by Galya Diment

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

by Azar Nafisi

(Random House) $23.95

There were many times while reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books that I said to myself: "Yes, I know that feeling." The feeling is a mixed one--desperation, fear, and utter exhilaration. Desperation and fear come from reading a banned book in a regime where such an act is enough to earn you a long prison sentence. Exhilaration comes... from the same.

Reading certain books in Iran--or the former Soviet Union--was often a political statement of self-liberation, as well as a form of enlightenment, and the combination of aesthetic delight, spiritual independence, and danger was truly intoxicating. Literature doomed and literature saved. Varlam Shalamov--to me, the greatest writer of the Stalin purges, who survived for 17 long years in the worst Stalin labor camps in Kolyma--got an additional 10-year sentence just for telling a fellow prisoner that Ivan Bunin (the 1933 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who by then lived in emigration) was a great writer. More than three million people perished in the Kolyma camps but Shalamov attributed his survival to his routine of reciting his favorite poems to himself even when the temperature hit --60°C.

Initially, Azar Nafisi had conflicted feelings about the Iranian revolution. Born and raised in Tehran (her father was at one point the city's mayor), she was in Norman, Oklahoma, at the time of the turmoil, studying "counterrevolutionary" English literature and being active in a student movement calling for the overthrow of the Shah. She calls it "a schizophrenic period in my life in which I tried to reconcile my revolutionary aspirations with the lifestyle I most enjoyed." When her "revolutionary aspirations" were fulfilled, and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was no more, she went back to Iran to teach at the University of Tehran, still hopeful that liberals and secularists would prevail over the radical Islamists. Her hopes were dashed at the time of the seizure of the American Embassy when even the leftist, secular students were chanting "Death to America" and liberal feminist women she knew were willing to wear the veils "for the sake of independence" and in order "to fight U.S. imperialists." (I was in Berkeley at the time and well remember many of my equally liberal and feminist friends suggesting that for Iranian women, wearing the veil after the fall of the Shah may be, in fact, a gesture of independence and liberation.)

Nafisi's very well-written and engaging book consists of four parts: "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen." "Lolita" is the most literary section of the book, where the author reveals herself as a critic, not just a memoirist. Nafisi started teaching Lolita to a select group of young women after she had been fired from the University of Tehran and then left on her own volition the smaller Allameh Tabatabai University. It was a curious choice. Lolita is, of course, the most famous as well as notorious novel by Vladimir Nabokov, who left Russia when he was barely 18 but then established himself as both a great Russian and American writer. Its subject matter--a sexual relationship between a stepfather and his 12-year-old charge who just lost her mother--has been plenty uncomfortable even for this country, to say nothing of Iran.

Nafisi taught her class at home, with her students using photocopies of books which by then were virtually impossible to find anywhere in Tehran. Nafisi's interpretation of Nabokov's works in this chapter is rarely groundbreaking, but the particular circumstances she and her students found themselves in provoked unique cultural insights. Their enthusiastic reaction to Invitation to a Beheading was one many former Soviets would immediately recognize. Cincinnatus, physically weak and all too human but at the same time stubbornly resistant to brainwashing, was always a literary cult hero among the intellectuals of the former Soviet bloc, people who literally risked their freedom for a chance to learn how he managed to attain his triumph over the seemingly all-powerful oppressors.

But it is in Nafisi and her students' reactions to Lolita that real discoveries abound. It would have never occurred to me, for example, to suspect that Humbert Humbert may have something in common with Ayatollah Khomeini. And while Nafisi is careful to make sure she is not seen as exaggerating the comparison ("I want to emphasize once more that we were not Lolita, the Ayatollah was not Humbert and this republic was not what Humbert called his princedom by the sea"), she does think Lolita can serve as a perfect metaphor for what Iran went through: "At some point, the truth of Iran's past became as immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of Lolita's is to Humbert. It became immaterial in the same way that Lolita's truth, her desire and life, must lose color before Humbert's one obsession, his desire to turn a 12-year-old unruly child into his mistress."

The age of Lolita is also seen differently through the eyes of Nafisi's female students, some of whom were given into marriage when they were even younger and "to men older than Humbert." Others were sexually molested when children by supposedly "devoted and pious" male relatives, one of whom explained his actions by wanting "to keep himself chaste and pure for his future wife" (and thus "refusing friendship with women" unrelated to the family). But even though the age of Lolita at the time she is forced into a sexual relationship with Humbert is hardly a shocker to these women, they all see her as a victim, rejecting readings of Lolita that are unsympathetic to the character and feeling indignant over attempts by some critics to cast the novel into "a great love affair." "The desperate truth of Lolita's story," Nafisi tells us on behalf of herself and her students, "is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another."

Nafisi, who left Iran in 1997, now teaches English at Johns Hopkins University. During a radio interview on KUOW in April, she was asked by a caller whether the United States should attempt a regime change in Iran. She was vehement in her response: "The change should come from inside the country.... I do not think at all that the U.S. should invade our country in order to bring democracy."

Nafisi's book makes it very clear that where and when you read certain works can greatly influence your perception of them. As I am writing this review, the U.S. has just cut all official contacts with Iran. Fox News, which is the closest we have in this country to Iranian or Soviet-style government-sponsored TV, is in the middle of the by now all-too-familiar buildup for attacking Iran, accusing it of harboring members of al Qaeda, playing a role in the recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, and posing an immediate nuclear threat. There is even talk of restoring Reza Pahlavi's son to the throne while at the same time "creating a secular democracy."

Reading Nafisi during this particular period in American history made me realize that perhaps the saddest comment on our own increasingly nationalistic, increasingly ideological, and increasingly one-party regime is that unlike previous literary accounts (including Nabokov's own) of escape into freedom, this one left me with a feeling which is much less celebratory, and not because of the shortcomings of the book but because the contrast between the two worlds is growing less sharp by the day.

Galya Diment is professor and chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures department of the University of Washington and author of Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel and numerous articles on Nabokov.