Posts Tagged ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’

Reading Lolita in Tehran

February 22, 2016

Whats the story morning gloryWhen 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.

Reading Lolita in TehranThis 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.)

Azar Nafisi

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Tender is the Night

June 24, 2013

Curious people sometimes ask how I pick the books for my Walking Book Club. (Yes, I tyrannically insist on choosing all of them, which I know speaks of control issues. All I can say is that I’m a youngest child, and the only girl.) Well, I try to pick hidden classics – that is brilliant books which have somewhat dropped off the radar, books which people might otherwise pass over, without knowing that they’re missing out.

Tender is the NightYesterday, as we wandered over Hampstead Heath, we discussed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which, I hear you protest, is hardly off the radar. My point is that everyone goes on and on about The Great Gatsby while paying relatively little attention to Fitzgerald’s other works.

I greatly prefer Tender to Gatsby, finding it messily meaty, resisting straightforward interpretation, and written in lush, opaque prose. There was also something poignant about discussing the book, so close to where Keats wrote his ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ from which Fitzgerald took his title.

Tender is the Night begins when young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt meets Dick and Nicole Diver, a golden American couple, while holidaying in the South of France with her mother. Needless to say, she falls for their allure and gets romantically entangled with Dick. But all is not as it seems with the Divers, and, by way of a lengthy but compelling flashback, Fitzgerald reveals the disturbing truth at the foundation of their marriage. Once we are back to the ‘now’ of the book (1925), we follow the Divers around Europe, as their marriage flounders, their charm fades, their friends slip away and Dick turns to drink. It becomes clear that Dick has peaked and, as his name Diver suggests, now he will fall.

One gripe raised on the walking book club was that the plot is unnecessarily complicated. Indeed, perhaps it is a little puzzling that Fitzgerald should initially cast Rosemary as such a key character, but then let her slip out of the story for such a long time, resurfacing eventually but with much less importance. Even a tiny bit of research shows that Fitzgerald laboured over this, his final complete novel, for nine years. While his initial focus was the Rosemary plotline – a young Hollywood star, only originally it was to be a man, and his overpowering mother – it then came to be about his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy, the couple who ‘discovered’ the French Rivera and turned it into a fashionable resort. Then, in 1931 Fitzgerald’s father died and in 1932, his wife Zelda was hospitalised for schizophrenia – elements of autobiography that fed into the novel. Add to this the historical context of the First World War and The Great Crash of 1929 and some psychoanalytical ideas from Freud and Jung, and the result is messy, yes, but rich.

I can’t hope to cover everything here, so I’ll just stick to one aspect which I found particularly striking – women come out of Tender is the Night much better than the men:

Dick drinks and Dives to his downfall; Abe North does the same thing. Dick’s father dies, and so does – in an act of horrific violence – a negro (Fitzgerald’s term) shoeshiner with whom their paths briefly cross in Paris. Of course, there is the shadow of the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of men who fought in the First World War, a point which is reinforced when the Divers and their gang visit the trenches.

Women, on the other hand, come out on top. We meet Rosemary at the very start of her success and she continues to thrive. Her mother has outlived two husbands and lives vicariously, contentedly, through Rosemary. Nicole we see at rock bottom, and watch her progress. Nicole’s sister, who lost her fiancé to the War, may be romantically unhappy but she is financially empowered. Even Mary North outlives her husband and flourishes after his death.

Yet, Tender is the Night doesn’t read like a celebration of women’s newfound, post-war agency. When Dick goes to meet Rosemary’s mother, Fitzgerald muses:

Women are necessarily capable of almost anything in their struggle for survival and can scarcely be convicted of such man-made crimes as “cruelty”.

Fitzgerald is clear that women are better at surviving in this world of the 1920s than men. Yet here he suggests there is something ignoble about their survival, something dishonourable. While it is as though he lets them off the hook – they ‘can scarcely be convicted’ of cruelty – the implication is that women live by a different, lesser, code to men. “Cruelty” is ‘man-made’, not woman-made. Women don’t have the moral compass to recognise their cruel behaviour.

The code that men live by in Tender is the Night is a violent one. Right at the beginning there is a duel, with pistols. Then there is the violent murder of the shoe-shiner. Later, drunk and incensed, Dick punches an Italian policeman, only to be utterly beaten up himself. As I mentioned, this all takes place in the violent shadow of the First World War. Fitzgerald implies a respect for this violence: there is an honour in fighting a duel, although it risks sending a man to his death. So many men go to their death in this book – perhaps Fitzgerald sees some glory as their stars fade and are extinguished. The women, while they might survive the men, do so in a slippery, shameful way that is beyond the label of  “cruelty”. The violence is there for the women – in Nicole’s tortured past and moments of breakdown, in Rosemary’s desire for Dick and cold pursuit of success, and in Baby’s (Nicole’s sister) frigid flinching at physical contact, yet the violence here is controlled, under the surface, hardened into a more sinister drive to survival.

Fitzgerald attempts to cast his women as ‘Daddy’s girl’ – the film which brought Rosemary her first success. They are, supposedly, innocents that need rescuing, just as Dick attempts to play the father figure. Fitzgerald, the author, is the ultimate father figure, controlling and protecting his inventions and so perhaps disapproving of their icy struggle to survive independently, thriving as the men fall. Unlike Fitzgerald, I have to admit to feeling rather satisfied to see these women, albeit cold and in many ways unappealing, prove their own agency and flourish at the expense of all the alcoholic, egotistical men.

