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.

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