Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her life in Iran, was one of my choices for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is yet another book which I have been wanting to read for years, and whilst in some ways it was really nothing like I was expecting it to be, I still very much enjoyed reading it. I have seen a few readers of late saying that they are tired of reading books about books; I personally adore them, and hope to never share those sentiments. I can also safely say that I have never read a literary memoir quite like this one, which has been translated into 32 languages since its publication.
The crux of the memoir – and something which I admit I thought would be focused upon a lot more than it was – is as follows: ‘In Iran in the late ’90s, Azar Nafisi and seven young women – her former students – gathered at her house every Thursday to discuss forbidden works of Western literature.’ The blurb promises that the personal stories of these women ‘intertwine with what they are reading’, and through their experience, Nafisi ‘offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran’. Thus the stage is set.
Nafisi, once a literature teacher at the University of Tehran, left for America in 1997, after being expelled from her position for refusing to wear a veil. Her account is written with a voice which feels candid and sincere, and which is sometimes acerbically funny, but which is filled with an underlying fear that permeates every daily activity. Nafisi begins her memoir thus: ‘I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me.’
Nafisi endeavoured to make her book club as inclusive as was possible. Whilst one male attended from time to time, it was much safer to have a gathering solely of women, as one never knew who was watching, or keeping tabs on who was entering Nafisi’s city centre apartment. The book club is more than simply a place of discussion; through it, Nafisi is able to offer her students a relative freedom. ‘In selecting my students,’ she writes, ‘I did not take into consideration their ideological or religious backgrounds. Later, I would count it as the class’s great achievement that such a mixed group, with different and at times conflicting backgrounds, personal as well as religious and social, remained so loyal to its goals and ideals.’
Throughout, Nafisi urges the reader to try and understand her difficult position, and her life as a woman in Tehran: ‘Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.’
The memoir has been split into four parts – ‘Lolita’, ‘Gatsby’, ‘James’, and ‘Austen’. The section on The Great Gatsby looks solely at that novel, and no other works by F. Scott Fitzgerald; in the chapter about Lolita, however, many works of Nabokov’s are analysed and discussed. In this way, it feels a little uneven. Some of the chapters focus more upon the political situation in Iran, and those things which have been banned, whereas others are made up almost entirely of reflections upon the clandestine book club, and their discussions. Of this book club, Nafisi writes: ‘Looking back, I am amazed at how much we learned without even noticing it. We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction.’
The Iranian regime, and later the war, are discussed alongside the book club; both, Nafisi notes, were ‘unpredictable’, and life in Iran ‘would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.’ As with almost every dictatorial regime, there were many restrictions enforced against women; they were reprimanded if they ran up the stairs, for instance, or if makeup was found in their handbags. The regime was also incredibly restrictive with regard to the curriculum, and expelled many students for a variety of reasons. Nafisi reflects that Emily Bronte was not taught ‘because she appeared to condone adultery’, and that the word ‘wine’ had to be removed from the stories of Ernest Hemingway before it could be taught.
I found Reading Lolita in Tehran to be an immersive and insightful reading experience, with such a lot of promise, which it largely reached. A lot of my friends’ reactions have been incredibly mixed, but there is a lot within the pages of this memoir to reflect upon and admire. The effects of living under Sharia law are discussed at length, as are the tiny revolutions which Nafisi and her students would make to regain a little of their control over themselves, at least.
The overarching message here is that reading can save you, in more ways than one. Nafisi puts this best, writing: ‘There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.’