Mature Iranian Women’s Kinship with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—Reading Lolita in Tehran

I anticipated a great read with Reading Lolita in Tehran. It tackles two of my main interests—a woman’s journey through life, and her experience living in a culture quite different from that I live in. I strongly empathized with what I saw to be its underlying themes.

But after reading pages and pages full of details to support those themes, I thought, okay, I get it. Let’s move on, we’re stuck. And it’s not quicksand we’re stuck in—which promises critical scenarios to keep you reading—but thick heavy mud, the kind you get out of easily by taking off your shoes. Not a place you’d want to get stuck in in a book. I put the book down.

Quite a while later after quick reading some predictable escapist fare, I went back to the book. Sadly it kept going in the same vein and tone and I was merely relieved I finished it. It has wonderful moments but I’m sure I would have found it much more engaging if it had closer content editing.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a privileged, highly-educated woman’s memoir of a 20-year (or so) period of her life in Tehran, Iran when the Islamic revolution brewed, erupted, and then simmered to where living by strict rules and curtailed freedom became the way of life. By 1997, this way nudged Azar Nafisi and her family to decide to return to the United States. This setting for the memoir seems calculated to make it memorable.

Dismissed from her vocation teaching literature at a university in Iran, Ms.Nafisi gathers together a small select group of former female students to hold free classes about books, most of them classics banned and generally unavailable in Iran. Later, a married couple joins this group, adding a man to the mix.

Ms. Nafisi starts out reminiscing about these students who she often calls “my girls.” The details she recounts about these women are interesting. They serve to make each a flesh-and-blood individual in the reader’s mind. Each woman is very much her own person, coping in her own way with the dehumanizing rules forced on them.

It’s precisely this sense I get of the individuality of the women in this class that the label “my girls” began to hit me as possessive and infantilizing, contradicting my perceptions; and it increasingly sounded patronizing, condescending, and, therefore, off-putting.

While it’s inevitable that people see everything from their own perspective, especially in a memoir, this author comes across as too egocentric for my taste because of her frequent reference to these women as “my girls or, for a particular person, for example , “my Manna.”  She also calls an older highly respected scholar “my magician.” And yet, never my Bijan (her husband) or my Negar (her daughter). Why?

Lolita, 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov

The first book the class reads is the celebrated, controversial Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The class lasted for years, so the group must have read many books, but the memoir focuses on only three other books included as “Parts:” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ Daisy Miller, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In all these books, the female characters are used, manipulated, or at the least, controlled by someone or something more powerful than them—a man (12-year old Lolita), or society’s prejudices and social class demands or expectations (Daisy Buchanan, Daisy Miller, Elizabeth Bennet). The three women buck those expectations, but only Elizabeth gets her happy ending.

The women in the class give us intriguing, fresh looks at these books that spring from the unsettling context in which they read them—perceptions Professor Nafisi expounds on. Inevitably, they see the meanings of these books according to their experiences in a repressive society especially cruel on women. Lolita takes center stage because of how much like Lolita Nafisi’s “girls” (actually grown, intelligent adults) and, by extension, all Iranian women feel.

Most of us are aware of the idea at least, if not the actual experience, of that toxic subjugation. From a western viewpoint, that toxicity literally becomes a heinous crime when, under Ayatollah Khomeini, the marrying age for females is reduced to nine years old (a “bewitching”“nymphet” in  Humbert Humbert lingo.).

As much as the women in the class try to escape the harshness of their society through books—a society where they could continue to order “café glacée”—the outside world constantly intrudes, via big and little incidents, to remind them of how much freedom and self-determination they’ve lost with the Islamic revolution in Iran. A sad reality—a variation of which  might befall  women in the US after the recent elections.


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