Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2004
[Challenge # 48: A book mentioned or discussed inside another book.]
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a book I remember seeing heavily promoted in past years, but I never thought to read it myself. It’s not often that I read a book club kind of book. Not that I have nothing against book clubs; they serve a useful and pleasurable social function. I’m just not that social and scheduled in my reading. Oddly enough, Reading Lolita features one of those book clubs, and it was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. I got the feel of a club without the time commitment.
Reading Lolita is a book about ideas, and a book about the power of literature in people’s lives. Four other books, Pride and Prejudice, Daisy Miller, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and The Great Gatsby are referenced in the text, making the novel my choice for the 2019 Challenge’s “Matryoshka” category (Matryoshkas being those Russian nesting dolls that sit inside of each other and get progressively smaller and less detailed as they are screwed apart.) But having read the books is not a prerequisite for reading the novel. I myself did not read either Lolita or Daisy Miller, was familiar with The Great Gatsby, and only slightly familiar with Pride and Prejudice, and I and enjoyed the novel no less.
Reading Lolita is that odd beast, a fictionalized memoir, and I liked it much, much more than I thought I would. It’s divided into four parts each dealing with a period in the narrator’s life. It’s not a linear recounting. We start in what the author refers to as present (1990) then leap back to the late 1960s and 1970s, then into the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and then past the present of the first part, to a conclusion where the narrator and the women’s reading group she founded break up as many of them leave war-torn, problematic Iran to continue their lives elsewhere. The same characters recur throughout: the narrator, her family, and the members, many of whom she met as students while teaching at the University of Iran.
In the first part, Nabokov’s Lolita is discussed as the young women meet every week at the narrator’s home, then we flash back to the campus turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the narrator returns to Iran from studying in the US carrying the revolutionary ideals of that era. This section implies radical ideologies wielded naively lead to disaster when they are applied to real life, leading to an Iran divided and soon under the thumb of an oppressive religious dictatorship. The Great Gatsby is the novel cited here, the students of the narrator’s class even putting it on trial for what they think is its pro-American bias. This was my favorite part of the book. It’s both funny and tragic. It’s not too often a baby boomer admits their youthful politics were badly misguided.
During the war with Iraq Pride and Prejudice is discussed as rights for everyone, but especially women, are restricted, and finally Daisy Miller and her American-bred courage at the end.
All of this was written informally yet sumptuously. It also involved some back and forthing through the book on my part, just to keep the principle characters straight… Sanaz the modern girl, Mahsid the straight-laced Muslim, etc. But I managed.
The book was mainly discussion and memoir, there were no spine-tingling escapes in the night or passionate love affairs. But I was mesmerized by it, sinking thoroughly into the world the author portrays. Her love for Iran and Persian culture, even with its flaws, shines through. The Iranian people she writes of, even the “bad guys,” like a smug male student who lectures her on what is politically right and politically wrong, are fully realized, three-dimensional portrayels. They are all human with lives torn by political disruption, war, and extremism. They are all victims. Iran itself is not a monolithic, one-note culture as some in the US think it is. There are shades of light and dark in it, but it’s mostly shades of gray.
I also loved the language the narrator employed and her stylistic decisions, such as not directly quoting most dialogue between characters. I could see reading the book again for this alone. Even a visit to a local ice cream parlor was a finely tuned, expertly worded adventure. I could read this book multiple times and sink again and again into this world. It also did that rare miracle of inspiring me to read more of the classics, even hated snoozefest Pride and Prejudice.