Friday, December 24, 2004

Review month pt 1: Reading Lolita in Tehran

For lack of nothing better to post about, here's the first of some short reviews.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi was an English Lit university professor in Tehran before the Shah was deposed and for quite some time after. She was eventually kicked out of Iranian universities, and still kept teaching novels to a small group of female students.

The book founders the most when talking about her private coterie of students, especially in the beginning where I could only have kept names and personalites by making a crib sheet — until Nafisi hits her stride in the second of four sections, 'Gatsby', most her students feel quite flat. Once "Reading Lolita" starts with actual storytelling, it frames a very effective comparison of the Western world's concept of "the West", the Iranian concept of "the West", and Iranians' concepts of their own society during unrest, revolution, and aftermath.

I started reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and thought I might be better equipped to understand if I read "Lolita" itself. Nafisi clearly sees something wonderful in Nabokov's prose — his description of American middle-class houses, his subtleties of the unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert. I got frustrated from not seeing what she does from the novel, and didn't finish. My suggestion: read "The Great Gatsby" instead. "Reading Lolita" spends more time, and much better time, on "Gatsby" or on Henry James novels than Nabakov. If you're not planning to read "Reading Lolita", read "Gatsby" anyway. I'll even give you a copy.

As Nafisi brings F. Scott Fitzgerald's take on American dreams and Henry James' versions of feminine courage side by side with her students hopes and actions, she gives a very real and very immediate sense to the importance of fiction and the Middle-East context it was read in.

No comments: