Sunday 31 March 2019

Reading Jane Austen in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the memoir of Azar Nafisi, a professor in Tehran who picked a few favourite female students and created a secret book club devoted to Western literature. The book has 4 parts: “Lolita”, “Gatsby”, “James”, and “Austen”. “Lolita” is an introduction to the book club and its members. “Gatsby” goes back in time, to Nafisi’s time as a literature professor at university of Tehran, mostly the period during the revolution and the war. Because of the new laws under the new regime, especially about the veil, she quit teaching. The next part, “James”, is about the time when she was not teaching, followed by her return to classes. The final part “Austen” goes back to the book club. 
Each part, as titled, is about an author’s work: “Lolita” focuses on Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, the author also mentions Pnin; “Gatsby” is mostly about The Great Gatsby; “James” is about Henry James, mostly Daily Miller and Washington Square, etc. Reading Lolita in Tehran is both about Nafisi’s life and about the books she discusses, but here comes the thing I don’t like: the comparison. It almost feels like she feels the need to justify naming each section after a literary work or an author’s name, so she compares the tyranny in Lolita to the tyranny in the Islamic Republic of Iran (comparing the regime to Humbert Humbert and the women to Lolita), or Gatsby’s dream to the broken dreams of the revolutionaries, and so on. In a way I see her points, and some of her arguments make sense, but it still seems forced. It’s like she reduces a literary work, like Lolita, to an analogy. At other times it feels like she teaches the students to relate to the characters, to find something relatable, which, by Nabokov’s standards, is not the way to read a work of art.  
Comparison makes more sense as I’m now reading the “Austen” section: Nafisi writes about Jane Austen, and about her students’ relationship/ marriage problems, and the problem of love, courtship, marriage, and sex in Iran. 
Just recently I came across this article:
Isn’t it interesting how there are quite a few Muslim retellings of Jane Austen’s stories? 
Or look at this article:
“Pakistan and indeed, much of South Asia, may at times be regarded as the land of Austen; twenty first century in many ways, yet quintessentially Jane’s world in others, much more so than the western hemisphere. Many social conventions among the fashionable society of the Regency era are still found in Pakistan today: the importance of making ‘a good match,’ the influence of families over individuals and couples, elements of social decorum, maintaining a fashionable veneer at all costs, social criteria for eligibility in marriage, saving oneself for marriage—or at least appearing to, striving for a facade of propriety, and, of course, inherent snobbery. There are ladies who appear privileged yet are often bound by conventions that define them first by their fathers and then by their husbands.” 
Some societies are so backward. Think about it, Pride and Prejudice was published in England in 1813. The students in Reading Lolita in Tehran feel that in some ways their society is even behind Jane Austen’s world. 
I feel too strongly about gender equality and human rights to fear being accused of Islamophobia or racism. In fact, I despise so-called feminists in the West who complain about non-issues such as mansplaining and manspreading but are silent about women’s situation in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, or say some nonsense about respecting culture and tradition. Not everything should be respected because it’s a tradition. I come from Vietnam, and lots of traditions should be abolished because they are backward, barbaric, and inhuman—we can’t have progress if we cling to traditions for the sake of traditions. 
Also, things that people call traditions are not necessarily traditions. In Reading Lolita in Tehran for example, Nafisi writes about the time before the revolution, and she has lived under both regimes to know that the revolution made Iran become backward—the government was totalitarian, women started to have fewer rights, society became backward and less free, lots of things started to be prohibited, as the new ideology became imposed on society. I’m afraid that those things that people perceive as traditions were just arbitrary laws imposed by a totalitarian regime. 
Anyway, to go back to the book, it should be read. Some passages in it are heartbreaking. Imagine living such a society as a woman, where you get punished for wearing pink socks or nail polish, or eating an apple in a “provocative” way, or even showing a strand of hair.

Monday 25 March 2019

A riff on Reading Lolita in Tehran

1/ Lovers of literature should read this book. 
2/ Especially fans of Nabokov, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Henry James, or Jane Austen. Like me. I’m starting to see Azar Nafisi as a friend. 
3/ Critics and sceptics should, too, read this book. Reading Lolita in Tehran is an ode to literature, and a defence of literature. 
4/ It’s about books; about writers and readers; about good readers and bad readers; about reading and teaching. 
5/ Some students on the author’s course make me wonder why they chose to study literature at all, when they have no interest in it, reject ambiguity, and want to impose their brand of morality on a book. 
6/ But then can we not say the same thing about lots of literary critics or book reviewers? Those who are more interested in feminist or social criticism than literature, like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar? Those who claim that male writers can’t write good female characters? Those who say that Tolstoy punishes Anna Karenina, because of misogyny? Those who reject the Western canon and dead white male authors? Those who look at everything through the lens of gender, race, and the privilege concept, and seem to judge an author by their identity rather than the quality of their works? And so on. 
7/ Reading Nafisi’s book, I’m glad I wasn’t born in Iran. 
8/ The idea that writers should serve the government, and an ideology, is so familiar. Totalitarian governments are all the same. 
9/ One of the most brilliant moments in the book is the trial of The Great Gatsby. A book on trial. 
10/ Many so-called feminists in the West should read Reading Lolita in Tehran. When they know what it’s like to be a woman in many other countries, they may stop with the faux outrage over non-issues, and the stupid things done in the name of feminism. It is insulting.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Reading Lolita in Tehran and the bad (non)readers of Lolita

