A year or so ago, I began reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books. I didn't know anything about the book when I saw it, but I was immediately interested in it because it was about exploration of the works of some of my favorite writers: Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen. I also thought it would be an interesting way to learn more about the politics of Iran, the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, etc. Plus, the book was "free" because I bought two other books that day.
Initially, I was captivated by the writing ~ it was at moments vivid, intimate, uninhibited, and, in certain phrases, simply lovely. But after a few chapters, I found I couldn't identify with Nafisi and her personal story ~ she seemed to me (from what little I read) to have lived quite a privileged life (her literary and political family, her life before the Revolution, as a professor, as a writer, and later her life in the States). I couldn't get past the image I quickly created about her; and so I put the book down (actually, I complained loudly and tossed the book back on my bookshelf).
Recently, for some unknown reason, I decided to give the book another chance. I told myself that I do appreciate the beautiful writing and that perhaps that appreciation would outweigh, or even enrich, whatever criticism I had of her personally. I also read a little more about her and about the book, and various critiques of the book ~ for non-fiction I do generally like to have the "back story" on the writer and the narrative in general. I learned more about the wholeness of the story before I went back to consider the particular morsels of the moments that sum up the story.
I reached the chapter where Nafisi discusses how upset one her students becomes when she hears the label the others have placed on her, how they define her ~ whereas one is a poet and another a painter, they sum her up as a "contradiction in terms." And today at lunch, sitting out in the sun, this part stunned me in its stark reflection of my reality, at this moment in time:
The sun and clouds that defined Nassrin's infinite moods and temperaments were too intimate, too inseparable. She lived by startling statements that she blurted out in a most awkward manner. My girls all surprised me at one point or another, but she more than the rest.
In class, we were discussing the concept of the villain in the novel. ~~ Humbert, like most dictators, was interested only in his own vision of other people. He had created the Lolita he desired, and he would not budge from that image. I reminded them of Humbert's statement that he wished to stop time and keep Lolita forever on "an island of entranced time," a task undertaken only by Gods and poets.
And I sat there on the warm grass, lamenting the cold reality of the visions and villains in my own life ~ of someone creating an image of me so idealistic that there was no living up to it. And when I failed, as anyone would have, the dark rigidity of the image would not bend to allow any new light into its corners. The darkness of this helplessness ~ as someone else shapes the ball of clay that is You, and then destroys it, and then never lets you place a hand on re-centering and throwing the ball of clay back onto the wheel, to reshape it ~ it is blinding.
Years ago, through some freak accident, I suffered from Vertigo. I felt like I was spinning and whirling, completely, for about a week. Everything around me seemed like it was moving, but then so did I ~ it was like a double dose of a swift orbit ~ around me and within me. And recently this feeling has surfaced for me not only in the three-dimensional world of my reality, but in the simulated two-dimensional Web 2.0 world: you present and perceive certain images ~ of yourself and of other people. I see now that when the fluidity of cyberspace and your real personality are confronted by the rigidity of the zeros and ones of our computers...well, reality and flexibility and lucidity are lost ~ and so are you.
And all of these themes ~ control, betrayal of vision, fear, deception, loss ~ are beautifully portrayed in one of my favorite films: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. I adore James Stewart ~ but I was struck more by a simple line uttered by Kim Novak, as Madeleine: Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.
And that's all I thought about today at lunch ~