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Thoughts on “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

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 by Azar Nafisi (cover)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.

My Thoughts:

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)

Those are my thoughts. Check out Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi on GoodReads or LibraryThing, or read other bloggers’ reviews!

Your Turn!

Which books would be part of your memoir in books? What books have been important in your life?

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  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    I think I am pretty much in the minority on this one, but man did I hate this book! I hated the writing a lot, and admit that I only made it through the Lolita section. I also just found it really annoying that Nafisi acted as though she 100% knew Nabokov’s motivations in writing certain phrases, which seemed utterly bizarre to me. I would expect a professor of literature to be able to appreciate that one’s own personal experiences colors the way we read texts, but that of course all great literature is open to debate and different interpretation!

    • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

      Steph, I felt the same way about her interpretation of Lolita. I know in some places she was flat-out wrong, like she describes his synesthesia in a way that syn simply doesn’t work. That’s why I felt okay reading the book without having read any of the novels or authors she discussed except Lolita. I hadn’t formed my own opinions on any of those other novels/authors so it didn’t affect me any to listen to hers. Having said that, I did really enjoy this one!

    • Erin

      I can see where one might hate this book. I didn’t love the writing, though my feelings toward it were more ambivalent than strongly leaning in either direction. I can also see what you pointed out about the authority with which Nafisi explained Nabokov’s motivations. I think I’m used to lit professors explaining their unique perspective as though it’s the right way, so I just took Nafisi’s interpretation as another perspective. Which, now that I think about it, isn’t a good thing to be used to! I have a feeling I’d take more issue with her authoritative tone were I to read the book again (which I don’t see myself doing any time soon). The first time through I was too busy struggling with all the other things going on :-)

  • http://yourmovedickens.blogspot.com/ Darlyn

    I saw a copy of this at the secondhand bookstore I frequent, but I didn’t buy it since I don’t really read nonfiction. However, your review convinced me otherwise. Reading Lolita in Tehran sounds like the perfect memoir for nonfiction-shy readers, especially with the “college-level literature lectures” thrown in. :)

    • Erin

      I don’t read much nonfiction, either, but I do enjoy memoirs! This was a particularly heavy memoir, with all the literature and history thrown in, but I do think it’s especially interesting to bookish types. If you find yourself a copy in the future, enjoy…and be patient :-)

  • Paul

    I listened to the audiobook version of “Reading Lolita”. I liked it, but found it rather dry at times. I did enjoy what I learned about Iranian history, especially how restrictive their society is. I think that is so important to learn right now.

    • Erin

      I’d agree that it’s dry in spots. I did, though, enjoy the glimpse into Iranian society–definitely something to be aware of. Was it hard to follow on audio? I’m afraid I’d have gotten lost!

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    I loved this book, though at the time, the only one I’d read off the list was Lolita. Because some of the things she said about Nabokov and Lolita were incorrect (for instance, she talks about his synesthesia in a way that is not at all how syn works), I didn’t figure it was very important for me to have read the other books. I got along fine. I did feel lost in Parts 2 and 3. The history was brand new to me and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Actually many of the Iranian memoirs I’ve read don’t make sense, and it wasn’t until I read Nafisi’s second memoir last fall that I really began to understand. However, I loved Parts 1 and 4 where it focused on the book groups and I wished there was some way I could find out what happened to those girls after the end of the book.

    • Erin

      I wondered about the synesthesia thing! I thought maybe there were different variations of it, or something. 2 and 3 were the parts that confused me, too…I really needed them to move more chronologically. I agree about wanting to know what happened to the girls! Maybe I need to pick up Nafisi’s second memoir a little later.

  • http://www.litchick.typepad.com melanie

    I was firmly meh when I read the book. I think part of it was expectation – early marketing was focused on the bookclub aspect which was a small part of the book. I did appreciate the Iranian history (and recognized it more when I later read Persepolis)but agree that familiarity with Lolita is almost required before reading Nafisi.
    As for your last question…I’d have to say my book memoir would include Jane Eyre, Harriet the Spy, Gatsby, Peace Like a River, the food essays of Laurie Colwin, Traveling Mercies, The Preppy Handbook,and probably some books I haven’t read yet. Wow, that’s a hard list to make.

