Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi

By way of prologue, I offer my apologies for the length of these book notes, but, as you will soon see, the book offers a wealth of information about Iran (and Western literature from a Middle Eastern perspective) than most Westerners might not find in any other place. Whether you ultimately read the book or not, this overview will hopefully enable you to understand why I enjoyed and learned so much from this book.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) offers some excellent analyses of fiction (e.g., Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte, Flaubert), but its primary contribution is to teach us far more about the insuperable problems and dark side of Iran’s Islamic Revolution (and its protagonists, the Islamic fundamentalists) than we can possibly learn from the media. Iran’s 70 million people were the stem-winders and vortex of what was once proudly called Persia, the vast complex of States that dominated much of Asia for hundreds of years, both before and after Christ, first known for their wars against Greece and, later, against most of Europe. As Nafisi explains, Iran’s Islamic Revolution has done more to destroy Iran than all of the centuries of wars that preceded it. As history, Gibbons, Nafisi et al reveal, great empires, like Persia’s and Rome’s, fall from within. Today, Nafisi concludes, “Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex constantly with a man you loathe.”

RLT was written by Azar Nafsi, a female university professor in Iran. It is the story (a 400-page memoir) of a teacher who “had so much to say but was not allowed to say it” and who was determined to teach the joys of primarily Western fiction to her university students in Tehran, but the interference of “cultural purists” (read “Islamic zealots”) drove her from Tehran University into the seclusion of her home, from which she wrote books and gave private instructions to a chosen few, female students. Years later, when the Islamic-fundamentalist-rulers softened their stance enough to permit discussion of such literature (in the hope of discrediting it), she returned to Iran’s university world.

RLT critiques and extols the virtues of fiction against a backdrop of the brutality of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which began in 1979, and was compounded by the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and the eight-year war that then ensued. For almost forty years now, Iran has been under siege – by warring Islamic sects and by the Iraqi’s. When in the University setting, Nafisi’s students included Islamic fundamentalists, whose strict adherence to Khomeini’s and other fundamentalist’s interpretation of The Koran is contrasted with those of Nafisi’s liberal followers and Nafisi herself. Nafisi’s book, then, presents an improbable discourse of normally unrelated topics: the joys of intellectual pursuit of fiction versus the endless conflagrations and pogroms created by contemporary religious fanatics, ever determined to gain more “converts” by force and the eradication of “infidels”. The backdrop of relentless bombings and street-battles that internal and external wars impose, paint a picture of Hell on earth, more pellucid than Dante’s Inferno could ever elucidate. Nafisi and her students cleaved to literature for relief: “The magic eye of fiction transforms us into something better than we were…”

At University, female students were punished for most everything: for having the wrong color, length or thickness of their garments, for wearing makeup of any kind, for walking upright rather than bent forward looking at the ground, for running up stairs to avoid being late for class, for laughing in the halls, for wearing colored shoe laces, for licking ice cream in public, for a subversive hair that escaped its cloak, for showing “leftists tendencies”, for speaking to a boy. (Strict Muslim men do not look women in the eyes.) Instructors were disciplined no less: for failing to expunge the word “wine” from a Hemingway story, or for exposing students to Bronte “who condoned adultery”. An accomplished artist, to avoid being punished for immorality, confined her art to abstract splashes of colors, explaining “I can now paint only the colors of my dreams.” Another girl, whose only “crime” was her beauty, was seized and thrown in prison where she was raped to death by the guards, without ever being formally charged, much less tried. Since the Islamic Revolution, women are expected not to be seen or heard. The streets are patrolled by religious mafia, called “the Blood of God”, whose job is to make sure that women dress and conduct themselves “in God’s way” – no makeup, as little exposed skin as possible, no contact with men or even furtive glances toward them, etc. Those who violate these rules may be seized, flogged, and thrown in jail. Girls are routinely subjected to multiple “virginity tests” by gynecologists until the desired verdict of guilt is given, which is followed by 25 lashes – or much worse. Girls are shielded, monitored, rarely left alone and denied a private moment to think, read, write or dream.

Everything can fall into a rhythm, even the Islamic Revolution: the violence, the executions, the public confessions to sins that were never committed, the judges who coolly ordered the amputations of a starving-thief’s hand and the execution of another simply because “there is no room for him in prison”, and television shows depicting a live-time interview of a mother and son, in which the mother urged the execution of her son “because he had broken with the Islamic faith”. All of this in a community where the walls of public buildings were covered with slogans demanding more violence and, yet, there was never even one protest against the killings. The Koran, which I have read two versions/translations cover-to-cover, extols Jesus and his deeds but endlessly urges the “killing of infidels”; while there are kindly sects of Muslims, other followers of Islam reflect as much brutality and disregard of human life as any group that ever disgraced our globe. Nafisi concludes that no foreign invader could have ever done as much damage to a people as did the Islamic Revolution to Iran. In short, the Islamic fundamentalists have violated a key principle of the much-maligned Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he doesn’t become a monster…When you look too long into an abyss, the abyss also looks back at you.”

Now, as to the second aspect of RLT, its discussion of great fiction, what might we say? Nafisi focuses on the authors’ message and insights on life, and she ably dissects those messages, but she rarely or never mentions the quality of the wording, the beauty of the imagery, the believability of the characters or the appeal of the plots. Perhaps this is due to the fact that English is her second language and that it so far from Farsi (the predominant language of contemporary Persians). As a fellow-lover of fiction, I view the author’s message as only one aspect of literature; I need believable characters, gripping plots and sub-plots, admirable syntax to render the flow of the prose seamless and pleasant, and, yes, poetic imagery, which creates scenes in the mind’s eye that are unforgettable and that enhance my ability to see, understand and appreciate the world around us. I must see Pasternak’s snow flakes, St. Exupery’s desert, and the eyes of Gregory’s Indians, and smell Dickens’ turkeys, and feel Turgenev’s romantic love. Equally salient, in her list of Western literary idols, she focuses on Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and several works Henry James, Jane Austen, Flaubert’s Bovery, and a handful of others, but she never even mentions Dickens (arguably the West’s greatest novelist), Marlowe, Shakespeare (the English language’s acknowledged greatest poet and playwright, who (incredibly) wrote his sublime prose in exacting sonnets), Hardy, St. Exupery, Dreiser, Cervantes, any of the Russians (except Nabokov) and countless others! Admittedly, she can’t critique every literary giant, but the dominant names must be mentioned in passing. Nafisi also offers interesting comparisons between Western and Persian writers, about whom I know nothing. For the foregoing reasons, I shall not burden these book notes with definitive comments on her views of the fiction that she chose to discuss, but, rather address only two.

Her insights on Lolita are inspirational; she truly saw into Nabokov’s mind, and her treatment of “Humbert Humbert”, the comical name accorded its lead character, is priceless: The old lecher effectively enslaved his step-daughter, whom he named “Lolita”. Her real name was Dolores, which, in Spanish, means “pain”. For two years, he held her captive, going from one shabby motel to another, endlessly forcing her to engage in sex with him. The real story of Lolita, she concludes, is not about the repeated raping of a 12-year-old girl by a dirty old man, but, rather, about the confiscation of one life by another. Spot on! Humbert was a villain, Nafisi observes, because he lacked curiosity about others, even about the one he loved most, Lolita. (Nafisi must read “curiosity” as the key to caring, love.) Humbert defined the word solipsistic. The story of Lolita is presented as a confession that Humbert writes while in prison, waiting to be tried for a murder of his playwright-friend with whom the grief stricken orphan, Lolita, had fled to escape Humbert. Humbert repeatedly addressed his readers as “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury”, a seductive attempt to curry his readers’ favor and cast blame upon the hapless child (the “vile, beloved slut”), who is accorded no attorney or right to speak in her own defense, but, Humbert confessed that he “never succeeded in possessing Lolita willingly” and that each act of love-making was “forced”, each one being successively more cruel and violent than the last, culminating with blows to the head. Mercifully, in the end, Lolita found love in a normal, happy marriage, albeit in privation. So, why did Nafisi use Lolita in the caption of her book? Perhaps because Lolita is a kindred spirit, as she represents women abused from pre-puberty, much in the same way that Islamic fundamentalists would treat women perpetually. Lolita’s plight is something that Nafisi and her female students could understand and appreciate at a level incomprehensible to Westerners.

