The extraordinary events occurring in Iran today have taken me back to a remarkable novel I read about an equally turbulent period there during the late 90’s--Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.
Every now and then a book nearly takes command of my life, when my day is measured only by the time remaining before I can get back to it. Nafisi’s memoir is one of them. Not long after I began reading it, I went out of town for a few days to work on a project that was as remotely associated with literature as Newtonian physics. When I left, I was halfway through Reading Lolita in Tehran.
The book brought alive for me the meaning of literature for those who could only read and discuss it in hiding. Within an hour after returning home, I took up the book once again. A feeling of relief swept over me, an emotion I often feel in getting back to literature.
I am not entirely sure what gives rise to this feeling. All I know is that when I am reading literature as fine as Nafisi’s work I fall into a mood, one of rumination, sometimes moody, sometimes elated, that makes the experience such an imperative. It is an effect not unlike the one Jonathan Franzen described in reading Alice Munro.
Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death.
Nafasi’s novel describes the experiences of a group of her students who met to discuss the books they were reading when it was forbidden to read Western literature in Iran. They read the works of Nabokov, James, Jane Austen and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. They met in secret when “…all the normal acts of life had become small acts of rebellion and political insubordination…”
The book is also about the unexpected parallels they found between the novels they read and the life they were forced to lead under the mullahs—not wearing the veil or wearing it improperly, not speaking out in public against the government, and “for studying decadent Western texts and for embracing the ambiguities and conundrums of fiction” as Michiko Kakutani puts it in her Times review.
The group tended to interpret each of the works they read against this background. So, for example, “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve year old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one’s individual life by another.”
The meetings became a refuge for the women. The novels they read began to transform their life, leading them to those truths that one often finds in fiction. Nafisi writes, “If I turned towards books, it was because they were the only sanctuary I knew, one I needed in order to survive, to protect some aspect of myself that was no in constant retreat.”
Through their readings and discussions, Nafisi and her students discovered themselves and the larger world that confronted them. “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.”
And elsewhere, “Not only did the most ordinary activities gain a new luminosity in the light of our secret, but everyday life sometimes took on the quality of make-believe or fiction. We had to reveal aspects of ourselves to one another that we didn’t even know existed.”
In reading Lolita in Tehran, I too came to share the joy of reading fiction that those in the group experienced. And in a way I leaned just as much about each of the novels they read, most of which I was only dimly aware of. “You don’t read Gatsby to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are.”
Nafisi’s novel also reinforced my view that the best fiction always forces us to question our fundamental beliefs. Questioning traditions and ideologies and doing so in secret was for these women also the purest form of insubordination. Given the way events are currently unfolding in Iran, I suspect we are likely to learn about more Iranian groups of underground readers in the near future.