Unholy Canon

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AFTER Humbert rapes Lolita, the girl is in pain and feels something’s torn inside. She thinks she’ll call her mom. Humbert thinks not. Why, she asks.

"Because," he answers, "your mother is dead."

At age 12, Lolita has been orphaned, raped and kidnapped. That is what it feels like to live under an Islamic regime.

Or so says Azar Nafisi, a woman who taught American Lit in Iran through the 80s, in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. What Humbert did to his flesh fantasy, Khomeini did to Nafisi and her students. He took their world, their choices and their lives—especially the girls’. They were married at nine, stoned in public for adultery and forced behind chador. Now Nafisi looks back at her life amidst the Islamo-fascist revolt. In spite of the riots, murders and bombings, she remembers that time lovingly, and it’s infectious. It’s a deep, joyful passion for the people who got her through the nightmare: Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Austen and James.

After many English-language books were banned and Nafisi refused to cover her hair, she lost her job at the University of Tehran. Determined to keep Western fiction alive in students’ hearts and minds, she took her classes underground, to her home. Nafisi stopped inviting males. At the university, the boys had often insisted that Gatsby was Satan and Daisy Miller deserved to die. So this book becomes about secret mornings of women finding freedom through fiction, bringing to mind one very un-Western masterwork, The Arabian Nights. That’s the tale of "the cuckolded king who slew successive virgin wives as revenge for his queen’s infidelity, and whose murderous hand was finally stayed by the entrancing storyteller Scheherazade." A woman breaks a king’s cycle of violence through the transport and soul-stretching of stories.

So the inspired prof and her girls unveiled each delicious Thursday morning and found exits from Bluebeard’s castle in the fairy tales that, says Nabokov, all great books are. Empathy for people real or fictional, says Nafisi, is not just the key to fulfilling reading, but a path to freedom. In empathy, she reads Lolita for the perspective of the kid. (One of Nafisi’s male students felt the girl was to blame for trashing the pedophile’s life.)

But Nabokov claimed his first "throb" of the story came when he read about an ape that scientists coaxed into creating the first drawing made by an animal. The sketch was of the bars of his cage. Just as Humbert is about to snatch his prey away from summer camp, he notices a bully has driven a needle through a butterfly and impaled it on the wall where it remains alive. Nabokov’s evocation of these visions—cage bars, needles and helpless creatures in between—allowed Nafisi to care for strangers, exposing the way her government had penetrated her life, the "perverse intimacy of victim and jailer." They can crucify or screw you, reader, but the soul soars free.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi
Random House, 288 pages, $23.95

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