• Azar Nafisi on Finding Herself in the Writing of Vladimir Nabokov

    How a Writer is Shaped By Perpetual Exile

    It all started with this book. I mean the way I have written my other books has been shaped by the process of writing this one. Like a life story, a book has its own murky history, shaped by complex circumstances, unexpected events, and strange coincidences. In this case, the story of those diverse factors, coming together at a specific time and place can provide a reasonable answer to the question, why Nabokov? Why write a book about Nabokov in a country now called the Islamic Republic of Iran, that was once called Iran and before that Persia? What makes Nabokov relevant to life in the Islamic Republic? 

    Article continues below

    I could, of course, count all my connections—real or imagined—to Nabokov, beginning with the long and tumultuous history of the relations between Iran and its northern neighbor Russia, and Russia’s influence on shaping Iran’s modern history and culture. There is an undiminished sense of humiliation and grievance among Iranians about their country’s devastating defeats in the 19th century at the hands of Russians, which led to Iran ceding the Caucasus and half of the Caspian Sea to Russia, and then there is Russia’s and later the Soviet Union’s immense influence in shaping Iran’s modern political ideologies as well as its literary taste and tendencies—influences in the best and the worst sense of the word: great literature and Communist ideology. Iran seems to have followed Russia—thankfully, on a smaller scale—in its rebellion against political dictatorship, creation of a short-lived liberal interim government, and finally a violent ideological totalitarian revolution. 

    I can also cite the influence of Russian literature on Iranian intellectuals, and on my own education. By the time I was 15 I had read many of the books Nabokov had read: not just Hugo, Stendhal, Austen, and Dickens, but also Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Chekhov. To stretch the similarities, I might reference my own liberal education in a family that was part of the upper class, yet disdainful of it. My father became the youngest mayor of Tehran, very popular, and my mother was one of the six women first elected to the Iranian parliament in 1963; both were rebels against the very institutions they served.

    My mother did not last more than a term, and my father was rewarded for “insubordination” toward the prime minister and the minister of interior with four years without a trial in a “temporary jail,” until his actual trial and full exoneration. Not just my parents but most of the Nafisi clan were unimpressed by or uninterested in wealth and class, though they were informed by education and culture, about which they could become tediously snobbish.

    And then of course, like Nabokov, I became an exile in America. All these facts could have had some effect on how I connect to Nabokov. But I don’t think any of them was a real factor in shaping my views of Nabokov or my fascination with his work. Nor do I believe in using a work of fiction as an extension or allegory for my own or any other life story. 

    Article continues below

    In writing this book I wanted to get away from the kind of learned literary essays that were popular in Iran and that I had been writing. I was bored with that kind of essay, I felt I was still writing college term papers—but even in college I had strayed from the conventional way of writing those often uninspiring texts. My book was to be about Nabokov, but not just a literary analysis of his fiction. My focus would be the interdependence of fiction and reality and the intersections where the two meet, each turning into a metaphor for the other.

    I wanted to narrate rather than explicate how different times and circumstances have shaped my views and interpretations of Nabokov’s fiction, and how reading his books has reflected those realities while changing and subverting my perceptions of them. The book was to be a narrative of my experiences and Nabokov’s fictional works. 

    I knew that the very first sentence I had thought of for my book had already become the first victim of the reality I wanted to narrate.

    I spent many exciting and anxious hours trying to find the right balance between my real and fictional experiences. For one thing, I discovered that reality is not as concrete and indisputable as it appears, or as we want it to be, and fiction is not as unreal as we believe it to be. But that was not a problem; the main drawback was related to the very reality I was trying to articulate: that reality itself would become the key obstacle standing in the way of writing my book. And perhaps one of the biggest incentives for writing it. 

