Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Random House. 368 pp. $23.95
This is a very timely book. Azar Nafisi, now teaching at Johns Hopkins, recounts here the almost two decades she spent as a professor of Western literature in the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini. In light of recent events in the Middle East and here at home, Nafisi’s decision to tell her story offers a rare opportunity for Westerners to get a glimpse from the inside of the mundane workings of a society smashed to bits and then reconstituted by a radical, barbaric tyranny. One turns to her book with high hopes. Unfortunately it does not fulfill them.
Reading Lolita opens in 1995, when Nafisi, still in Iran, decides to form a weekly discussion group with seven of her most prized students. For the rest of the book, which is divided into four sections, she interweaves an account of the group itself with the story of her own life and career. Born into one of Tehran’s leading families—her father was the mayor of the city under the Shah—she followed the familiar path of children of privilege everywhere: secular upbringing, private education (in her case in Europe), and, in adolescence, the requisite flirtation with radical politics. The only unusual feature may have been her marriage at eighteen, an entanglement that was over by the time (in the late 1960’s) she was sent to college and graduate school in the U.S. There, too, she marched with the Left and in the name of its various causes, going so far as to write a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Oklahoma on the 1930’s “proletarian” (read: Communist) novelist Mike Gold.
While in graduate school, Nafisi married again, and in 1978 she and her husband, a fellow Iranian, returned home, where she began teaching literature at the University of Tehran. Although Khomeini had not yet taken over, the rapidly increasing influence of the fundamentalist parties already made for a difficult situation. Her classes were riddled with young and enthusiastic religious radicals who disrupted university life and forced the cancellation of classes. The professor who had hired her was jailed—“No one knew when he would be released, or if he would be released at all.” Pictures of old friends turned up in the newspaper, sure signs that they had been imprisoned or killed. Scenes like these made Khomeini’s actual seizure of power seem, at first, little more than a formality.
Over the ensuing decade—which in addition to the ever tightening grip of the mullahs at home also featured the daily terrors of the Iran-Iraq war—Nafisi irregularly continued with the task of teaching a profane subject in an all-intrusive theocratic regime. (An abrupt retirement, and the birth of her two children, were followed by a return to the classroom in 1988.) Even the death of Khomeini in 1989 failed to provide respite; if anything, the more cynical men who succeeded him proved still more extreme in enforcing their religious commitments. In the early 90’s, Nafisi found herself hovering in the peripheral vision of the state security apparatus. Others were not so lucky: several of her students landed in prison. Devoting herself to nurturing an appreciation of Western literature in the best of those remaining, she got the idea of forming a discussion group. Two years after its founding in 1995, she left Iran to take up a distinguished academic career in the United States.
Nafisi’s story has the makings of, at once, a cloak-and-dagger thriller, a saga of human endurance, and an exercise in the absurd and the terrifying. (Imagine the reaction of an Islamic fundamentalist student to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s great novel of sexual obsession.) Instead, Reading Lolita in Tehran turns out to be surprisingly, disappointingly, dull. Rife with ponderous utterances on Nafisi’s everyday life and excruciatingly clichéd appreciations of her beloved literary works, it ends as little more than a coffee-klatsch take on one of the most turbulent places and periods in recent history. Even the clandestine meetings of the book club, which had to have been exciting affairs, induce tedium.
The human material that parades before us is potentially fascinating. Nafisi’s students range from the beautiful, cosmopolitan Azin to the retiring but intense Nassrin, and her interest in them and their romantic, sexual, and social problems is unfeigned. Other intriguing figures include the religiously orthodox but open-minded Mrs. Rezvan (who persuaded Nafisi to come out of retirement) and Nafisi’s “magician,” a reclusive intellectual who serves as her mentor, interlocutor, and moral compass. All these clearly would be interesting, but something prevents them from actually being interesting.
The something is the author’s persona, which seems to be irredeemably aloof. Whether she is reading or teaching, undergoing an Iraqi rocket attack on Tehran or shopping for pastry, debating with her students or offering an interpretation of Pride and Prejudice, her tone remains a deadly shade of gray. One chapter consists almost in its entirety of her final lecture on The Great Gatsby, at the end of which, challenged by one of her more fanatical students, she explicates Fitzgerald’s attitude toward his gorgeous, doomed characters in these words: “Dreams, Mr. Nyazi, are perfect ideals, complete in themselves. How can you impose them on a constantly changing, imperfect, incomplete reality?” Considering that she was speaking to someone who had participated enthusiastically in the destruction of her world in the name of another “complete” dream, one of rather more devastating consequence than Jay Gatsby’s, the understatement is chilling.
Could this general effect of impersonality be chalked up to the extreme dislocation Nafisi suffered during the Khomeini years? Her universe having crashed in ruins, did she adopt the protective coloration of the slightly disaffected, vaguely superior, always cautious professor—to the point where she can no longer command any other mode? If so, one can hardly blame her. But the loss in literary effect is very great. To measure it, one need only glance at the towering model of The Gulag Archipelago, a work that relates physical and spiritual horrors far worse than those suffered by Nafisi yet manages to be unfailingly lively and to be possessed, even, of a peculiar black joy.
In the penultimate chapter of Reading Lolita, Nafisi visits her “magician” and suggests to him that she is intending to write a book about her experience under Khomeini. He responds: “Lady, we do not need your truths but your fictions. . . . Perhaps you can trickle in some sort of truth, but spare us your real feelings.” Nafisi would appear to have taken his advice much too literally. Striving for objectivity, she has achieved blankness.
There is something at stake here beyond merely literary considerations. Ultimately, every memoir of life under tyranny is an attempt to give voice to those who never survived but were lost to the prisons, the executioner, the torture cells. The real pity of Nafisi’s case is that she has largely succeeded in rendering those voices mute.