When I was about twelve, I bought (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. I was a massive Oasis fan, and did all those classic pre-teen things like headbanging while jumping on my bed, sticking posters up all over my walls, and writing out lyrics in swirly patterns on pads of paper. As all true fans know, Definitely Maybe was a much better album, but I have a particular memory of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? which is the point of this (otherwise, you might think, rather peculiar) preamble.
I always used to beg to play my music in the car (sorry Mum) and I remember listening to this CD on one particular journey – we were just approaching the Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout – when my brother told me that (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? had sold so many copies that something like one in thirteen people in the UK owned it.
This fact blew my twelve-year-old mind as we drove past the wasteland where Westfield would one day be built. I thought of all the cars I could see, all the cars we’d passed during our journey, and considered the likelihood that the same album was playing in many of them. I thought of all the people in England who’d bought it, and wondered how many were listening to Wonderwall right then at the very same moment as I was. After that conversation, whenever I pressed play to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, I would imagine other fingers pressing play for the same CD all over the world.
This feeling of being overwhelmed by everyone everywhere doing the same thing as you, which happens to be something that you love, is how I feel now about book clubs. It works on two levels. Firstly, there is the joy of thinking of your own book club, and the various members reading the same book in time for the next meeting. As I read a wonderful sentence, I wonder what another reader will make of it, a reader who is possibly encountering it at the same time. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, there is the feeling of people all over the world being part of book clubs: the feeling that while Emily’s Walking Book Club strides across Hampstead Heath, a bunch of people are, say, sitting around a crackling fire in Derbyshire, or at a dinner table in Calgary … or around a coffee table in Tehran.
This is why I picked Reading Lolita in Tehran for the most recent meeting of the walking book club. I was intrigued to read about a book club meeting in very different circumstances.
Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic, who wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran as a memoir of her time teaching American and English Literature during the Revolution in Iran. It begins by focussing on the ‘book club’ of sorts she set up. Having resigned from the University, Nafisi invited her seven favourite female students to discuss literature every Thursday in her home. We are introduced to her students and the book begins with their discussion about Lolita. As Nafisi guides us through other works of literature – by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen – she steps away from the book club setting, and reflects on her time spent teaching, and reading more generally. An especially dramatic moment is when she puts The Great Gatsby on trial in her university class, and she writes movingly about holding vigil reading Henry James outside her children’s bedroom while bombs from Iraq drop nearby.
It’s an extraordinary period of history and fascinating to read Nafisi’s account of Iran at this time, to discover how exactly it came to be that the women found themselves having to wear headscarves, to read of the terrible ‘morality squads’, as well as details like the homemade vodka in which her husband indulges. Then there is the horror of reading about the suffering endured by many of her students and friends: various combinations of arrest, imprisonment, abuse, torture, rape, and execution.
Woven together with this portrait of Iran, are Nafisi’s readings of the various texts. A theme that runs throughout is the play between reality and fiction – Nafisi’s ‘active withdrawal’ from reality and escape into fiction, and literature’s power to help one cope with difficult circumstances by offering its different worlds.
She emphasises the importance of empathy, how a novel is ‘a sensual experience of another world’, in which you ‘hold your breath with the characters’, and that evil in literature is blindness: ‘the inability to “see” others, hence to empathise with them.’ Nafisi makes the point that:
What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert).
Elsewhere, she uses Elizabeth Bennet’s blindness to great effect. A student kept on following her to her office and telling her that Jane Austen was anti-Islamic and a colonial writer. Then:
One day, after a really exhausting argument, I told him, Mr. Nahvi, I want to remind you of something: I am not comparing you to Elizabeth Bennet. There is nothing of her in you, to be sure – you are different as man and mouse. But remember how she is obsessed with Darcy, constantly trying to find fault with him, almost cross-examining every new acquaintance to confirm that he is as bad as she thinks? Remember her relations with Wickham? How the basis for her sympathy is not so much her feelings for him as his antipathy for Darcy? Look at how you speak about what you call the West. You can never talk about it without giving it an adjective or an attribute – decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial. Beware of what happened to Elizabeth!
There is an added irony here, because once Reading Lolita in Tehran was published and became such a success, it received some flak for exactly this – focussing so much on Western literature rather than Persian. (You can read more about this in this Slate article here.)
There is a third strand of the book, alongside the readings of literature and portrait of Iran – Nafisi’s own life, and the people in it: her family, friends and students. And I’m afraid I thought (and so did the rest of the walking book club) this was the book’s failing. We all confessed to finding it very hard to differentiate between Nafisi’s students, or indeed to ‘see’ any of the characters in the book. When there is a memorable instance of a student’s response to a novel – like Mr. Nahvi’s above – it is usually a student who is otherwise incidental. (I don’t remember Mr. Nahvi featuring elsewhere.)
The real flaw here lies with Nafisi’s seven students who come to the Thursday literature discussions. We are introduced to them in the opening pages of the book, but they don’t really develop. Various things happen to them: one gets married in Turkey, another has her engagement called off, one has a brother who is horrid to her, another a husband who abuses her, one of them has painted fingernails … but none of us could remember what happened to which woman, or any of their names. Nafisi makes a big point of her girls being able to take off their loose black robes and head scarves when they enter her home to reveal the individuals beneath, in jeans and t-shirts, with their own hair styles and colourful nails. Somehow the book doesn’t quite achieve this derobing, and the women remain swathed in vague blackness.
This is especially problematic as Nafisi makes such a good point about the importance of being an individual:
The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes … My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went out into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.
She draws a comparison with the scene in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, when Cincinnatus is made to dance with his jailer, and waltzes with him in a circle around a prison guard. This complicity is the ultimate cruelty:
The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other … There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.
Finding the strength, courage and determination to remain an individual is vital for survival. This is exactly what Nafisi encourages her students to discover in literature: a private world where you can be free to think what you like. Only, Reading Lolita in Tehran is full of Nafisi’s own thoughts on literature, rarely are her students given a voice. And if their thoughts occasionally spill onto the page, then so little else is told about them, that it’s hard to see individual characters emerge from such few words.
Nafisi writes well about the terrifying feeling of ‘irrelevance’ which took hold of her under the new regime. Perhaps this book is too much a statement of her own relevance, rather a record of the voices of the many other women who were forced into silence.
Having said all that, I still think it’s a very thought-provoking and important book. I especially liked Nafisi’s comparison of Pride and Prejudice to an eighteenth-century dance. As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on it. (Or indeed, on a teenage love for Oasis.)