Azar Nafisi has written a brilliant, insightful essay about the importance of fiction – it’s so much more than that and I’ll post a full commentary. In the meantime here’s my entry on her seminal work, reposted from the blog that Blue wiped out.
Nafisi gave her book the subtitle “A Memoir in Books,” but it is far more than that. It is a meditation on life at the end of the twentieth century for a people with a long heritage of literature and refinement whose leaders are driving them back into the Dark Ages. She frames her experience of the Iranian revolution with discussions of the fiction by three giants of Western literature: Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, and Jane Austen. With Nabokov as her opening, Nafisi captures the hopefulness of the early days of the revolution when leftists felt they could rid themselves of the shah and institute a more equitable society. By the end, when she adds Austen’s heroines to the mix, Nafisi and her students have been forced to meet in secret. She is preparing to flee her beloved homeland because she can no longer tolerate the brutal laws being enforced by beatings, imprisonment, and death.
Though she uses the revolution as a backdrop, Nafisi makes clear within the first fifty pages that she is drawing no direct parallels between the creepy rapist Humbert Humbert and the ayatollah. Rather the exploration of Lolita allows these women trapped by a totalitarian regime to uncover their own feelings. The study of Nabokov, of Daisy Miller et al. and of Pride and Prejudice frees them in a great many ways and allows at least some of them to escape, either figuratively or literally.
Nafisi uses texts by other authors besides the three principals and in each case offers exquisite insight. She stirs in some Fitzgerald, Bellow, and a bit of Flaubert along the way. The discussion of these authors waxes among the half-dozen young women (and sometimes one young man) who had been her students at the university that she was forced to leave. They meet at her house and begin their discussion with A Thousand and One Nights. Here is what Nafisi says of the intent of her classes:
I formulated certain general questions … the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to.
The key to the book appears on page 224, where she discusses the inability of Catherine Sloper’s father to understand her. Henry James has created in this Washington Square character a man whom Nafisi says commits the “most unforgivable crime in fiction – blindness. … This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert to James to Nabokov and Bellow.” Their villains, she says, share the inability to understand their fellow creatures. I would add that several of Austen’s heroines also lack the quality but develop it as the narratives progress. And of course blindness defines the rulers that came to replace the shah. How much irony can one find in the fact that the chief censor lacked his eyesight?
From Nafisi’s discussions of empathy and detailed analysis of the novels, I gained affirmation of my own feelings as well: “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.” Theodor Adorno was writing of country as home. He left Germany in the 1930s and did not return until after the war. I have felt the same about the United States since my teens and see no possibility that my views will change any time soon.
As Reading Lolita proceeds, the Iranian revolution expands its assault on personal freedoms. Women are forced to wear the veil and excluded from jobs outside the home, Nafisi says she feels “light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as If I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.” I understand how she feels, though the erasure usually feels slow and painful, not quick.
One of her students asks why tragedies such as Lolita and Madame Bovary make us happy. Nafisi essays an answer but finds it unsatisfactory. Here’s my answer: Honey, you women from Iran ain’t never heard the blues, the real gutbucket, down on your luck, down home blues, backed up by an acoustic guitar and maybe a harmonica. The music from the Delta always leaves the listener with a smile in her heart.
As I began to appreciate once more the brilliance of Nabokov and learn or re-learn Henry James (I’m a little weak on that score except for Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady), I was most looking forward to the section on Jane Austen because of my adoration of her novels and because I know her works far better than those of James or Nabokov. I was disappointed that Nafisi spent so little time on Lizzie and Darcy and Emma and Mr. Knightley.
On the one hand I understood that circumstances Nafisi’s life had taken on larger and larger significance and that she was moving toward that inevitable decision to leave; on the other, I truly wanted more of “What would Jane have thought?” There was one brief discussion of the benefits of arranged marriages, even arranged “temporary” marriages. But they never did answer the most outrageous. I really don’t think an Islamic version of P&P would have opened, as one of the students claimed: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.” Nafisi never answers the question of what Austen would have thought of the idea of child brides.
But she redeems herself with a brilliant analysis of P&P as a “dance and digression.” I could picture the minuets and the less formal country-dances as Lizzie and Jane and Darcy and Bingley moved through their turns. I am glad, however, that I had read the novel before I encountered Nafisi’s insights. The pages following, too, contain some of the most passionate writing on the subject of the freedom to make choices.
Something I don’t understand: She says that novels have a democratic structure. Does she mean that only democratic societies can produce such works? I doubt it because otherwise we would not have War and Peace or the works of Victor Hugo, to give two obvious examples. She means, I think, that long-form fiction allows for a multiplicity of voices and points of view. Add to the many characters marching across the pages, the potential for a wide range of time and place within the pages of a single work and the reader can truly experience democracy even in the confines of a dark hallway with the percussion of bombs and scream of rescue vehicles roaring through the night.
I love little things about the book as much as the big ones: The playfulness with which Nafisi and her students use language – “upsilamba,” and “poshlust” – delighted the writer in me.
I also have a few minor quibbles, too: Henry James was born in 1843 so he was not “still very young” when he witnessed the Civil War. In fact he was older than many of the men who joined. And while I concur that Charlotte Brontë is a “perfectly good novelist” [p. 304], Austen is far more than that. She is a genius.