Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books – Azar Nafisi

In Iran in the late 90s, Azar Nafisi and seven young women – her former students – gathered at her house every Thursday to discuss forbidden works of Western literature. Shy and uncomfortable at first, they soon began to open up, not only about the novels they were reading but also about their own dreams and disappointments. Their personal stories intertwine with those they are reading – Pride and prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita – their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran. Azar Nafisi also tells her own story, back to the early days of the revolution when she first started teaching at the University of Tehran, amid a swirl of protests and demonstrations.

Azar Nafisi's luminous tale offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Literary Criticism
Year: 2003
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Rating: 5/5

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, is so exquisitely written that at first I hesitated to write about it. What could I possibly say, that would give justice to a book so full of passion, heartbreak and beauty? Azar Nafisi has a gift, her writing is eloquent and vivid. A blend of memoir and literary criticism, this book really is a pleasure to read.  

Nafisi tells her story of what it was like to live in The Islamic Republic of Iran during the revolution. She talks about her life as a university professor of literature and the obstacles she had to overcome as students took over Tehran university, and disapproved of her teaching methods and chosen novels. 

 She discusses how the introduction of the veil, and other new laws surrounding the public conduct of women, impacted on her life and the lives of the women around her. She analyses the revolutionaries and their actions, and the consequences of those actions. 

 Finally, Nafisi talks about the relationship she formed with seven of her former students. Intelligent, eager to learn and passionate about literature, these women came to her house every Thursday to read works of banned Western literature and discuss them. 

Nafisi's memoir style account of these turbulent times was gripping. I am not sure I have read any literature or memoirs about Iran before, so I found it interesting to learn about her life and her struggles.   

Within her memoir, Nafisi weaves in her opinions and ideas regarding some great works of Western literature. This book is divided into four parts – Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen – and within these sections, Nafisi blends her love of these authors and novels, with her personal story.

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So starting breathing.

Nafisi discusses Lolita and Nabokov with such passion that I feel like I need to get my hands on that novel, as I have not yet read it.  She analyses how Humbert Humbert stole Lolita's identity and her life, making her dependant on him, and she compares this to the treatment of Iranian women under the regime.  

We then visit Gatsby (a personal favourite of mine and a novel I have taught myself), and it's theme of the corruption of the American Dream, which Nafisi discusses in relation to the goals and corruption of the regime. Some of her students take such offense to this work of American literature, that they demand she stops teaching it at once. Instead, Nafisi holds a 'mock trial' and gives her students a chance to condemn or defend this book.   

This is followed by James, in which Nafisi talks about the Iran-Iraq war and her relationship with a man she calls 'The Magician'. The Magician is a literary academic whose identity we never come to know, but who has a great impact on Nafisi's personal and professional life. She also talks about Daisy Miller, a novel with a protagonist her students feel they can relate to on many levels.  

 Lastly, we have Austen. Here Nafisi talks about her decision to leave Iran, and how she must come to terms with her feelings about her country which she once loved but has had such a negative impact on her as a person. This is blended with an analysis of Pride and Prejudice.  

Chronologically, this book jumps back and forth, which got a little confusing at times. I had to keep reminding myself which timeframe we were currently experiencing. That, however, did not detract from my enjoyment of this book.  

I enjoyed reading the literary criticism aspects of this book just as much as I enjoyed reading about Nafisi's life, and the lives of the women (and a few men) around her. I also found the political aspects of this book fascinating, and shared Nafisi's outrage as the new laws were imposed upon her. From an Australian perspective, these laws are outrageous (women being reprimanded for wearing pink socks under their chador, or eating an apple too 'seductively'!?) but, at one time Iranian women never even imagined that they would be subject to such treatment. It shows that the freedoms we take for granted are fragile.  

This book also reawakened my goal of becoming a university professor of literature. As a high school English teacher I am lucky enough to spend my days discussing literature. Combined with my blog and my writing about literature over at Suite 101, I am blessed to be able to spend so much time talking, living and breathing books. When I first started my teaching degree, it was with the goal of doing my PhD and becoming a professor but in the last few years of teaching, I'd lost sight of that. Life got in the way. This book was a great reminder that I need to follow my dreams. 

 I took so much away from this book, as you can see. If you are passionate about literature, love learning about different cultures and enjoy memoirs, then I highly recommend this book.  

Want to read this book? Grab a copy from Amazon or Book Depository!
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