Daphne and Fitzgerald

I tried to construct a highly sophisticated ‘Tortometer’, to see whether Daphne – such a discerning tortoise – was inclined to prefer The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night.

At first, I thought she was going for Tender is the Night, but, in fact, she was just turning around to go back to her little hot house. Fitzgerald, no doubt, would be furious at the slight.

Daphne turns around

‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night’

March 7, 2011

Saturday night was World Book Night. For those of you who missed it, the main event revolved around a huge giveaway of a million books. Well actually, 40,000 copies of 25 books. (I’ve written a piece about it for the Spectator Arts Blog, which you can read here.)

The title of this blog is a quotation from Nicola Morgan, who suggested a ‘complementary World Book Night‘, for which you’d buy just one book and give it away. Inside the book you’d write ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it.’

Well, World Book Night made me think about the art of giving away a book.  It’s rather an important thing to think about as books are, as often as not, bought as a present for someone rather than for one’s own pleasurable consumption. I have even become a rather more accomplished wrapper-upper due to the vast number of books I’ve wrapped for customers in the shop.

The Guardian did a great piece about which books various writers like to give and receive as presents. Several seem to like giving away books of poetry – AS Byatt, Andrew Motion (funnily enough), David Nicholls, Jonathan Raban, Rose Tremain.

And book tokens are surprisingly divisive. PD James loves them – ‘I never give books, only book tokens, which I give frequently for birthdays and at Christmas to young and old members of my family.’ Anthony Horowitz has always hated them – ‘If there was anything I hated receiving as a child, it was a book token. I had a couple of namby-pamby aunts who always gave me book tokens, a present almost purposely designed to remind me how thick and illiterate I was.’

But, most importantly, several wise writerly souls realise that, as David Mitchell puts it, ‘Choosing the right gift-book is the art of the matchmaker – it must be tailored to the individual.’

As a bookseller, I’d like to think I’m quite good at choosing the right book for the right person. Recommending books to customers always involves asking what they like rather than forcing your favourite book of the moment on them. Although there was a rather sad instance of failure recently. A good customer of ours came in, going on and on about how much he liked Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace etc. When he asked me for a recommendation, instead of suggesting someone as obvious and perfect as Paul Auster, some spirit of perversity in me made me suggest Jane Gardam. Whoops. He read Old Filth, came back and said he’d give it 7 out of 10. ‘It’s a bit like meeting someone on a train,’ he said. ‘Quite interesting, but not very.’ On seeing my crestfallen expression, he remarked, palliatively, ‘I think I’ll give it to my mum though. I’m sure she’ll like it.’

I had hoped that he might find something remarkable and unusual in reading a book by an old eccentric English woman, rather than all this male American novelist stuff. But obviously not. Next time, I’ll suggest Paul Auster.

Point being, books are harder to give away than one might suppose. But here are three suggestions for next time you want to buy someone a book. And it’s not really too late to give it in the spirit of World Book Night, if you get your skates on.

1. Buy a book that’s really beautiful.

You could get a lovely edition of a classic, such as one of these particularly resplendent F Scott Fitzgeralds. Or one of those little Slightly Foxed books, which I think are best described as old-school. If something’s a limited edition (as with the Slightly Foxed) all the better. Of course, if money and time aren’t issues, then going for a first edition of a seminal work is always going to be a winner.

And there are also new beautiful books. They’re could be from small publishers or a beautiful art book. My favourite is still this Ravilious one (which I first wrote about here). The thing about art books is that people feel less pressured to sit down and read them cover to cover, they can leaf through them and put them out on display somewhere. Like a coffee table. They can be rather dear, though.

2. Buy a book that’s really new.

If you know what sort of books they love, or what sort of thing they’re interested in, then find out what’s really new and really good and buy them that. Chances are they won’t have got round to buying it for themselves yet. And there’s always a bit of a buzz about good new books that makes it feel rather exciting when you’re given one. The big new book of the moment is probably Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, or for those more novelistically inclined, Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar.

3. Buy a book that you absolutely loved.

Now there is a caveat to this one. They may well not love the book as much as you did. This will be doubly upsetting for you because 1. You’ll think they’re ungrateful and 2. You’ll either think they’re stupid for not loving it, or else you might wonder if your taste isn’t as impeccable as you’d assumed.

I’d suggest only doing this for someone who’s rather special to you, because they’ll probably understand how much that book means to you so, most importantly, they’ll preserve your feelings and tell you they love it (even if they don’t), and also, even if they don’t love it, I expect they’ll still feel rather special to have been given something that meant something to you. Of course I can’t advise on this one, other than to try to pick something relatively obscure. If it’s not a new book, there’s a good chance they’ll already have it. And if it’s not a beautiful edition, then they probably don’t want another copy. It’s a very personal choice – and I’d love to know what you’d all give. My choice would most probably be A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam (which I’ve written about here.)

And the best book I’ve ever received as a present? That would be the set of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Letters – first editions! – that my mum gave me for my twenty-first birthday. I was writing a dissertation on her and was absolutely obsessed. And, even in my rubbish photo, you can see that they’re perfectly beautiful.