Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fiction: Appraising and Grasping the World

"Teacher, author, visionary.
Azar Nafisi stands for freedom of imagination
and the pursuit of happiness for all people."

Azar Nafisi in an Audi Ad

Two months in a row, two inspiring memoirs have found their way into my hands, each sent through the mail as a surprise from a dear friend. In August my friend Mumbi sent me Unbowed by Wangari Maathai (which I wrote about last month: "A Tree of God") and in September my friend Megan sent me Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

Kindly, Megan wrote: "I have neither read nor seen Lolita and it surprises me that you haven't either. Watch the movie if you can; then the allusions will make more sense, but she does a great job on the detail if you don't have time for that. It's a book with so many 'great book' references that you are sure to hit on a few of the same: which is why I was suggesting it to you, being so widely read." [Well, not that widely, but still trying; so many thanks for the compliment, Megan!]

As my blog readers know, there's nothing I love more than a good reading coincidence, and I found some intriguing connections between these two visionary woman:

Maathai, who was educated in Kansas in the 1960s and then returned home to Kenya to live out her conviction that "African women in general need to know that it's OK for them to be the way they are - to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence."

and

Nafisi, who was educated in Oklahoma in the 1970s and returned to Tehran to teach a generation of young women "to defy the repressive reality outside the room -- not only that, but to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives. . . . to discuss our pains and our joys, our personal hang - ups and weaknesses; for that suspended time we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic. We articulated all that happened to us in our own words and saw ourselves, for once in our own image. . . . I felt a silent defiance that may also have shaped my public desire to defend a vague and amorphous entity I thought of as myself" (57, 112).

While my review of Nafisi's memoir may not be as lengthy or as enthusiastic as some, her commentary on Jane Austen and Henry James gave me a renewed and improved understanding of their fiction; and I was struck by her aesthetic of the novel as a revolutionary literary form:

50: " 'Is it possible to write a reverent novel,' said Nassrin, 'and to have it be good? Besides, the contract with the reader is that this is not reality, it's an invented world. There must be some blasted space in life,' she added crossly, 'where we can be offensive, for God's sake.' "

94: " . . . most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted."

111: "A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to any end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how your read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed."

187: "Over the next decade and a half, more than anything else, I thought, wrote about and taught fiction. These readings made me curious about the origins of the novel and what I came to understand as its basically democratic structure."

224, 248; 311, 315: " . . . the most unforgivable crime in fiction -- blindness [lack of pity]. . . . This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. . . . the most courageous characters here are those with imagination, those who, through their imaginative faculty, can empathize with others. When you lack this kind of courage you remain ignorant or others' feelings and needs. . . . Austen's theme is cruelty not under extraordinary circumstances but ordinary ones, committed by poeple like us. Surely that's more frightening? . . . Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to 'see' others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennet) as well as the worst (Humbert Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others."

268: "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. Such reflection is the cause of change. We needed no message, no outright call for plurality, to prove our point. All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative. This was where Austen's danger lay."

282 [advice from her mentor]: "Give them the best of what that other world can offer: give them pure fiction -- give them back their imagination! . . . Take the example of one Jane Austen . . . You used to preach to us all that she ignored politics, not because she didn't know any better but because she didn't allow her work, her imagination, to be swallowed up the by the society around her. At the time, when the world was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars, she created her own independent world, a world that you, two centuries later, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, teach as the fictional ideal of democracy. Remember all that talk of yours about how the first lesson in fighting tyranny is to do your own thing and satisfy your own conscience? . . . You keep talking about democratic spaces, about the need for personal and creative spaces. Well, go and create them, woman! Stop nagging and focusing your energy on what the Islamic Republic does or says and start focusing on your Austen."

282: "Fiction . . . offer[ed] us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world -- not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires."

306 - 07: "It is obvious that she [Jane Austen] is more interested in happiness than in the institution of marriage, in love and understanding than matrimony. . . . not the importance of marriage but the importance of heart and understanding in marriage; not the primacy of conventions but the breaking of conventions. . . . They [the Bennet sisters, et al.] risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose."

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A few more favorites highlights:

56 from Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading: " . . . part of my thoughts is always crowding around the invisible umbilical cord that joins this world to something -- to what I shall not say yet" (53).

179: "I told her I did not want to wear the veil in the classroom. Did I not wear the veil, she asked, whenever I went out? Did I not wear it in the grocery store and walking down the street? It seemed I constantly had to remind people that the university was not a grocery store."

98 - 99: " . . . the room, the walls, the chairs and the long conference table have been covered over by layers and layers of what usually in works of fiction is called dust."

322: "Taking a sip of water, as we know from novels, is a good way of gaining time."

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