NABOKV-L post 0008133, Thu, 17 Jul 2003 15:02:09 -0700

Review/Synopsis of Azar Nafisi's Persian study of Nabokov

EDNOTE. Azar Nafisi's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN has been very widely
reviewed. Less well known is that Dr. Nafisi published a Persian
monograph on Nabokov's work. Suellen Stringer-Hye, a long-time
correspodent of NABOKV-L, was, with the help of Dr. Nafisi, able to get
in touch with one of Nafisi's former students, Nahal Naficy, who very
kindly agreed to provide an English review of the Persian volume.
NABOKV-L is most grateful for Nahal's contribution.

This message was originally submitted by
suellen.stringer-hye@VANDERBILT.EDU to

In 1994 Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran", wrote a
critical analysis of Nabokov's works entitled "Anti-Terra: a Study
of Vladimir Nabokov's Novels". This book was written in Persian and
has not yet been translated into English. Nabokv-l contacted one of
Nafisi's former students to write a synopsis of this work. Nahal
Naficy was an English major at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabai
University, and is now a Ph.D candidate at Rice University's
Department of Anthropology. I'd like to personally thank Nahal for her


Antiterra: A Critical Reading of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels
By Azar Nafisi
Tehran, 1994

Table of Contents:

· Introduction: “Transparent Things”
· Life: “Speak, Memory”
· Reality: “The Gift”, “Look at the Harlequins”, “The Real Life of
Sebastian Knight”
· The Victim and the Victimizer: “Invitation to a Beheading”, “Bend
· Cruelty: “Pnin”
· Genius and Madness: “Pale Fire”
· Love: “Lolita”
· Hell and Heaven: “Ada”
· Endnotes
· Nabokov’s Bibliography
· Index

The book starts with the question “Why Nabokov?” and more specifically:
“Why Nabokov, a writer none of whose works are (properly) translated
into Persian?” Is this book, then, meant not for the Persian-reading
public? It is, the author explains: “This book addresses the Persian
reader who has heard Nabokov’s name but is not familiar with his novels;
the reader who remains curious even when literature is not his/her
profession; most importantly, the reader who is instinctively drawn to
fiction, for love and passion, not for professional commitments.”
(Antiterra; P4) For this reason, and especially since there is almost
no other source of adequate and accurate information on Nabokov
available to the Persian-reading public, the book inevitably consists of
some bibliographical information on Nabokov, introducing his works, and,
within the limitations of each chapter, a sum of what different literary
critics have said about him and his works. “For the English-reading,
Nabokov-acquainted youth who are occupying the last rows in the
classroom, smiling”, however, Nafisi says, there will be something, too,
if they are patient and read beyond these introductory parts.

Nafisi’s own critical reading of Nabokov’s works is inspired by
Nabokov’s statement that literary criticism is the ‘meeting place’ of
the author and the critic: “Therefore, do not judge; only describe your
reactions. Never write solely about the author or his/her works, but
write about how you relate to them. You are only allowed to write about
yourself.” (my translation from Persian, not Nabokov’s words) The
book, therefore, is inevitably about Nafisi, too, at the same time that
it is about Nabokov.

But what is it in Nabokov that convinces Nafisi that he will be
particularly of interest to the Iranian reading public? Why not
Faulkner or Joyce or Peter Taylor? Through Nabokov’s “Transparent
Things”, Nafisi talks about Nabokov’s obsession with ‘time’ and with the
idea of ‘exile’ in its temporal as well as spatial, metaphysical as well
as physical, senses. Nabokov’s works are deeply concerned with loss:
loss of a past, a person, a place, a practice. Exile in Nabokov’s works
is anything from the heart-wrenching separation from the mother as we
grow up to separation from the motherland as we are forced to leave it;
it’s a separation from our beginnings, a dive, wanted or not, from our
cozy surroundings into a foreign and often terrifying landscape, a space
whose past we do not share and whose present we do not fully
comprehend. Nafisi ties all this to the situation in contemporary
Iran, where facing modernization, the cozy and familiar traditional past
has been getting more and more out of reach and what has come to
constitute the present has remained foreign and hard to comprehend for
many. ‘We all live in exile: We have lost touch with our past and we
have not managed to make sense of our present because we have not been
able and/or willing to try. Therefore, this place is no longer our
home. Do we try, like Hugh in “Transparent things”, to forget/ignore
the present to gain back our lost paradise or we negate the past
altogether? Of course, there should be a middle way, but it is not easy
to find.” (Antiterra, Ps 12 & 13) Nafisi finds Nabokov’s works
particularly of interest to Iranians precisely because of this ‘cultural
exile’ they seem to be in. Through creative art and imagination, Nafisi
believes, Nabokov and his surviving characters create spaces and
identities for themselves that are independent of only one or the other
geographical or temporal entity. They ‘synthesize’, this is the key
word; they create something anew out of the Past and the Present, the
Self and the Other, the Here and the There; they create themselves and
their spaces anew. Those who simply cling to a lost past and remain
blind to the present or those who think they can completely forgo their
past, lose and cause loss at the end; so do the ones who are blind
towards the others or towards themselves, for that matter. In that,
there are, indeed, questions and answers that should concern the
contemporary Iranian public deeply. “The past escapes one’s grasp on
one hand and has a heavy presence on the other. With the past, we have
to inevitably be creative. We should be able to create it anew;
otherwise, we will be destroyed under its dead weight.” (Antiterra, P9)

In Nabokov’s own intimate experiences of revolution and exile, in Hugh’s
effort to retrieve the past, in Humbert Humbert’s imposing of his dream
on the life of another, in Fyodor’s art of writing one’s own life, in
the liberating awareness of deception and dependence before the
beheading and the magical power of creativity against destruction, in
Pnin’s delightful relationship with the everyday reality, in Ada’s
painful confrontation with time and loss, in all this, there is
something deeply moving and surprisingly close to home for Iranians if
they only get a chance to become familiar with this treasury. Nafisi’s
book is an attempt at that. The seven chapters of Antiterra are each a
series of snapshots: Images from the novels, personal impressions,
literary theory, and Nabokov’s own words and life blend together in an
overflowing, engaging symphony that reminds me of Nafisi’s seminars back
in Tehran where she taught some of the same novels. Her style is
friendly and from the heart; she looks you directly in the eyes while
there is no doubt in her, and none to remain in you, that what she is
talking about is serious business! What is life? What is reality? What
is love? What is cruelty? What is hell? What is heaven? What is
madness? What is genius? What is home? What is time? What is
beauty? Nafisi does not set off for philosophical answers to these
questions, but she raises these questions through her critical reading
of Nabokov’s novels in a way that you cannot really stop wondering once
you’ve started. I have a feeling Nafisi, like the works she discusses,
is after precisely that: to make her readers wonder about the everyday,
to look for wonders in the ordinary. Remember, Alice in Wonderland is
one of her favorite books and major points of reference!

The back cover reads:
“The main question is?do we think and write in the past tense? Do we
simply hand our identity over to the Other and settle for a fake ?and
inevitably second hand?Present? Do we see ourselves as victims of our
fate and hide our own weaknesses under the guise of dissatisfaction with
our conditions? Nabokov’s response to all of these questions is
negative. He confronts the loss of his homeland, his personal and
collective past, and his national culture, armed with imagination and
Nabokov’s life is contemporary with many of the most important
events of the 20th century, a chaotic and anxiety-ridden time.
Nevertheless, in Nabokov’s inner life there is hardly any change, as if
he has always constantly moved against the destructive forces of the
outside. His heroism is not in some heroic action but in his
insistence. His insistence in preserving his individuality and
wholeness against all odds.”

Suellen Stringer-Hye
Vanderbilt University
Email: suellen.stringer-hye@Vanderbilt.Edu