[lit-ideas] Reading Lolita in Tehran

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 1 Apr 2004 16:32:28 +0900

The title of this message is the title of a book, Azar Nafisi (2004) 
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, London and New York: 
Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

Attracted by the title, I picked it up while browsing for plane reading 
in a bookstore in Yokohama the day before Ruth and I took off for our 
trip to Scotland. A first, too hurried, reading in the air between 
Tokyo and Copenhagen, where we switched from SAS to British Midland to 
continue our trip to Edinburgh, revealed that this is a book that 
touches perennial issues--literary, philosophical, and 
political--frequently discussed on this list. The perspective is that 
of the author, an Iranian woman and U.S.-trained professor of English 
literature, who returned to Iran to take up a teaching position at the 
University of Tehran shortly after the overthrow of the Shah at the 
beginning of the Islamic Revolution. Expelled from that position, she 
found another, found another, and then left it as well. She describes 
what happened next as follows,

"In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I 
decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best 
and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every 
Thursday morning to discuss literature. they were all women---to teach 
a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were 
discussing harmless works of fiction....

"For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, 
they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the 
shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst 
into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more 
than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and 
a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living 
room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Moutains became our 
sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of 
black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

"The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. 
We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady 
of fiction, Scheherazade, from _A Thousand and One Nights_, along with 
Western classics--_Pride and Prejudice_, _Madame Bovary_, _The Dean's 
December_, and, yes, _Lolita_. As I write the title of each book, 
memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day 
in another room in another country.

"Here and now in that other world that cropped up so many times in our 
discussions, I sit and reimagine myself and my students, my girls as I 
came to call them, reading _Lolita_ in a deceptively sunny room in 
Tehran. But to steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of 
_Lolita_, I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won't really 
exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine 
us the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most 
private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary 
instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down 
shady streets or reading _Lolita_ in Tehran. And then imagine us again 
with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

"If I write about Nabokov today, it is to celebrate our reading of 
Nabokov in Tehran, against all odds. Of all his novels I choose the one 
I taught last, and the one that is connected to so many memories. It is 
of _Lolita_ that I want to write, but right now there is no way I can 
write about that novel without also writing about Tehran. This, then, 
is the story of _Lolita_ in Tehran, how _Lolita_ gave a different color 
to Tehran and how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov's novel, turning it 
into this _Lolita_, our _Lolita_."

I would be delighted to participate in a virtual reading group 
dedicated to reading (in my case re-reading) this book.

Any takers out there?

John L. McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
55-13-202 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0006

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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