Readling Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
“There ain’t no such thing as a coinky-dinky.” I’m pretty sure Tennessee Ernie Ford, playing Cousin Ernie on “I Love Lucy,” said that. And whether or not I scrambled the facts in my Cuisinart of a memory, I think I’ve always sort of taken it as received wisdom.
So much so that I went to graduate school to get a degree in why that shouldn’t be so. Yet I remain the superstitious social scientist.
Which as often happens in this space leads me back to the Humanities. Such peregrinations would probably make sense to Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-born author of this book about books.
Nafisi is a student of literature, more specifically of American literature, born and raised in Tehran, the largest city in and capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m not being coy or pedantic with that last bit. The Overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian Hostage Crisis coincided with the end of my high school years. Since then Iran has been a ghostly presence on the periphery of my consciousness.
I certainly had a clearer view of the place when the Sun throne was still occupied. Iran was an American ally. The Shah was our friend. Persia was a great civilization with an illustrious past that presaged a golden Iranian future.
And then: chaos, followed by war and my mental images become women in black chadors, aged and bearded men in robes and turbans, and, more recently, a Ringo Starr doppelgänger in a Members Only jacket as President. In a way I locked the images in time and figured Iran had missed the bus to modernity.
Nafisi has disabused me of that notion. Raised in a liberal, learned household she was a graduate student in the United States at the time of the Shah’s ouster. A bit older than me (the definition of a bit is growing as a I age), Nafisi’s graduate school memories really struck home.
There are days when I think the Frankfurt School never existed and that Horkeimer. Adorno and Benjamin warrant the blank looks they draw from my more traditionally-educated contemporaries. I am now certain that if they existed in Oklahoma in the late 1970s then they must be real.
It was encountering those familiar souls that helped me settle into this worthy read. Memoir is a loaded category and in its current form carries more than a hint of narcissism. So I waded slowly in to a book that found me as opposed to one I went looking for.
At first, I had trouble with the concept. ” A Memoir in Books.” What does that mean? Plus, I read a ‘book club’ edition. Reading, for me, has always been a solitary, escapist experience and the only extended discussions I’ve ever had on books were in an English class or a barroom. The whole thing gave me worry.
The premise seems simple enough: a literature professor convenes a more or less super-seminar in her own home with a hand-picked group of students. In present day Iran that means the group is entirely female, as Nafisi often says they are “her girls.”
It’s clear very early on that the possessive pronoun is the right one. In a way that few people do, Nafisi cares for and feels a great responsibility towards these young women. I couldn’t help think how different a world we’d inhabit if more people thought and acted that way.I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. Nafisi is neither a surrogate parent nor a guardian. Mentor or guide is more like it but with a firm moral commitment. And I think that extends to her work and her view of her profession.
It’s a sad if understandable fact that we have to learn some things anew because too much time has passed. As a more contemporary voice Nafisi reminds us that the small, daily oppressions of living in a totalitarian state are as soul-destroying as the late night arrests and random executions.
Her perspective gains from her family heritage and her own studies. For me it was a humbling reminder that sometimes the only lasting impact we may have is on a small scale.
What role do books and literature play in all this? The simple answer is they are fundamental. The book itself is organized into four sections, two named after characters (Lolita and Gatsby) and two named after authors (James and Austen). And while there is some discussion of the works and writers there is more about the role writers play in our lives.
While I often miss what others see when reading, good teachers have always helped me get at the essence of the works under discussion. Here Professor Nafisi excels. All literary reactions are in part subjective so let a few things that resonated with me serve to illustrate the merit of this book.
One the characters in the works of Saul Bellow and Henry James who are failures:
“These are people who consciously choose failure in order to preserve their own integrity. They are more elitist than snobs, because of their high standards.” (p. 202)
On a Tarkovsky film:
“….we experienced collectively the kind of awful beauty that can only be grasped through extreme anguish and expressed through art.” (p. 206)
Quoting from Henry James on pursuing one’s work:
“We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” (p. 248)
That last quote is enough to send me scrambling for Henry James no matter how intimidating I find him.
A large chunk of my time is spent with my head in a book, thinking about what I’m reading and trying to better understand human truths. I may never read Lolita let alone experience Tehran, but this book will stick with me.
I think it might with you, too.