Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

(343pp, HarperCollins, £7.99)

Note above the more formal presentation of the review, and the ditching of the out-of-10 mark. Partly I've been inspired by this reflective and clever book, which narrates Nafisi's private 'book club' for her most intelligent, free-thinking students in Tehran. The book is divided into four sections: 'Lolita', 'Gatsby', 'James' and 'Austen' (the latter two sections deal mainly with Washington Square and Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice); each tells of the whirling events of the political turmoil in Iran, including the revolution and the transformation into the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the war with Iraq from 1980 (apologies if these facts are wrong, I'm working from memory here), interlaced with their discussions of the works of English and American literature they read. Nafisi shows cleverly how the ideas in even Jane Austen's works relate profoundly to the constantly scrutinised, highly moralistic society by which Nafisi and her students are bound. I particularly liked these paragraphs on Pride and Prejudice:

There is seldom a physical description of a character or scene in Pride and Prejudice and yet we feel that we have seen each of these characters and their intimate worlds; we feel we know them, and sense their surroundings. We can see Elizabeth's reaction to Darcy's denunciation of her beauty, Mrs Bennet chattering at the dinner table or Elizabeth and Darcy walking in and out of the shadows of the Pemberley estate. The amazing this is that all of this is created mainly through tone - different tones of voice, words that become haughty and naughty, soft, harsh, coaxing, insinuating, insensible, vain.
The sense of touch that is missing from Austen's novels is replaced by a sense of tension, an erotic texture of sounds and silences. She manages to create a feeling of longing by setting characters who want each other at odds. Elizabeth and Darcy are placed near each other in several scenes, but in public places where they cannot communicate privately. Austen creates a great deal of frustrated tension by putting them in the same room yet out of reach. The tension is deepened by the fact that while everyone expects Jane and Bingley to be in love, the exact reverse is expected of Elizabeth and Darcy.
Nafisi is clearly very intelligent, but these moments of interpretation are not over the average reader's head - that is, I shouldn't think you need an English degree to understand them. What you do ideally need, though, is a working knowledge of the works she writes about - and in this sense my judgement of the book was nicely balanced, since I have read Lolita and Pride and Prejudice but not The Great Gatsby (I know, shocking) or either James novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, I enjoyed the two middle sections, about Gatsby and James, far less than the other two, and so I would strongly suggest reading the novels before embarking on this book; that way you won't have to contend with unfamiliar political events as well as unfamiliar plotlines embedded in plotlines. Perhaps because I'm also not old enough to remember many of the events she describes, I did get confused, and I also got the names of Nafisi's students muddled because of the unfamiliarity of Iranian names (so many of them begin with M!). I should also warn that it is a slow-ish read: the text is fairly dense, laden with facts. I actually enjoyed her approach to the narration of the political events, during which she describes horrors perpetrated by the Iranian authorities with minimal comment or judgement, which certainly saves us from the repetition of her shock, as this would doubtless become tedious. However, you do have to concentrate on what you are reading, try and remember the various qualities of each character (there are quite a few, some of whom crop up so infrequently that you've all but forgotten about them), and be willing to use your brain (something I can't say for Twilight!). It is fairly clear that Nafisi is not a native English speaker: her prose, though perfectly grammatical and lucid, is sometimes slightly awkward, and she lacks the subtle understanding of natural English rhythms which you don't even notice until you are faced with their absence. Of course this is by no means her fault, but it does make the book slightly more tiring to read. If you have the energy to devote to it, though, you'll find yourself entertained, enlightened and, as I discovered slightly to my surprise, elated by this thoughtful narrative.


I'm aware that the above review wasn't very long; this is mainly because I was prompted by the book to reread Pride and Prejudice. I have read about half of it today, and, having not read it for some years, was reminded of her brilliance in even the smallest point. I wanted to illustrate this using the shortest of quotations from towards the end of Chapter 15, when Mr Collins is a guest at Mrs Philips's little party: "Mr Collins repeated his apologies in quitting the room, and was assured with unwearying civility that they were perfectly needless."

I want to narrow in on the phrase "unwearying civility". It seems to me that Austen inserts the adjective "unwearying" because she wants to draw our attention to how quickly Mrs Philips's civility could weary, even if it doesn't (mainly because she is so flattered by Collins's admiration and attentions that she forgives him his pomposity) - and suggests in the process how quickly any normal person's civility would quickly weary under such assault from Mr Collins. Isn't that brilliant?


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