Reading Lolita
In Tehran

Azar Nafisi
Read by Lisette Lecat

(Recorded Books Unabridged)
Everyone seems to love Azar Nafisi and Reading Lolita in Tehran. It spent 100 weeks or so on the New York Times bestseller list, and recently came up as #5 of the Times paperback non-fiction bestsellers.

But after going at it for several days, thirteen tapes, 18-1/2 hours, I'm prepared to believe maybe that the title itself, rather than the contents, ensured the book's success.

Given this volume's rambles about Western literature, it could just as easily have been called Reading Daisy Miller in Tehran... or Reading the Great Gatsby in Tehran... or Reading Jane Austen in Tehran... But no: it's Lolita. You do remember the power of the word don't you? Or haven't you been paying any attention to the weird sex spam ads lately?

Still, Lolita, or at least THIS Lolita, is admirable in a didactic sort of way. It's filled with Ms. Nafisi's eighteen-year experience of the crudity of the Iranian Revolution, the oppression of Muslim and non-Muslim women alike, and the sadistic revolutionaries (often with several wives, or at least one very badly beaten wife) there in the new Middle East. And since it is a tale of Western Lit being studied (and loved) behind shutters and under veils (as it were), given the Holy War atmosphere in the United States at the present moment, it has to be a hit.

And Nafisi's story of being spied on, followed, strip-searched by the moral guardians, of being forced to wear veil and chador, of being fired from her teaching position because of her powerful sense of political right and wrong --- all these can touch the heart, make us proud to know her (as we get know her through this book).

Her insights about the tyranny of religion are powerful, might even be a veiled (if I can use that expression) warning for present-day Americans. At one point she tells us that living in fundamentalist Iran is not unlike "having sex with someone you loathe." Why? "Because you just shut your eyes and lie there. And pretend that you do not own your body."

But we are never allowed to forget that our author is a school-marm. Reading Lolita contains ten or twelve asides, going on for pages at a time, analysis of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Flaubert and Nabokov. Thus, while we are living through Nafisi's day-to-day under bombs and assault on freedoms, we are being given a moral tale, what might be called a reverse Lolita (and here I am referring to the original Lolita by Nabokov) ... a story of women seduced by the richness of western literature to the point of threatening their own freedoms. Instead of the seduction of a young girl, we have the seduction of a culture, a society secreted from the revolutionaries, a "club" of women not only reading and talking about but living the fictions of Nabokov, Flaubert, Austen, James, et al.

Involved in this is a self-seduction ... if we can use that phrase ... with hints of literary agony. As Lolita in Tehran drones on, one comes to realize that Nafisi is not only a martyr to the cause of the written word, but is also one of those writers who has made a grievous mistake ... a mistake that her literary heroes managed, most of the time, to avoid. She has fallen in love with her own voice.

Which would be all right if she could write like her mavens. But there is nothing subtle here, and not a whit of humor. All becomes a heavy tale of sacrifice for a cause. Her New-Critic-style analysis of The Great Gatsby may be enlightening to her students, but it sheds very little warmth for the reader who is being forced to attend school, along with several young ladies, there in her apartment, in bombed-out Tehran.

Because of these repetitions, some of us get the feeling that we are being persecuted as we read this. Many of us love Henry James, Jane Austen, Fitzgerald --- but not so much that we want to see them smothered in words.

I have to assure you that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not with the reader on these tapes. Ms. Lecal has one of those wonderful colonial English accents, with an impeccable and proper diction, a gracious sing-song to be found everywhere among upper-class ladies in strange corners of India, South Africa, Egypt, Iran and other parts of the old British empire. It is a joy to listen to.

Last month one of our writers listened to (and reviewed) Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. He said this:

    I would get so wound up that when I got to my destination I would often stay on in the hot car, waiting to eke out one more adventure before mounting the stairs to my office.

Au contraire --- with Lolita in Tehran I found myself staying in the car with the same spirit of martyrdom that overwhelms Nafisi and her young lady friends. Like them, I was taking my duties seriously ... even though I may have been in less danger of being apprehended and whipped for my readings, being put to death in loyal service to the written word.

Unless you consider that as the chapters droned on and on, there came times that I was fearful of falling asleep half-way to my office, running off the road and crashing down into the East River, dying not as a martyr to Western literature, certainly not as a martyr to bad humor ... but, perhaps, a martyr to no humor at all.

--- Lolita Lark
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