Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The study guide says this is a memoir in books, part personal memoir, part history of Iran and part literary criticism. The author is an Iranian English professor, so literary criticism is her thing. I don’t know how I feel about that. It seems like cheating to use other authors’ work to fill up your manuscript. Some of the books she reviews I’ve read. Some I haven’t. I had a course in Victorian novel in college. That was forty-eight years ago. Even the ones I’ve read I don’t remember. Anne will be shocked. She thinks I remember everything but our anniversary. Don’t tell her. What’s that? Oh, am I on a tangent again?

The book is about a reading group, so I suppose the author had to talk about some novels. While I am reading, I ask myself, if I write a book about my writing group, would I include their writing and the books and movies we discussed? I probably would, but I would focus more on the people. Would I talk about the history of the United States during the time of the workshop? Probably, though only in the way it affected the members of the group, the way the war affected the lovers in Ianesco’s Frenzy Galore for Two or More. Over here are bodiless heads, and over there, headless bodies.

I learned about the Islamic Revolution that threw out the Shah, established the extremist Islamic Republic and forced women to wear scarves and burkas. America flirted with a similar assault on liberty by the religious right during the Bush administration.

It was hard to connect with the characters, because there were so many of them and they moved in and out of the scene. I experienced their stories vicariously, through the author. She has a tendency to tell, rather than show, which can happen in a memoir that strays toward autobiography.

The revolution introduced a drastic change in feminine fashion. The women were required to wear what they called veils, so as not to tempt the men. Even the act of eating an apple in public could be provocative. Men cannot be expected to resist the allure of such scandalous misbehavior. The veil became a symbol of oppression versus freedom. The concealment they wore is not what I would call a veil. Veils in the west are like nets, revealing more than they conceal, more provocative than prohibitive or protective. The Iranian women wore scarves that covered all but their eyes. Still the men weren’t safe. A woman can do things with her eyes alone that will propel a post-pubescent male into paroxysms of priapism. It would have been more effective to leave their heads on display and require them to black out a few teeth.

This is a book about books, the women who read them and the society in which they do it. What should a novel accomplish in this setting? The role of poetry is more elegantly stated. Archibald MacLeish says a poem should not seem, but be. Marianna Moore says the job of the poet is to create imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Billy Collins says we shouldn’t tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it. A good novel should be all of that and it should tell a story through the characters. Admit it. I was doing well until I added Billy Collins, but I like his unpretentious style so much.

Each novel is important to the women in the group because it creates an imaginary world that is different from their own and it allows them to experience, through the characters, things that are prohibited in the readers’ own lives. Good novels do that for me. For a short time, I become the strongest character in the story. Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek made me want to undo my belt and look for trouble. His Last Temptation of Christ gave me a new definition of truth.

Nafisi says empathy is the heart of the novel. I agree, if by that she means identifying with the characters, taking a truth from them that we never knew before. I suppose that’s something I sensed about novels before, but I never thought of it as a universal standard of success. Beyond all of the little lessons of the books within the book, the main theme of Reading Lolita in Tehran is that people in power can be petty and mean, but that’s hardly a new lesson. Even Catch 22 taught that, or was it something about cats sleeping on Yossarian’s face?

Nafisi helped me understand some of the novels the group read better. I knew the message of The Great Gatsby before. The very rich are different from you and I, to which Hemingway replied, yes, they have more money. But Fitzgerald meant they are careless and self-centered, a la Mel Brooks as Louis Quatorze in The History of the World, “It’s good to be the king.”

In moving to America, Nafisi made the right choice for herself. She abandoned her country and her students, but one has to decide whether to save the world or live one’s own life. Eventually, a steady onslaught of stress will burn out the most stalwart patriot and pedagogue. As my paternal grandmother used to say, “It gives me the jerks.”

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I liked this book when I read it last year. It took me awhile to get into it, but that was just because I kept getting characters mixed up (not familiar enough with arabic names). After I made myself a character chart to use, it was smooth sailing. I liked the first and last book better than the middle two - the middle two had a lot less to do with the memoire (to me, the interesting part) and mroe to do with history, which I generally shy away from unless its really well done. It probably also helps that I'd read Lolita and lots of other Nabokov books (for book 1 of this book) and while I hadn't read Pride and Prejudice specifically, I did have some background with Austen. Overall, I thought this was an engaging book, especially in the parts that actually dealt with the book club. At the end, I really wanted to know more about what happened, but as with all real-life memoires, they dont' really end. People move on.

PS - Huple's cat always slept on Hungry Joe's face. I love Catch-22. ;)