Saturday, April 05, 2008

Reader's Diary #342- Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran (FINISHED)

Wow. If a great book is measured by its ability to make me think, then Reading Lolita in Tehran is a great book.

My wife bought this for me a couple Christmases ago. And while just getting to it now is partly due to the ridiculous size of my TBR pile, I also wanted to read the actual Lolita first. Then recently Raidergirl blogged about Nafisi's book and she pointed out that it's actually divided up into four sections: Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen (I'm not sure why she picked two books and two authors). Finally having read Lolita, I still wasn't sure I'd like Nafisi's book. I wasn't a great fan of either The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice and I hadn't even read any James before. Fortunately, it didn't really matter much to my enjoyment, though I'm sure having read James would have enhanced the experience.

I really appreciated how Nafisi made me think about the role of literature. When I first went to university I was the cliched confused freshman. I had just dropped out of nursing school and had no idea who I was, let alone what I wanted to do with my life. So like every other confused university student, I got a degree in psychology. When I realized that didn't work, I got a degree in education. Now, 7 years later, I'm working for an airline. Not to worry, despite the various paths I think I know a little more about who I am now, and after reading Nafisi's book, I have a little more insight on where that knowledge comes from: books. In the little blurb at the top of this blog, I've written "My travelling can be done through books." I've usually looked at books that way: a cheap, and sometimes unique way, of travelling. I've not only been able to gain some insight into what life is like in Saskatchewan, Georgia or Iran, I've also been on the moon, visited the 1700s, toured the planet of Trafalmadore and found myself in the mind of a young Jewish girl. What I haven't acknowledged or considered before was how much I've found out about myself in the process.

In perhaps my favourite section of the book, Nafisi discusses the monster that was Lolita's Humbert Humbert. Despite all his wit and poetics, she declares that "he fails to completely seduce the reader." I reflected a lot over a few troublesome lines that I wrote in my review of Lolita a short while ago; "saying 'I liked Lolita, except for all the paedophilia' is like saying you like pizza without the dough, sauce, pepperoni and cheese. What else is there?" and later, "I respect Lolita. I respect Nabakov. It was a brilliant book. He was a brilliant author. But...I didn't like the book-- it was about paedophilia afterall."

Was I playing with semantics? Is there much of a distinction between respect and like? I've decided that in this particular case, yes. I still think Nabakov wrote a brilliant story (Nafisi does an excellent job explaining why) but I still don't like it. It made me uncomfortable from beginning to end, and surpassed my coping threshold. Handmaid's Tale made me uncomfortable. So did Cocksure. Like Lolita, those books were meant to make us squirm. But unlike Lolita, I could deal with those other books and still liked them in the end. Perhaps I was a different stage in my life in terms of my sensitivities, perhaps the issues were sufficiently different, perhaps it was something about the writing itself. The point is, my personality and identity was solidified a little more by reading Lolita, and perhaps by every book I've ever attended to. When a character makes any decision, it's next to impossible not to think, "I wouldn't have done that" or "That's exactly what I'd do." Each time we do that we reinforce, or sometimes even challenge, who we are.

Among the many other things Nafisi made me consider, perhaps indirectly, was the truth about fiction. At times she uses Nabokov's description of a good novel being a fairy tale, and talks about the fantasies of Austen. She mirrors that with discussions on history, especially the way dictators rewrite it. It's not long before I got all tangled up with the philosophy of that whole idea: if a novel is lifelike because it's fiction, isn't that paradoxical? Not necessarily when you look at the flip-side: the lie about non-fiction. Reading Lolita in Tehran has a lot of lies. Starting with the obvious up-front ones, Nafisi acknowledges she has changed the names, and altered identities somewhat, to protect the characters at stake. Then there's the obvious disclaimer that every memoir implores: it's only as true as one's memory. And you don't need a psych degree to know how imperfect that is. Not only are facts sometimes wrong, but details are left out, new values are being placed on past actions, and so forth. None of this is to say Nafisi should be judged by her untruths. She's telling her version of it, and we have to believe she's not lying maliciously (unlike James Frey). Nor is she doing anything she can help. Words, as much as I love them, are but symbols of reality.

Anyway, I'm not sure if I'm making sense anymore. I hope it suffices to say, Nafisi turned my brain inside out for a while and I appreciate it.

The Soundtrack:
1. Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)- The Doors
2. Preacher and The Slave (Joe Hill cover)- Shannon Murray
3. Children of the Revolution- T. Rex
4. Everyday I Write The Book- Elvis Costello
5. I Ran- Flock of Seagulls

1 comment:

raidergirl3 said...

I'm glad you liked the book so much. You probably like books that make you think, a bit more than I do.
There were a lot of big ideas in the book. In ways, I thought she tackled too many things, and 100 pages could have been cut.

Very nice review, John.