Law and Conversation

November 29, 2010

Read This: Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita In Tehran

On Mondays I’ve chosen to highlight a book or a story told in another medium that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  Today I’m returning to a book I’ve referenced in several other posts.

As I was thinking over the books I’ve read this year, my husband wondered which I thought was the best.  It took me only a few seconds to decide:  “Reading Lolita In Tehran,” by Azar Nafisi, I answered.

In her memoir, which focuses on her life as a literature professor during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Nafisi writes of the meaning she found in literature, particularly literature written in English, and provides an illuminating perspective on why totalitarian governments such as Iran’s, and ideologues everywhere, typically focus on controlling and suppressing artistic expression:

“One of the most wonderful things about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the variety of voices it embodies.  There are so many different forms of dialogue:  between several people, between two people, internal dialogue and dialogue through letters.  All tensions are created and resolved through dialogue.  Austen’s ability to create such multivocality, such diverse voices and intonations in relation and in confrontation within a cohesive structure, is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel.  In Austen’s novels, there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist.  There is also space—not just space but a necessity—for self-reflection and self-criticism….All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative.  This was where Austen’s danger lay.

“It is not accidental that the most unsympathetic characters in Austen’s novels are those who are incapable of genuine dialogue with others.  They rant.  They lecture.  They scold.  This incapacity for true dialogue implies an incapacity for tolerance, self-reflection and empathy.  Later, in Nabokov, this incapacity takes on monstrous forms in characters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Kinbote in Pale Fire.”

It’s not often that I find a book transformative, but Nafisi’s provided me with a new dimension of appreciation for story and literature.

What’s the best book you’ve read in 2010?

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October 18, 2010

Read This: Books You Dislike, Part 3

Filed under: Books and writing,Read This!,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:38 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

 I’ve posted for the last 2 Mondays on giving a second chance to a book I disliked the first time around, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace.”  It took urging from two friends for whose reading recommendations I have great respect and a public commitment here on this blog for me to do it, and I’m glad I did for all the reasons I stated last week.

“Disgrace” wasn’t the first book I initially disliked and set aside, to find on returning to and finishing it that it was an excellent work.  I’d also tried John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run,” a modern American classic that’s on every list of the greatest 20th century American novels, some years ago, disliked it and set it aside, returned to it a few months ago, and finished it, on the recommendation of one of the same friends who praised “Disgrace.”

On giving it another go, I still found the characters universally repellent for their complete selfishness and parochialism.  But I did finish not only it but its sequel, “Rabbit Redux,” in which the characters reach new depths of dreadfulness. 

Having done so, I agree with my friend that Updike does write beautifully.  I can visualize the characters in a scene, feel what Rabbit’s wife is feeling postpartum, see the inside of the car in which Rabbit drives all night as well as the outside night itself, and feel the wind rushing past.  Dreadful though the characters are, they’re well-rounded and real.  And I’m thinking that even dreadful people have stories and deserve to be written about just as much as those with more altruistic or noble temperaments.  They’re part of life, after all.

Martha Nussbaum and Azar Nafisi both speak eloquently of how fiction and the humanities support democracy.  And now that I’ve so recently read these novels featuring characters I so disliked, Emily St. John Mandel’s article, “In Praise of Unlikable Characters,” in The Millions, an online literary publication, seems especially timely.

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