The kicker in the book title Reading Lolita in Iran is the shock of imagining people risking their freedom to read Nabokov’s scandalous masterpiece about an elderly writer who falls in love with twelve-year-old “nymphet” Dolores Hayes. What would anyone get out of that experience?
The surprises keep on coming in Azar Nafisi’s book as we see Lolita through the eyes of oppressed Iranian women. Suddenly it becomes an allegory of life under the mullahs, with a tyrannical old man imposing his will upon an innocent. Nafisi compares Humbert Humbert to Ayatolla Khomeini and the other fundamentalists: “They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives.”
The book allows Nafisi and her seven students to explore the particular nature of the tyranny. They see Humbert as a villain “because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most, Lolita. Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people. He had created the Lolita he desired, and would not budge from that image.”
It is possible, in other circumstances, for readers to sympathize and even identity with Humbert, but in Nafisi’s reading group all the sympathies are with Lolita. Following up her interest in the story of the executed virgins in A Thousand and One Nights (see my last post), Nafisi says that Lolita “belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.” Nafisi reminds her class that they are reading together “to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime.” In other words, they are reading literature to reclaim their own stories.
The book provides the women in the group a special space through which they can process their lives. One of the students, clearly speaking for herself, writes that all Lolita wants “is to be a normal girl. Remember the scene when Avis’s father comes to pick her up and Lolita notices the way the fat little daughter and father cling to each other? All she wants is to live a normal life.” The discussions then move on to touch on their own lives and their relations with their fathers and husbands and brothers and with the Iranian authorities.
Is there a danger that they will reduce the book to their lives? This is a danger I alert my students to in my classes. As I see it, we enter into dialogue with a work of literature, which both pulls us out of ourselves and pushes us into ourselves. If we force the work entirely into our own understanding, we are solipsists and violate the work. In fact, sometimes the very strangeness of the work is what is powerful about it. Nafisi remembers telling her students that “most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.”
Yet having said that, I must also add that a work will lack power for us if we can’t find issues that we care about within it. In the greatest works reality is so fully realized that there are multiple points of entry, and different readers have the opportunities to find their own dramas. When we are reading such books at our best, we move between inner and outer, self and other, familiar and unfamiliar. Even as the book is common ground for multiple readers, each reader has his or her own version. A good book discussion does what Nafisis’s class does, talking about the book, moving off into issues that it triggers, and then returning to the book for fresh energy and ideas.
And then, ideally, we move back into the world with new energy and understanding. After reading and reflecting, we can act. That possibility is what frightens the Iranian authorities about Lolita.