Jared Alan Smith
I am a “power reader.” While that term can and should be applied to my position (my lack of color, my sex, and my sexuality), I think of it in this instance in terms of a physical formula: Power is equal to work over time. I can do a lot of literary work in a very short time, having been known since the third grade to finish a novel in a day. My grandfather called me a “storyteller” when I told him I wasn’t just scanning as a kid; my students’ eyes go wide when I hand them back a five-paragraph essay with spot structure edits in less than two minutes. Working fast and hard over words like a saucier over his stove has been a critical facet of my life since I started skipping naptime in kindergarten to read sci-fi epics in the bathroom.
I still try and reserve a space in every day to sit down with a book. A good book offers something different than a feature essay or a news article, and for me to become engrossed in a book, a must feel at the very moment of reading that it is growing me into a more person. I have read more books this year than any years previous, a combination of my new job as an ESE English teacher and my continued education as an MFA candidate. There is one book that I did not read this year, per se, but re-read, and re-read again. This book is, in terms of physics, an immovable object. I cannot power through this book, like so many others before it, for one simple reason: it powers through me. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir in books and an encounter with powerlessness, against political and religious forces, against violence, and against despair.
Author Azar Nafisi counters the aggressive gut-punch of serial oppression with a flurry of her favorite works of fiction: she moves effortlessly from the bourgeois rights and wrongs of Lolita and The Great Gatsby into sections defined by the moral struggles of great authors rather than just their greatest characters. Each of the four sections of Reading Lolita in Tehran gets in close, working over the myriad injustices and intonations of Nafisi’s favorite works of fiction until the reader’s heart and mind are rendered simultaneously senseless and incensed.
The book’s first focus is on what Nafisi calls “Nabokov’s other world . . . one that [is] only attainable through fiction. It is this world that prevents his heroes and heroines from utter despair, that becomes their refuge in a life that is consistently brutal.” She avenges the brutality of Humbert, confiscator of Lolita’s past, present, and future, in outlaying Nabokov’s exposure of all solipsists (Ayatollah Khomeini included) as perpetrators of intrinsic internal weakness: their wish for control over their own lives leads them to seek outright power over others, a power that Nafisi unveils as intrinsically illegitimate. She is sure to remind the reader that “every great novel [is] a fairy tale . . . [offering] the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.” To make such an assertion against the backdrop of Khomeini’s violent repressions in Iran acts as a startling window into the fear and anxiety of being a healthy and strong-willed woman in a world ruled by newly-empowered men.
The author’s treatment of The Great Gatsby is no less illuminating, as she dutifully chronicles the outraged reactions of her more fundamentalist students at Fitzgerald’s Western prostitution of morality. She quotes Theodor Adorno’s belief that “the highest form of morality is to not feel at home in one’s own home,” a theoretical proposition made entirely real by Nafisi’s almost complete alienation from the Leftists, Islamists, and Marxist Mujahideen peopling her classrooms. The tenuous connection she maintains with many of her students comes through the fictional characters she discusses in her classes, up to and including a mock trial where Gatsby is prosecuted by some of her roster’s more zealous revolutionaries. Nafisi, ever courageous, agrees to embody the novel itself throughout the deliberations. Her closing arguments come in scene:
“You don’t read Gatsby to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil . . .”
She is, of course, interrupted by a male student. The readers only solace in the abbreviation of Nafisi’s incisive treatise on Gatsby is that she won the “case,” a small victory in an ever-widening swath of personal and social defeats at the hands of an increasingly oppressive regime.
As the conflict outside of Nafisi’s classroom widened to include the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980-88, so too does the scope of her criticism within Reading Lolita in Tehran. The third section of her memoir is dedicated to the life and works of Henry James. As much as I want more of her knowledge of Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi, and Khayyam, I remain astounded by Nafisi’s ineffable elegance in applying the lessons of Western writers to the decidedly Middle Eastern struggle of Iran in the 1980’s.
Unwilling to be made a bystander, Nafisi justifies her return to teaching (she had quit in protest of law requiring women to wear a veil in public) by supplying a Nietzsche quote that warns “whoever fights monsters should see to it in the process that he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.” Upon returning to the classroom, Nafisi admits that the “more liberal” attitudes granted to her employers by Khomeini’s regime do not include support, but only crooked tolerance of her “feminine outbursts;” she counts herself lucky that her more liberal attitudes escape the summary execution reserved for so many of her compatriots.
Her response to the disillusion creeping into the Iranian populace is a deep dive into James himself, along with two of his most famous heroines, Daisy Miller and Caroline Sloper. Her inquiry surrounds how they “laid open to question the most basic institutions of their times,” and Nafisi quotes The Tragic Muse and James’ explanation of art as “human complication and social stumbling block” to remind the reader of fiction’s power as a craft, and to juxtapose her own beliefs against those of her more traditional students. Nafisi decries the vociferous extremism rampant in Iran’s capital city, able only to watch as her brightest female pupils “[simmer] in their dashed dreams.”
As the war against Iraq worsened, so too did the forlorn quality of Nafisi’s home in Tehran. The capital had been largely deserted due to the specter of constant missile attacks, yet the reader is horrified less by Iraqi aggression and more by Iran’s own tactics, namely the “human waves” of young boys and old men who cleared Iraqi minefields by walking over them, the promise of heavenly martyrdom dangled like a divine carrot in their immediate vision. Nafisi’s response to such atrocity could only be silent indifference to the Ayatollah’s demands, a stark contrast to the black-clad motorcycle gangs that popped up at bombing sites throughout Tehran chanting for the death of America. In the face of such senseless death, Nafisi maintains that “this insensitivity becomes a way of survival,” but again returns to Nabokov’s “other world” with a nod to James’ insistence on “the most important human attribute—feeling.” She remains faithful, as always, to the curative powers of words: when confronted with the dastardly reality of a war without end, she allows James again to maintain that “we must for dear life make our own counterrealities.”
Wading through the male privilege on the scale found in the Iranian society Nafisi portrays is an arduous task, and as she moves through Reading Lolita in Tehran, the reader can witness such restriction being stripped away. In the book’s fourth and final section, Nafisi returns to the core of the narrative’s strength: a women-only class she held in secret at her apartment along with seven of her best students after resigning her position at the University of Tehran. Having ably dissected the inner workings of Nabokov, Fitzgerald and James, Nafisi seeks disclosure in her final act of an even more complex artist: Jane Austen. A lead-in scene of mirth and merriment within Nafisi’s private class gives way to a serious discussion of the Austen’s merits, one I cannot possibly do justice here. Suffice to say I will be reading the final coda of Reading Lolita in Tehran again as I make my way to DC (where Nafisi teaches at John’s Hopkins University) for AWP in February; while some will (rightfully) be in search of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, I know exactly who I will be in search of. What would I ask the author of the best book I’ve ever read? As the institutions of my own homeland begin to crumble around me, I think I’ll just inquire concerning citizenship in her Republic of Imagination.
Jared Alan Smith was born in Orlando and lives in Tampa, Florida, where he teaches Exceptional Student Education English Language Arts. His nonfiction has appeared in Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas series and his fiction in Issue 19 of Hinchas de Poesia. His chapbook Sure Shot: Collected Assays in Pulp is available here. He is easier to find on Facebook than in real life.