Nafisi devotes more space to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby than to any other fiction and repeatedly characterizes it as “a great novel” and “the quintessential American novel”, a view supported by many critics. To Nafisi, Gatsby was about one of America’s many great dreams (idealized love) that was shattered when Gatsby true love (Daisy) betrayed him. Having re-read Gatsby a year or so ago, my take is quite different. Gatsby (written in 1926, in what Fitzgerald dubbed “an age of excess and satire”) was about America’s idle rich in “The Roaring Twenties”, a group of largely alcoholic, amoral, purposeless and solipsistic bores (the solipsism notably shared in common with Lolita’s Humbert). Gatsby’s characters not only weren’t admirable (hence not deserving of our affections, much less our concerns), they inspired the reader’s apathy, or even contempt. The lives of Gatsby’s characters were trivial, their emotions shallow and baseless, and their denouements seemed deserved. Gatsby should have expected the betrayal that befell him. There is no decade in American history less admirable than The Roaring Twenties (which ended, predictably, with The Great Depression), and Gatsby mirrors that emptiness. Nafisi plumbs the plot lines to their depths, seeking (and creating) themes within themes, finding depth in Fitzgerald and the plot and sub-plots where little exists. Gatsby’s characters no more reflect American culture or society than do the Mafioso. Gatsby no where presents the indomitable spirit, sweat, sacrifice, love and pain that was the stuff from which America’s culture and economy were built. Gatsby, like its characters and plots, surface skates. If Fitzgerald wrote prose like Dickens, St. Exupery, Pasternak, Dreiser, Poe or O’Henry, or today’s Roberts (Shantaram), this reader would speak differently of Gatsby, but Fitzgerald’s prose is as plebian as his characters are frivolous, spineless and devoid of redeeming attributes. Fitzgerald’s life, in many ways, mirrored that of his characters, in Gatsby and in his somewhat similar, later work, Tender Is The Night. Fitzgerald (1896-1948), who increasingly fell pray to alcoholism, was raised in prep schools, attended but failed to graduate from Princeton, married a socialite (Zelda), who spent large chunks of her life in mental institutions, while Fitzgerald ever spent more than he made and died in near poverty and devoid of most of the acclaim that he would earn post-mortem. Fiction, in the end, is indisputably autobiographical, and Fitzgerald’s is no exception; his life and work typify the inanities of his “age of excess”. Gatsby equals despair and apathy – sentiments that also pervade Henry James, whose works Nafisi also loves. Why, then, does Nafisi love Gatsby so much? I speculate that Gatsby is “comfortable”; Iran shares its negatives: despair, disappointment, unrequited love, infidelity, and with lives lived “in quiet desperation” (in which, said Voltaire, most of us live). However fatuous, Gatsby projects gaiety, high society, and frivolity, if only at a superficial level, but a fascinating contrast to those who have not experienced it, especially to those living in the macabre cruelty of Iran – but Gatsby, like Iran, ends in egregious sadness. With apologies for oversimplification, similar observations can be made about Nafisi’ affinity for some of her other favored authors: Henry James, D. H. Lawrence and others who rose to prominence during The Roaring Twenties, which, in hindsight, seem vacuous, depraved and ultimately offering ephemeral and even illusory “joys” and endings reminiscent of Black Holes. The Twenties lacked something that Old Ben Franklin taught us is indispensible to happiness: moderation. Perhaps Dickens or Shakespeare could have preserved that era in immortal prose or verse, but Fitzgerald, et al, from this reader’s perspective, fell far short. Still, to be fair, history is generally taught in good fiction, and these works do convey the essence of the ill-fated gaiety of that “age of excess and satire”.

While Gatsby is Nafisi’s first choice as “the quintessential American novel”, she has “other contenders”: Henry James’ Daisy Miller; surprisingly, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (HF); Moby-Dick; and Scarlet Letter. It is not my goal here to convert these notes into critiques of other novels. Suffice it to say that Mark Twain (Samuel Clements) was one of America’s most witty, profound and greatest men and that HF was largely autobiographical, revealing steamboat-America’s then lower classes and the crude and scabrous dialects that then unintelligibly emasculated the English language with even more brutality than does England’s Cockney dialect or the gutter-English that pervades Price’s contemporary best seller, Lush Life. HF was entertaining and profound, like Twain, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to this reader’s literary idles, led by Dickens, who accomplished for his era all that Twain did, while doing so in immortal prose that flowed with the eloquence and immemorial phrasing of Shakespeare. Dickens, unlike Twain, seasoned his Elysian prose with realistic and vibrant dialects without allowing them to detract from his poetic imagery. Ah, therein lies literary genius.

So, what became of Azar Nafisi? Like most Iranians, for decades, she was denied a passport and rendered a virtual prisoner of Iran, before she escaped in 1997: “I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me.” She ultimately matriculated to Johns Hopkins University, where she continues to teach her beloved literature, and a number of her students also escaped, some obtaining Ph.D.’s, who now teach in the West. Most of her students, however, sadly, have remained in Islam with their families, absorbed in the ebb and flow of Islam’s brutally predatory currents. Nafisi captured the level of despair with a casual but revealing reference to “the peaceful indifference of death”. Iran carries the weight of its inhumanities as heavily as Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past (Jacob Marley) carried his ponderous body chains.

RLT was given to me by reading-mate, Bermuda’s champion of youth, Clare Melo. I am grateful for it and that I read it, all of it, although I almost abandoned it several times, as it drained me of tears, but we-Westerners need to understand up-close (as Nafisi allows) the burdens that have been imposed by Islamists upon their own people and know that, enormous numbers of Islamists long for the basic freedoms that Westerners expect and assume to be their birthright (expectations that did not exist in the West either until the past 300 years), beginning with the cessation of treatment of women like chattel. People are much the same everywhere; “All life is one,” as the beautiful writer-paleontologist Jay Stephen Gould proved to the satisfaction of many in his Wonderful Life.. Only Iranians (and other once-Persians) can resolve and quell the inhumanity that Islamic fundamentalists would inflict on others, and all of the guns, “water torture” and prisons that the George W. Bushes of the world can impose, will not change a whit of it.

Notwithstanding any of the foregoing, if you would broaden your understanding of Iran and Islam, RLT is a Must Read for you. As a critique of Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and the other fiction sporadically discussed throughout, Nafisi’s love of great fiction shows brightly and is insigtful and enjoyable, but there are less circumlocutive ways of studying those works.