by C.T. D’Alessandro

I have to confess to a literary “squirrel” moment, except that, when it comes to reading, such a moment might last for days or even weeks.  And like most digressions, this one has proven most instructive and pleasurable.

I began my personal book challenge with Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (you can see the details in this post).   I chose this book out of the 10 on the list to read because I already owned the book.  My rationale was that I would keep my self-imposed schedule  while waiting for the other books on the list to arrive from the different used book sellers where I normally acquire my books.

Based on the books I’d chosen, I knew I would need time to read and digest each novel because, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m a Slow Reader when it comes to certain books.   This is not only because I am a full-time teacher, and married mother of two boys (time is already at a premium).  Some books need to be teased, parsed, broken apart and put back together again to understand deeply, especially books representing a culture that is not my own. I wanted to give each of the selected novels the time and space to be. I wanted a slow meal, not a fast-food buffet.  Therefore, I gave myself a month to read each one.

Again, I digress regarding my digression.

The culprit in all of this is Nafisi’s memoir itself. It is framed in four literary sections- Nabakov’s Lolita (hence the title), Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Henry James and Jane Austen.

As you can imagine, the section that mired me in the greatest tangential fixation is the first one, which forced me to stop reading after page 42 in order to resolve certain curiosities regarding the referenced section.  In other words, I’d become mildly obsessed with Nabakov’s Lolita. 

For the sake of full disclosure, this was not my first encounter with Nabakov’s most controversial novel. I attempted to read Lolita when I was still in college and vaguely recall not getting through it. I was in my twenties and though I wanted more than anything to be well-read, I did not have the patience to get through Humbert Humbert’s linguistic convolutions and his efforts to mask his actions as anything other than what they were – those of a disgusting, lecherous pedophile. I threw the book aside and added my voice to the choir of the anti-Lolitas, the champions of recovering the silenced voices of female-centered narratives.

I am of a generation who was taught not to take at face value the inherent misogyny of those venerated text. This is not to say that I do not read the classic literary canon – I earned my degree in English Literature and have had my pleasurable share of Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, and Woolf. I count among that fusty crew many works that are my favorite – The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, The Tempest, Paradise Lost and others.

However, I was too well trained by my women’s studies classes to swallow wholesale the male opinion of my sex without examining it in the light of my experiences.  So I rejected Nabokov’s novel in that spirit.

Now, I’m twenty years older and while I still find Humbert Humbert to be a revolting troll and Nabakov to be in serious need of a lecture for using this character, of all characters, as a vehicle for the aesthetic tensions between old Europe and the bratty United States, I cannot help but think that in my youthful indignation, I overlooked the fundamental brilliance of this novel.

Nabakov asks a lot his readers. He demands not only that we sympathize with Humbert but he provokes us by pulling back the curtain of language to show us just how literature can persuade us with its inexhaustible beauty to feel the way the writer wants us to feel.   He uses language as an opaque film through which we are asked to see the romanticism and utter likability of Humbert while at the same time. catching us in unguarded moments of sympathy by revealing that the fundamental thing hasn’t changed – Lolita is still a 12 year old girl being raped by an older man.  Yet the reader, coerced by the language, finds herself complicit in Humbert’s delusions by identifying with him and nearly taking him at his word.

In her memoir, Nafisi does not ask us to draw a direct parallel between Lolita and Post-Revolutionary Iran. She uses Nabokov’s novel (and others) to show the reader how, like Lolita’s narrative has been erased by Humbert, so the narratives of women under the Ayotollah have also been robbed, erased and rewritten, from the most intimate aspect of their lives to their public personas. As Nafisi says of the young Lolita, “[…] she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her.” But to gain this understanding, I had to return to the source novel, which I had not read, and tease these parallels from it.

During this digression, I also rented both film adaptations of Lolita – Stanley Kubrick’s (1962) and Aidan Lyne’s (1997). Each adaptation focuses on a different aspect of the novel, demonstrating that a 2.5-hour feature film will never contain enough space to encompass all of the complexities of such a novel.  Where the older film was full of dark comedy and even slapstick, the newer film hews closely to the text, giving the reader the full view from the narrator’s perspective. The first movie does not take itself too seriously, the second one almost too much.  Yet both films together managed to give me a good approximation of the multiple layers of the novel.

I don’t regret this digression at all. I was fully and completely immersed in the question of Lolita nearly without pause for the better part of a month. I read not only Nabakov’s novel and saw the two adaptations, I listened to the Yale Lectures (Parts 1 and 2) on the novel as well as read several reviews and literary criticisms (The Annotated Lolita is excellent precisely for the level of academic references contained therein).

I’ve since returned to finish Nafisi’s novel with both excitement and trepidation. After all, I took an intellectual journey that brought me into contact with one of the most reviled books of the twentieth century. And I’m not even half-way through the memoir yet.

(Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran will post Sunday, June 5, 2016)