    • Erin

      I was surprised to discover the whole book wasn’t about the book club, too! I’d read Persepolis last year, which gave me a little bit of framework for all the history in Nafisi’s book, which was nice. “Meh” sounds like a good word :-)

      Isn’t that a tough list to make?? I was trying to make my own, and I really had to think.

  • http://www.eclectic-eccentric.com Trisha

    One of the reasons I haven’t read this one yet is that I wondered if I should read the books she alludes to first. I’m thinking I may make it a project this spring to read the referred to books and then finally this one…

    • Erin

      That’d certainly make an interesting project! If you end up doing such a project, I’ll certainly enjoy reading about your progress.

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    This book seems to be very polarizing, and while I have seen some really great reviews, I have also seen some really negative ones. It sounds as though it is a bit of a hefty read, and I am not sure if I would be able to follow along with the politics, but I still am interested in it. Your review was wonderful and gives me hope that I may be able to tackle this one down the line.

    • Erin

      Hefty is a perfect word! I think I could read it through several more times before I’d absorbed everything in there…though I’m not sure I want to revisit it so frequently :-) It did give me a good overall sense of life in Iran, which I appreciated. Good luck, when you do tackle this one — I hope you enjoy it!

  • http://nomadreader.blogspot.com nomadreader (Carrie)

    I’ve been meaning to read this one for years too, and the last quote you shared is absolutely divine. I’m hoping to read more memoirs this year too (Devotion and Radio Shangri-La are next in line), but I hope to squeeze this one in too!

    • Erin

      I wished there were more moments like that last quote, but the few that were there were wonderful! I’ll look forward to hearing about Devotion and Radio Shangri-La…and Reading Lolita in Tehran, if you get to it!

  • http://ardentreader.wordpress.com Christina

    This one has been on the list for quite a while, but I’ve always wondered if I should read Lolita and something by James first. (I’ve read books by Austen and The Great Gatsby.) However, I think if I waited until I read Lolita I would never getting around to read this particular book.

    • Erin

      Yes, that would have happened to me! I do think you can get plenty out of Reading Lolita in Tehran without having read the books Nafisi discusses. I just think it’d be interesting to read it after having read them as well.

  • http://jennysbooks.wordpress.com Jenny

    I’m really interested in Iranian history because of this book — there are things I’m not in love with about Azar Nafisi, but she did create for me such an amazing sense of the tension in Iran between the incredible history of literature and the arts and the super duper oppressive regime.

    • Erin

      That’s a great summary of my feelings toward this book as well, Jenny! The overall effect of the book overpowered the things I might not have loved about it.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qay2GPq7MB8 rainer maria rilke

    Rooney told me what you said about me in your book club meeting and I do not like it.

    Also, Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight by Antoine St. Exupery are excellent memoirs.

    • Erin

      Did Rooney also tell you what HE said about you? Because I’m not sure you’d like that either.

      Thanks for the memoir recommendations, I’ll add them to my list.

      • rainer maria rilke

        Ach! He didn’t tell me but I bugged his book. I’m making him read Franzen out loud to me as punishment

        • Erin

          You are a clever but cruel man, Rilke.

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I agree about the more memoir-ish parts being easier to read. For some reason I really struggled with this one–put it down for several months (maybe longer?) and eventually started over again. I ended up enjoying it, but it was too heavy for some reason–and not necessarily because of the subject matter. Glad that overall it seemed to work for you!

    • Erin

      I can totally understand that, Trish…in fact, I think I read the first few chapters years (literally) ago when I first bought the book. If I hadn’t committed to reading it for the World Party Reading Challenge, I might have put it down again. It’s just a lot to get through — so dense and un-skimmable!

  • http://senior-common-room.blogspot.com Annie

    I read this when it first came out and was just so grateful that I wasn’t caught up in the intricacies of such a regime. I believe there is now a sequel, but I heard it mentioned in passing on a radio programme and didn’t catch the title. I must go over to Amazon and see if I can track it down.

    • Erin

      I believe it’s called Things I’ve Been Silent About, maybe? I know that’s by Nafisi. Amanda from the Zen Leaf, I believe, reviewed that one a while back. It sounds interesting, and I may look into it further down the road.