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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books    by Azar Nafisi order for
Reading Lolita in Tehran
by Azar Nafisi
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2008 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having traveled through Iran in 1978, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books has been on my must-read list for a while now. I was delighted to finally start turning its pages. If, like me, you haven't read Lolita or every one of the books discussed here, don't let that stop you from doing the same. You will have read some of them and be able to appreciate the discussions relating to the others. And you will certainly recognize Pride and Prejudice irony in: '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.'

For two years beginning in the fall of 1995, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the author (previously a professor of English Literature at Tehran University and at the University of Allameh Tabatabai) met with seven carefully selected female students every Thursday morning in her home to read and discuss forbidden Western classics - books by authors like Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. The class theme 'was the relation between fiction and reality.' The result is a mix of literary critique and a commentary on life in Iran at the time (particularly life for women in Iran), with unusual and insightful resonances between the two.

I was intrigued by the differences amongst these 'best and most committed students' that Nafisi selected for her class - they came from a wide variety of backgrounds but also from very different political perspectives (several had been jailed for their activism, while other past students were executed), resulting in tension between them. But they all shared the need to survive - and escape through their imaginations - in a country where 'In the course of nearly two decades, the streets have been turned into a war zone'. Nafisi takes us into their minds to show the distancing it takes to deal with this on a daily basis - 'like schizophrenic patients, we tried to keep ourselves away from that other self, at once intimate and alien.'

At the beginning, Nafisi exhorts her readers to imagine her students: 'the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves ... listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.' She helps fill in the gaps in our ability to take this imaginative leap. Later she quotes Nabokov offering his own writing as 'a violin in the void.' Azar Nafisi's memoir is another such instrument, one that plays a vibrant and soaring tune that lingers with the listener. If you haven't found Reading Lolita in Tehran yet, I highly recommend it to you.

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