There is a secret to baking
which resembles the gardener’s
the scientist’s measuring tools
with minute intervals
not enough to transform
sagging dough into dessert
when we were young
our plans to make strawberry shortcake
failed in a pool of brown soupy syrup
my grandfather peered
into the dish and politely poked
What is that?
this was after our grandmother
had died, who used to swell the house
with thick aromas of butter cookies
she was always seen with oven mitts
and studying the dizzying points
of a cross-stitch flower
or cutting the portholes to paper ships
perfection is certainly not enough
nor perhaps an affinity to precision
the way we count or grind out
our days with declining wonder
does not in effect add up
to how we recall our past selves
grandpa forgetting who he was
got lost on his walks to the store
and I am only sorry
I was not older and better then
my lack of method admires
the baker’s zeal for carrying out
instructions and his faith
placed in the batter’s yearning
to rise and fluff out
I read the first chapter of this book while still in Madrid, and was determined to read the rest of it after having read Lolita. I think in retrospect it was even more interesting reading Lolita with the premise of this book resonating in my mind. Set in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and the rise to power of the dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, this engaging memoir discusses how the lives of several Iranian women intersect because of their love for literature at a secret workshop that Dr. Azar Nafisi, the author of the book, establishes in the comfort of her home.
During the Revolution, Nafisi is banned from teaching Western literature at the University of Tehran because of her refusal to wear the veil in class and to compromise on her ideals of Western literature. She decides to resist the stifling laws of the new Islamic Republic by creating a safe space where her female students can discuss works of literature, but most importantly, where they can talk about their own lives in relation to the similar themes of control and totalitarianism they find in works of fiction.
I found this book rather fascinating in the way that it effectively creates for the reader a feeling of the absurd, confined life that women experienced during the Islamic regime. It also plants the seed of hope that through inspiring figures like Nafisi, these women were able to silently rebel in their own way and nurture their own growth and education, which the government so feared and wanted to crush. Nafisi’s comparison of Khomeini’s dictatorship to Humbert’s control over Lolita was perhaps a bit simplified and overworked, but I find it very interesting nonetheless that she likens Khomeini’s reign to an agent who wants to confiscate, manipulate, and shape the lives of others according to their own fictitious vision of the world: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (41).
Like Lolita, Nafisi’s girls are deprived of the simple joys of daily life, having been engulfed by the regime and the way it collapses the private and political spheres. The regime makes them cherish the things that once seemed normal to them in their every lives:
Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran (55).
Along with Lolita, many other works of literature are discussed, including Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, which is put on a mock “trial” in one of Nafisi’s university classes because of the revolutionary students’ protest against the Western “decadence” and “sinfulness” that they claim the book upholds. Nafisi tries to convince her students of the art of literature for literature’s sake, that the beautiful thing about a book is its lack of moral agenda and its ability to bring characters to life — characters who are courageous, cowardly, abusive, or righteous. She tries to teach them that In the world of literature, there is no black and white, right or wrong; it is where gray spaces thrive.
I like that Nafisi’s insightful writing makes the reader experience how the lives of these women come in contact with the imagined world of these books, and how important literature can become by empowering an oppressed group and giving them the tools necessary to make sense of their own reality. Nafisi says about The Great Gatsby:
What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven…[Gatsby] wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (144)
On the whole, this was a truly fascinating read that weaves a very real and complex issue into the problems of reading, analyzing, and appreciating works of literature.
I moved on to Nabokov’s Lolita after having read and enjoyed his somewhat obscure yet ultimately pleasing Pale Fire. The latter novel’s ability to be tied up, plot-wise, into a neat package of intrigue and endless interpretation seems to counter what, for me, drives the superb-ness of Lolita: not the story that plunges the reader headlong into Humbert’s maniacal downward spiral but certain, banal moments in the book that are lifted from their ordinary-ness into the tender magnifying glass of Nabokov’s genius language.
Nabokov himself, in his afterword, states that the images that he “picks out for special delectation… are the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted” (316). This was certainly true for me — passages in which the looming haze of the American desert is so gorgeously reproduced, or the familiarity with which Humbert describes Lolita’s stance on the porch, or the way Humbert secretly muses over Lolita’s class list, among which her name creates in him a feeling which we all have felt and recognize as love, infatuation. Such points in the book, Nabokov says, would be glossed over by a reader who is under the impression that lewdness or pornography is its primary purpose.
I think the weaving of those “subliminal co-ordinates” is what I love most about Nabokov’s writing. He writes a kind of prose that approaches — I don’t want to say poetry, because that would be inaccurate — a kind of reality, a detailed, bright, underside of reality that is not like the vague and lackluster realities of other writers of novels. There is something so astoundingly accurate in his prose, as if any other combination of sentences or phrases could not possibly do the image justice.
It was interesting to go back and read the fictional introduction by “John Ray, Jr.” after having finished Nabokov’s afterword. The foreword is a fictional comment on Lolita as being akin to a cautionary tale with an “ethical lesson,” and, like Nabokov himself mentions, the reader is wary that the afterword consists likewise of “an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” However, the afterword was written a year after the publication of the novel and contains some important notes on the reception of the novel and how the author himself meant for the public to read it.
Nabokov claims that the purpose of good fiction is not to teach a moral but rather to simply afford the reader “aesthetic bliss.” John Ray, on the other hand, introduces the novel with the insistence that Lolita has a moral reading, and that is to “apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world” (6). This commentary is meant to be humorous and ironic, of course, and I’m guessing Nabokov had to set a few things straight after many critics claimed that the novel does not teach anything meaningful and is full of base, unredeemable characters.
Yes, some parts are quite shocking and pretty gross (especially keeping in mind this was published in 1955) but even more shocking is writing like this:
A breeze from wonderland had begun to affect my thoughts, and now they seemed couched in italics, as if the surface reflecting them were wrinkled by the phantasm of that breeze. Time and again my consciousness folded the wrong way, my shuffling body entered the sphere of sleep, shuffled out again, and once or twice I caught myself drifting into a melancholy snore. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing. Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach; and then her dimpled dimness would stir, and I would know she was farther away from me than ever. (131)
Seriously titillating, this writing! It is the epitome of aesthetic bliss. We are with Humbert all the way, witness to his vileness and longing and heartbreak. We are so intimately in his head that we can only love Lolita too, and pity Humbert for his psychotic affliction. Wrong and revolting as it is, isn’t it love after all? We are indeed made to believe so, near the very end:
No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn — even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita. (278)