Reading Lolita in Tehran (#19/50)

Well, friends, we are officially halfway through the year. As far as my Book Challenge numbers go, I should be at 25, and I’ve actually read 19…so not where I need to be, but it’s still do-able. Even if I don’t actually get to the Magic Number 50, this challenge has kept me focused on finishing books at a decent pace, and it’s definitely pushed me to read new genres and authors I might not have otherwise. Speaking of which…

Title – Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Author – Azar Nafisi

Page count – 343

Although this book is technically a memoir, it often reads almost in the realm of fiction (Perhaps because I’m an American, and this book is set in Iran, it seems like an unreal world). Nafisi divides her story into four sections. Each is based on an author or book she teaches in her English Literature classesLolita (by Nabokov), Gatsby (by Fitzgerald), (Henry) James, and (Jane) Austen. This division serves to highlight themes in different aspects of Nafisi’s life.

The section on Lolita introduces us to the group of students Nafisi brings together to study books in secret. Its theme is fiction versus reality and how the Iranian Revolution in the 1980s has led Nafisi (among many others) to live their lives as if in another world in order to escape the oppression of the new religiously conservative regime.

“The truth was that upsilamba was one of Nabokov’s fanciful creations…I said I associated upsilamba with an impossible joy of a suspended leap. Yassi, who seemed excited for no particular reason, cried out that she always thought it could be the name of a dance…Manna suggested that upsilamba evoked the image of a small silver fish leaping in and out of a moonlit lake…For Azin it was a sound, a melody. Mahshid described an image of three girls jumping rope and shouting…For Sanaz, the word was a small African boy’s secret magical name. Mitra wasn’t sure why the word reminded her of the paradox of a blissful sigh. And to Nassrin it was the magic code that opened the door to a secret cave filled with treasures.” (p. 21)

The section on Gatsby explores what makes something moral, virtuous, and “right.” Who gets to decide what behaviors are allowed, and why are they the ones who get to make that decision? Nafisi describes how the new regime’s “morality police” affect women and intellectuals in particular with their censorship of media and rules on gendered behavior. Polishing media (especially literature) of its complexity to make it “morally acceptable” erases any lessons it could teach its consumer.

“Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can’t experience all that others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstrous individual in works of fiction. A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals…Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby…[The] biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. Not seeing them means denying their existence.” (p. 132)

Nafisi uses the section on Henry James to talk about courage in the face of adversity, detailing the daily struggles she and other citizens of Tehran face as the war with Iraq escalates to include bombings and war propaganda. She continues to flesh out how she first met each of the students in her secret class.

The last section on Jane Austen’s works, especially Pride and Prejudice, uses patterns in literature as a metaphor for people’s relationship with their family and country – essentially, what makes someplace “home” and how do we allow that relationship to influence decisions we make about school, work, and where to live? We learn how Nafisi and her students ultimately react to the new regime – do they stay or do they leave?

**Spoiler alert for Nassrin’s fate**

“[Mashid said] “Nassrin sends her regards. She asked me to give this to you.” She handed me a thick folder and a bundle of notes. I have the folder here…It is brilliantly colored: white with bright bubble-gum-orange stripes and three cartoon characters. In vivid green and purple characters it says: Be Seeing You in Fabulous Florida. Things Go Better with Sunshine! Inside the folder, Nassrin has transcribed every word of my classes during my last three terms at Allameh…She left behind nothing else – no photograph, and no personal note – except for one line on the last page of the folder: I still owe you a paper on Gatsby.” (p. 328)

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