A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

Random House. 347 pp. $23.95

In 1995, Azar Nafisi resigned the position she had held for eight years as professor of literature at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. Under the rule of the mullahs, "life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms," she writes in "Reading Lolita in Tehran." For a time there had been "a period of relative calm and so-called liberalization," but now "universities had once more become the targets of attack by the cultural purists who were busy imposing stricter sets of laws," especially for female students.

Nafisi finally could take it no longer. She resigned, but the desire to teach and read remained strong. She decided to continue to teach, but in secret. She invited seven of her best students to meet in the living room of her own house to talk about the books they were reading, books by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen:

"I had explained to them the purpose of the class: to read, discuss and respond to works of fiction. Each would have a private diary, in which she should record her responses to the novels, as well as ways in which these works and their discussions related to her personal and social experiences. . . . I mentioned that one of the criteria for the books I had chosen was their authors' faith in the critical and almost magical power of literature, and reminded them of the nineteen-year-old Nabokov, who, during the Russian Revolution, would not allow himself to be diverted by the sound of bullets. He kept on writing his solitary poems while he heard the guns and saw the bloody fights from his window. Let us see, I said, whether seventy years later our disinterested faith will reward us by transforming the gloomy reality created of this other revolution."

Gloomy certainly is the word for it. To live in the Iran of the mullahs was to be "victims of the arbitrary nature of a totalitarian regime that constantly intruded into the most private corners of our lives and imposed its relentless fictions on us." It was absurdism carried to an absurd degree: "The chief film censor in Iran, up until 1994, was blind," or "nearly blind," and "the colorless lenses of the blind censor" made him "the poet's rival in rearranging and reshaping reality." The class that Nafisi organized was therefore "an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor," a place where "we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom."

The meaning of Nafisi's title at once becomes clear: How we read works of literature can depend as much on who we are and where we are as on the works themselves. Reading "Lolita" in Tehran in the 1990s was not the same as reading "Lolita" in Washington in 2003. The story of the nymphet Lolita and her guardian/rapist Humbert Humbert strikes different chords in different places, thus reminding us of the limitless power of literature -- of art -- to reveal and to transform, and of the limitless legitimate interpretations to which great literature lends itself.

Nafisi and her students flatly rejected some of the most common interpretations of this great novel: that the girl is "corrupt," a "monster," or that "the story [is] a great love affair," or that the novel should be condemned "because they feel Nabokov turned the rape of a twelve-year-old into an aesthetic experience." Instead: "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. We told ourselves we were in that class to prevent ourselves from falling victim to this second crime."

This is an entirely plausible reading of the novel -- not far, in fact, from the way many contemporary Nabokovians see the book -- and if you were a young woman in Tehran in 1995 it may well have been the only way to read it. To say this is not to suggest that literature should be read for therapeutic purposes -- quite to the contrary -- but that the experience each reader brings to it, the conditions in which the reader encounters it, can transform the book as well as the reader. All the same, though, the reading that Nafisi's class did had what can only be called therapeutic value. She quotes from Nabokov's preface to "Bend Sinister" -- "a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty" -- and says:

"I think in some ways our readings and discussions of the novels in that class became our moments of pause, our link to that other world. . . . It allowed us to defy the repressive reality outside the room -- not only that, but to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives. For those few precious hours we felt free to discuss our pains and our joys, our personal hang-ups and weaknesses; for that suspended time we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic. We articulated all that happened to us in our own words and saw ourselves, for once, in our own image."

So the novels had extra-literary as well as literary purposes for these readers, offering "an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection, and leave aside our stories about the deans and the university and the morality squads in the streets." This is, in effect, a redefinition of "escape reading" that could be weighed with care by Americans, for it has far less to do with the term as we commonly think of it -- an escape into another world -- than with escape from a real world that is difficult at best, unbearable at worst. The reading done by these women also should serve as a reminder that Western culture generally, American culture specifically, is far more widely admired and treasured in many Muslim countries than its critics there would have us (and their fellow citizens) believe.

Thus there are interesting and revealing digressions in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" about Western films and the great lengths to which many Iranians would go (and presumably still will) to watch them. One day Nafisi's house was invaded by two young men from the Revolutionary Guards. They were concerned about goings-on at the house next door, but "we, like all normal Iranians, were guilty and had something to hide: We were worried about our satellite dish." In 1996, Nafisi says, "David Hasselhoff, the star of 'Baywatch,' bragged that his show was the most popular show in Iran."

Nafisi's strong feelings about America and American culture appear to have taken root during the 1970s, when she was in college in this country. She returned in 1997 and is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies here in Washington. She is grateful to the Islamic Republic, she says, because it taught her "to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom."

The book she has written about this journey is satisfying in many respects, frustrating in others. Almost everything discussed in this review is to be found in the first 80 pages. Most of the rest of the book is concerned with her life before 1995. Because she is intelligent and thoughtful and writes well, this is frequently interesting, but for long stretches the reading class almost completely vanishes. Because this is the real heart of her story, the reader feels its absence keenly.