a place with a crowd of strangers that was not a demonstration, a protest rally, a breadline or a public execution.” (p. 206)
The full title of Nafisi’s memoir is Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, and I think it is aptly named. It is through books, oftentimes, that Nafisi relates her experiences, comparing her situations to books or authors’ lives. Literature connects Nafisi with her peers; it brings together the girls in her book group. As I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I began to realize how solidly a book can become tied to a place or event in a reader’s life. I can’t imagine Nafisi will ever be able to read The Great Gatsby without thinking of her time in Tehran, of the class when her students put the book on trial, of the fates of those students. I have not experienced anything like what Nafisi has, yet I know I do have books that are strongly linked with a particular time in my life. I bet many of us could write at least a partial memoir in books.
I think Nafisi would be a wonderful professor. I loved reading the occasional snippets of advice she imparted to her classes. In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite:
“A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you in hale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.” (p. 111)
Which books would be part of your memoir in books? What books have been important in your life?