    I remember vividly the moment I discovered how I wanted to write the first sentence of my book. I had just visited the Iranian poet Bijan Elahi, one of the two people I knew in Iran of that time who really knew Nabokov—not simply familiar with his work, he was genuinely passionate about it. (The other expert was a brilliant and reclusive literary critic whom I called “the magician.”) The day had been one of those sunlit fall days. Elahi’s house was situated in the older part of northern Tehran, close to the mountains, still preserving its dusty quality, the aroma of earth, and the leaves rising with the dust as I walked the narrow alley to his house.

    The living room was cool and dark, large French windows opening into a shaded, tree-filled garden, the evergreens keeping the sun out. It seemed as if that particular garden had deliberately resisted the colors of fall. I had enthusiastically explained to Elahi why I wanted to write about Nabokov, why I felt this was so relevant to the times we lived in—and yes, yes, I knew that did not really matter, that great literature is timeless, but then, there we were: even if we were not living in exceptional times, our times in one way or another affect how we read and write. 

    Article continues below

    I left his leafy green world with its own choice of seasons and stepped out into the early afternoon light, dazzled by the impossible colors of leaves, not just yellow, red, and brown, but the color I identified as fall copper. From the dusty alley, I turned toward the more naked light and bare asphalt of the main street. I felt elated and fidgety with excitement, chasing multitudes of scattered ideas that, like mischievous children, were running wild and evading my attempts to catch them. The street was on a steep slope, and as I walked down, I came to a sudden stop, having gotten hold of one of those evasive ideas and not wanting to let my captive go.

    I took out my notebook from my bag and wrote these words: “The first book I read by Nabokov was Ada. My boyfriend Ted gave it to me, writing on the flyleaf, ‘for Azar, my Ada, Ted.’” My first encounter with Nabokov was thus joyous and deeply personal, its mood coloring all my later readings of his work. It felt like “the tingle in the spine” that he had demanded of reading and readers. 

    I read Ada as a fairy tale, never once opening a dictionary to look up words or search the allusions, fervently discussing it with Ted. We were very young and we were in love and passionate about literature. This seemed like a good opening for my first book. 

    But right after writing those words, I knew that I would not be able to publish them. Not just political dissent or criticism but the public articulation of unruly passions of youthful love, or love in general, were also banned. It was a sign of the kind of regime the Islamic Republic had become that alongside of political offenses and crimes, public expression of love in any form or shape, including poetry, was not just banned and censored but also punished. In the poem “In This Blind Alley,” the poet Ahmad Shamlu had written about the murder of love, joy, and poetry in the Islamic Republic, starting with these words: 

    They smell your breath
    lest you have said: I love you,
    They smell your heart:

    Article continues below

    These are strange times, my dear. 

    They flog love
    at the roadblock.
    Let’s hide love in the larder. 

    In this crooked blind alley, as the chill descends,
    they feed fires
    with logs of song and poetry.
    Hazard not a thought:

    These are strange times, my dear. . . . 

    I knew that the very first sentence I had thought of for my book had already become the first victim of the reality I wanted to narrate. If to write of falling in love with a man (and a foreign man at that) was forbidden by law, then its mutilation and censure was sure to follow in print. Its appearance in print would, after all, be proof that such things did exist and could be celebrated despite censorship—that fact in itself was considered too dangerous.

    Article continues below

    The center of every narrative is the individual, her concrete experiences, feelings, and emotions, as well as her relation to the wider world. All this is the microcosm of the world at large. The Islamic regime, like all totalitarian systems, instinctively reacted against anything that created space for the unique and the individual, anything it could not control and redefine. Its targets were not merely political but those that ensured the diversity and individuality of voices, lifestyles, beliefs, and viewpoints, namely women, culture, and minorities. 

    I felt detached and marginalized, alone and disoriented, in a perpetual state of exile from the country I knew.

