Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi


Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) is a memoir about life and Iran and reading English language books by  Azar Nafisi.  My alumni chapter book club selected this book appropriately about a book club Nafisi started to read Western literature with young women she had taught at the university in Tehran.  The book is divided into four sections loosely draping Nafisi’s story over the works of four authors:  Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the works of Henry James (particularly Daisy Miller), and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The first section focuses mainly on the reading group and the conversations therein, while the reamaining three sections are more of a straight-forward memoir.  Nafisi is educated in America (in Oklahoma, no less, which she makes sound like a hotbed of Iranian revolutionaries), returns to teach in Tehran right at the time of the revolution, loses her positions due to her liberal ways, returns to teaching (albeit compromising some of her principles), and then starts the reading group.  Finally, Nafisi departs Iran for good for the United States where she teaches and writes to this day.

This is horribly judgmental of me, especially to say of someone who lived under a totalitarian regime, but I found that Nafisi comes across as whiny, at least in the first chapter.  Marjane Satrapi (who is roughly the age of one of Nafisi’s “girls”) writes much more eloquently about the Iranian Revolution and the oppression of the Islamic regime, especially for women. The discussion of the books and life issues by the women of the reading group is supposed to be central to this work, but I never get the sense of individuality of the women in the group as if they’re only there to fill a role for Nafisi’s thesis. I warmed up to this book in the second section when Nafisi’s class puts the novel The Great Gatsby on trial, a clever way of discussing the book and the clash of cultures of the students in reading it.  Nafisi is at her best when discussing the books and I found her observations quite illuminating.  Especially for Lolita which I read many years ago but didn’t really follow it all to well.  I think Nafisi must be an excellent teacher and her passion for the novels comes across well in this work.  Ultimately this is a pretty good book, especially for its literary sections as well as a glimpse into life in modern Iran.

Favorite Passages

In class, we were discussing the concept of the villain in the novel.  I had mentioned that Humbert was a villain because he lacked curiousity about other poeple and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita.  Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people.  He had created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image.  I reminded them of Humbert’s statement that he wished to stop time and keep Lolita forever on “an islnd of entranced time,” a task undertaken only by Gods and poets. – p. 48-49

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. – p. 76

This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel.  It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabakov and Bellow.  This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy.  The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance.  A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost. – p. 224

Authors: Nafisi, Azar.
Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books / Azar Nafisi.
Edition: 1st ed.
Published: New York : Random House, c2003.
Description: 347 p. ; 22 cm.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

  1. Hi, Liam,
    Don’t think you’re horribly judgmental at all. I had a different problem with “Reading Lolita in Tehran”: I found it didactic. You might guess that Nafisi is a professor even if her dust jacket hadn’t said so.

    I agree that in some ways Satrapi is a better writer. But I have reservations about her book, too. She gives pages and pages of conversations she supposedly had with a man in a nearby cell. You can’t expect her to have had a tape recorder in jail.

    But Satrapi never persuaded me that the man existed at all. There’s apparently no way to verify his existence (and, in literary terms, his appearance in the book seems suspiciously convenient). I’ve read so many iffy memoirs, I’m becoming less and less willing to give authors the benefit of the doubt on issues like that. How about you?
    Jan

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    1. Didactic is a good word. Probably a better description than whiny.

      I don’t think memoirs have to be entirely factual as long as they get at the big “t” Truth. Satrapi’s work being a comic and all is also filled with many dreams and obvious exaggerations of reality, so I can give her a pass on not being 100% factual.

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