I’m reading Reading Lolita in Tehran
In chapter 10, Azar Nafisi writes about Professor X, a villain who has ridiculous views and clearly doesn’t believe in debate. 
Now look at this passage: 
“1 of his students had decided to write his thesis on Lolita. He used no sources, had not read Nabokov, but his thesis fascinated by the professor, who had a thing about young girls spoiling the lives of intellectual men. This student wanted to write about how Lolita had seduced Humbert, an ‘intellectual poet’, and ruined his life. Professor X, with a look of thoughtful intensity, asked the student if he knew about Nabokov’s own sexual perversions. Nima, with ripples of contempt in his voice, mimicked the professor, shaking his head sadly and saying how, in novel after novel, we find the lives of intellectual men being destroyed by flighty females. […] Yet despite his views on Nabokov’s flighty young vixens, when this man had been ‘looking’ for a new wife, his main condition had been that her age should not exceed 23. His 2nd wife, duly recruited, was at least 2 decades younger than he.” 
The stupidity and hypocrisy needs no comment, but isn’t it the same for many idiots in the West who attack Lolita in the name of feminism or whatever-ism? I have seen many people who have not read the book but called it a child sexual abuse manual and said only books written from the victim’s perspective would be worth reading. I have seen many people who have read it but either fall for Humbert Humbert’s trap or say that the book must be bad because it’s narrated by a paedophile. I have also seen many people who think that if you see Lolita as one of your favourite books, something is wrong with you morally. 
Just recently, for example, there’s a woman who started a twitter thread saying that she stopped seeing a date who said Lolita was his favourite book. To her, that’s a red flag. 
To me, the question is why they like Lolita. If they say it’s a tragic love story between 2 people who can’t be together because of her age and the unjust law about age of consent, or something along those lines, they’re an idiot and can go away. 
But if the answer is because Lolita is a great work of art, a masterpiece, which it is, that’s a different matter. 
In this case, the real red flag is the philistinism of those tweets. I can’t help seeing Lolita as a test, some kind of measure—how someone reacts to it and what he/she says about it says a lot about him/her as a reader. 
I have written quite a lot about Lolita: love/ nympholepsy/ paedophilia, Lolita and the obligation of literature, the complexity of the book and Nabokov’s moral intention, the saddest chapter in Lolita, and Lolita’s tears (or the little details that escape careless readers)
Here are passages written by Nabokov about poshlost and philistinism
Not to mention, my blog has posts about Lolita’s 1st appearance, the dog motif, the butterfly and bird motifs, a theory about Quilty and Lo, the other Lolita, and sympathy for fictional characters
At the moment I don’t have much to write about Reading Lolita in Tehran. I like that the author loves Nabokov, and we’d probably get along because she also likes Flaubert, Jane Austen, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. It’s dry though, surprisingly dry for a book about literature and passion—compared to the prose of Sy Montgomery in The Soul of an Octopus and even Walter Murch’s prose in In the Blink of an Eye, an editing book I’m reading at the same time, Reading Lolita in Tehran feels so dreary and lifeless.

Saturday 9 March 2019

On finishing The Soul of an Octopus

Bill, 1 of the people working at the aquarium, makes the decision of switching tanks for Octavia and Karma.
“Bill had made the right choice. Though for many months, Octavia’s constant attentions to her eggs were rituals rich and full of meaning, at some point, her tending may have ceased to feel fulfilling. A wild octopus tending fertile eggs is surely rewarded, as are birds on the nest, by the signals that her eggs are alive, her embryos growing. Mother birds and their babies chirp and cheep to one another when the young are still in the egg; the mother octopus can see her babies developing inside the egg, starting with the dark eyes, and feel them moving. But Octavia had no such feedback. Perhaps the very sight of the eggs inspired her to try to protect them, the way a mother orangutan will continue to carry and even groom a dead infant, often for many days, and some dogs will refuse to leave the body of someone they love who has died. Perhaps, now that her eggs are no longer in view, Octavia at last was freed of duties she might have suspected were pointless but had felt compelled to perform. Perhaps now, at last, she could rest.”


I have now finished reading The Soul of an Octopus. It’s such a wonderful book. I’ve just read about an encounter with a stump-armed female octopus in the ocean, followed by a visit with Octavia the octopus in the aquarium in her old age, in chapter 8 “Consciousness”.
The Soul of an Octopus is full of interesting facts and descriptions, but it is so captivating and affecting because everything is observed and described with such awe and wonder, such joy and gratitude, and such compassion, that I too am full of curiosity about octopuses and the ocean, and can no longer look at them the same way. In a sense, I feel changed as a person. Once in a while, you pick up a book, expecting nothing, then you’re surprised to find yourself changed because of it. Your perspective’s expanded, your thinking’s shifted.
Sy Montgomery learns, and wishes us to learn, about octopuses—creatures that are so alien and so different from us in everything. We don’t just read about what octopuses are like, she also makes us wonder what it’s like to be an octopus. Their experience of the world is completely different. At the same time, she doesn’t treat them like subjects of study, but like beings, with feelings—she treats them with respect, sensitivity, and tenderness, and seeks to understand them and have a connection with them.
With octopuses, Montgomery could do something Melville/Ishmael couldn’t do with whales—develop a connection, or even friendship, with them.
It’s interesting that I’m writing my dissertation about love and human contact (and motif of touch) in 3 Ingmar Bergman films, and now, The Soul of an Octopus has this passage:
“…We wished she had eaten, but we learned something new: Hunger was not the reason she had surfaced earlier, and it wasn’t what brought her now.
The reason she surfaced was abundantly clear. She had not interacted with us, or tasted our skin, or seen us above her tank for 10 full months. In less than 4 weeks, on a Saturday morning in May, Bill would find her, pale, thin, and still, dead at the bottom of her barrel. Yet, despite everything, we knew in that moment that Octavia had not only remembered us and recognized us; she had wanted to touch us again.”
That is so moving.
Everyone should read this book.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

The Deep, Hull

Recently I've just been to The Deep, an aquarium in Hull.
Here are the 2 videos I've made: