Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Tamara Gates


“What do people who become irrelevant do?” This question underpins Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, her journey of identity displacement set in revolutionary Iran.

After losing her job as English lecturer when fundamentalists seize Tehran’s universities in 1979, Nafisi sets up an illicit book club for seven of her former female students, inviting them to her home every Thursday to discuss forbidden Western literature.

Joining is a bold act of resistance for these young women, who are determined to learn under a Republic that condemns independence of thought; and searching for beauty and meaning in a society that cruelly punishes expressiveness.

Nafisi divides the novel into four parts- Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen- shaping the narrative with literary works that become windows into the lives of her book-club members. Reading The Great Gatsby, Lolita and Madame Bovary leads the young women to scrutinize their restricted freedoms and they come to learn that under the Ayatollah’s regime, their lives are characterized by a tragic ‘lack’. Glimpses into their worlds, marred by abusive partners, arbitrary flogging, controlling brothers and unfulfilling love matches, can be frustrating. These insights are often swamped by Nafisi’s own extensive literary analysis: Reading Lolita is as much an insight into the daily humiliations suffered by women under the Islamic Republic, as a deeply personal work of literary criticism, which sometimes counters the promise of narrative depth.

Packed with literary references that reveal little unless you are well-versed in a few classics, the most accessible feature of Reading Lolita is its evocation of a longing for beauty. At the heart of the memoir lies a search for beauty as the women’s native Tehran is brutally stripped of the same during a ‘senseless’ war: bookshops are burned, films distorted by a ‘blind censor’ and its women driven-not always unwillingly-behind the veil.  As rockets and violent protests tear down the city, Nafisi sharply pulls to focus the everyday beauty that can-or must-be found amidst conflict: great novels, coffee and pastry rituals, or philosophical debates with the man she calls Magician feature regularly throughout.

Nafisi documents in Reading Lolita an unkind reality from which literature offers liberation for the young women- each novel they study becomes a portal through which they can examine their own personal disappointments, and aspirations. They resist systems of oppression by placing themselves in the worlds crafted by of some of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century, encouraged by Henry James’s belief that in order to survive, “we must for dear life make our own counter-realities.”