    For a while I spent a rather pleasant if melancholy time brooding over my fate in the Islamic Republic. My notes of that time show a marked fondness for the word “confiscation.” I had written several pages on how—to deprive Iranians of our reality—the regime had to justify its actions by confiscating our history, for if the past was not what we knew it to be but what the Islamic Republic had rewritten, then the present, as confiscated and reshaped by the Islamic Republic, was justified. According to the regime, we were not Iranians with 3,000 years of history, composed of different ethnicities and religions, but were instead all Muslims—and not Muslims with different interpretations and belonging to different denominations of religion; we were limited to only one interpretation and denomination, the most extreme and backward.

    Religion itself had become a victim of the regime used as an ideology to maintain power over the Iranian society. Within this context we were all to uniformly obey the laws of the Islamic Republic that had come to us, not just in the name of religion but as representative of the word of God. How we dressed, acted, expressed ourselves, how we felt and imagined and thought, all was subject to confiscation. This was how it should be in their view. In confiscating history, culture, and tradition, the regime also confiscated our identities as individual citizens, with the right to freedom of expression and choice. “They” know what “they” are doing, “they” know the threats to “their” rule, or so I wrote in my notebook, on and on . . . 


    These thoughts brought me closer to Nabokov, his celebration of individuality and individual dignity, his commitment to a life of imagination, his uncompromising stance against any form of totalitarianism not only at state level but also in terms of personal relationships. I seemed, too, to be getting signs and guidance from the master himself: suddenly everywhere I went a book of his was beckoning—in one of the few English bookstores left in Iran I discovered Speak, Memory; on one of the top shelves in my father’s library I noticed Lolita side by side with King, Queen, Knave and Laughter in the Dark (on whose flyleaf Father had written, “Washington, 1953”); and my magician friend offered me the use of his collection of Nabokov editions.

    I started rereading Ada, this time finding more demons behind those fairy-tale trees and in the corners of opulent mansions . . . one by one, I went through the books I had already read and those that I hadn’t. There was something so deeply resonant in the texture of Nabokov’s work, something that I had not caught before, too struck at first by the deceptive and seductive beauty of his words. 

    One theme that caught my eye, recurring in book after book, was the idea of exile. Exiled was how I was feeling, living in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I had returned home in 1979 to discover that home was not home anymore, that the people who ruled my country were more alien to me than others who lived thousands of miles away. The confiscation of Iran’s history, the loss of my identity as a person of certain principles and beliefs (as a woman, a teacher, a writer, and a reader) made me feel orphaned, homeless, in the beloved country of my birth. This went beyond politics; it became an existential matter. 

    At first I felt detached and marginalized, alone and disoriented, in a perpetual state of exile from the country I knew; then I started to connect with those who shared the same sentiments. Escaping social and political reality, we, like many others, created our own self-sufficient island. Gradually I realized that I was not alone, that it was not just people like me, but that many among the Iranians were now in exile, having lost their past and feeling bewildered in the present, with little or no connection to their current state of being.

    No wonder Nabokov’s sense of tragic absurdity seemed so familiar to me. For him exile was not just a physical migration. His protagonists were often aliens, either in physical exile or exiled in their own homes, experiencing a feeling of unreality, orphanhood, isolation. His characters like Cincinnatus or Krug were aliens and exiles in their native countries, living under similar circumstances to many of us in the Islamic Republic. As my book began to take shape, each chapter revolved around a particular dimension of exile, each one independent of but overflowing into the other. 


    From That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile by Azar Nafisi; translated from the Persian by Lotfali Khonji; edited by Azar Nafisi and Valerie Miles. Published by Yale University Press in June 2019. Reproduced by permission.

    Azar Nafisi
    Azar Nafisi
    Azar Nafisi is the author of the multi-award-winning New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, as well as Things I've Been Silent About, and The Republic of Imagination. Formerly a Fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Foreign Policy Institute, she has taught at Oxford and several universities in Tehran, and she is currently Centennial Fellow at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. Nafisi has written for publications that include The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Washington, D.C.

    More Story
    On the Difficulty of Convincing Samuel Beckett of Just About Anything “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.” It was the first thing Samuel Beckett ever...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.