Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
“I told them this novel was an American classic, in many ways the quintessential American novel. There were other contenders: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter. Some cite its subject matter, the American Dream, to justify this distinction. We in ancient countries have our past--we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” ― Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
I read this memoir almost nine years ago with our Lincoln Park book group and it was one of our favorites the year it was published. While we normally wait until books are available in paperback we made an exception for Nafisi's memoir.
Nafisi does an excellent job of interweaving her memoir with the Western fiction she is discussing with her students, first at the university and then in secret, at home, with her select students. The book is divided into four sections, Lolita, Gatsby, Henry James, and Jane Austen. She touches on many other authors and novels as well and in such a way that made me want to read the works I hadn't already and reread some of the ones I had. Her analysis of Jane Austen's writing and other works is fascinating. The "party-line" Iranian objection to The Great Gatsby as a typical Western book of decadence that promotes adultery prompted me to think what I usually do when dubious objections are raised to writers' works. Did they read/see the same thing I read/saw (indeed, did they read/see it at all?), and if they did, did they get it?
As interesting as the literary aspect of the book is, the real story is what life was like in Iran during her time there. There was some humor, even though the story was mainly serious and included some things that amazed me: that there were snowstorms in Tehran, that Perry Mason, of all characters, seemed to be known by everyone, that the official movie censor was nearly blind!
The narrative relates a very personal story of Nafisi's life and students and the literature that they read during years of tumultuous change in Tehran. The story is moving for a reader who has always had the freedom to read and discuss any book that he chose. In a country where intolerant rulers limit freedom the liberating effect of literature on the students of Ms. Nafisi was inspirational.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Random House, 2003.