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 contribution.


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 Sinister”
· 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 creativity.
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