Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I dragged myself through Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi as part of the Freshman Reading Experience at the school where I work. The students I met with didn't even make it that far.

I wonder a lot about this book. The students Dr. Nafisi spend so much time with are obviously important to her. And, from a sociological standpoint, their struggle to create a personal space in the midst of one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth certainly has value.

But Dr. Nafisi's attempt to bring that struggle to life through the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Austen and James left me cold. Reading Lolita in Tehran struggled to find its own identity- not quite enough about books and their ideas to captivate me, not quite enough a personal memoir to become open and accessible. Perhaps it is the most accessible book of its kind, but that is being damned by faint praise.

The thing RLiT  lacked most was a definitive moment of choice. It was, instead, a study in the daily struggle of life in a totalitarian state. Of course, this makes it true in a way literature can rarely afford to be true. I think of Saul Bellow's Dangling Man as the distillation of the Superfluous Man, and in RLiT, Nafisi repeatedly refers to herself as "irrelevant," a superfluous woman in a country violently opposed to her kind of womanhood.

This lack of "moment" christalyzed into repetition and self-referentialism. Some of her stories are repeated with little variation. Some of her ideas (like her irrelevance) are referenced several times before they are expanded on and explained. While the book mostly flows forwards chronologically, it takes occasional leaps that make it difficult to follow.

It didn't help my experience that I listened to most of the book while taking a trip for work. The audiobook is atrocious; the narrator speaks so slowly that the less than 400 pages of the book take 16 hours to trudge through.

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