Reading Lolita in Tehran


Another Try Books! book and the general reaction was that people were disappointed and had hoped it was going to be more interesting.  The same reaction of general but reasonably mild disappointment is all I can remember from reading it when it first came out in about 2004.

The book is in principle about how the author set up a reading group with some of her favourite (female) students after being forced to leave her university position after the Islamic Revolution.  In fact a lot of it is about her life and experiences at various stages:  as  a student in the US; during the Islamic Revolution; during the Iran-Iraq War; and so on.

The Try Books! members complained there was too much about books and not enough story.  Personally, I thought that the points she had to make on literature were generally both interesting and sound; but I did wonder about the idea of lack of empathy being the great sin condemned in literature from which (by extension) novel readers were at least partially free.  The problem with this is that (for instance) by all accounts Stalin had a genuine love of Russian literature and was also a fine Georgian poet in his youth.  So I don’t believe it.  Nafisi rather approximately refers to Nabokov’s concept of aesthetic bliss, which in his thinking is a free-standing spiritual experience, and I think this is closer to what you can hope to get out of literature.

Along the same lines, on page 48 of my edition (as illustrated above) we find:  I had mentioned that Humbert was a villain because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives. However, the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book starts off: Aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed…to protect individuals…from the eye of the censor…also from those who read such narratives to discover who’s who and who did what to whom, thriving on and filling their own emptiness through others’ secrets.

That’s interesting in a number of ways:  most obviously, we are left wondering whether curiosity is a good thing after all.  But more importantly the language is dreadfully inexact:  it should really be I have changed aspects…since it didn’t happen as some spontaneous process.  It’s not really the censor who goes through stuff that has been published looking for indication of people to punish.  In English, I think it should be filling emptiness with whatever.

There are many examples of not-quite-English:  In my memory the iron gate acquires an elastic quality [p29]–no, from what follows it remains entirely rigid, whatever else it might do.  Then Nassrin jumped in with a screed about one of the female guards [p211];  a screed is normally written, though it can also be spoken.  The female guards at the door, finding a blush in her bag…[p9] has a positively Lewis Carroll charm; presumably she means ‘blusher’ in place of ‘a blush’.  The air was mild, the trees a verdant green [p 339]–but ‘verdant’ means ‘green’; or perhaps ‘fresh green’.

None of this is so awful from someone whose first language is not English, but in her acknowledgments at the end Nafisi does in her own phrase wax lyrical about Joy de Menil and her meticulous editing.  One of these ladies has some explaining to do.

But my main problem with the book is that you have three levels:  the external events, the students and the books and they remain separate.  If you’re going to do do this kind of thing properly, you need to show the external events reflected in the characters and their relations with each other and how this affects their reactions to the books.  It doesn’t happen.  On the one hand, the attempt to obscure who these people actually were means that the reader never gets a clear idea of the different students in the book group while on the other I am too much of an academic:  I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narrative without pontificating [p266].

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