Paperback reviews: From Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi to Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

Also Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny, The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin and All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden

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The Independent Culture

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi - Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99

Nafisi’s beautifully written meander from a covert class she held in her house for female students reading Western literature to her life story as a child of the revolution and subsequent victim of it, feels as though it deserves a less literal title. Something more symbolic, more lyrical perhaps.

But that title does contain all the necessary political implications for a group of women secretly reading a forbidden text in mid-1990s Iran. Some of them manage to get to the class by lying to their families, some are bolder. All throw off their veils when they arrive at Nafisi’s apartment, their individuality reflected in their faces, some made up, some not.

Why Lolita? Nafisi asks. “Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars.” Nafisi talks of the green gate entrance to the university, through which female students were forbidden to go. Instead, they had to enter via a curtained entrance – on the other side, they would be searched from top to toe before being allowed to attend class. It’s not hard to see the parallels.

When Nafisi recounts her experiences as a returning Iranian during the revolution, coming “home” from the US, Nabokov recedes temporarily from view, before other “classics” take centre stage, as literature becomes a means of rebelling again. The debate students have over The Great Gatsby, for example, is eye-opening.

But Nafisi never loses sight of what it means to be a woman living under a totalitarian regime, whether it’s at work or at home, where she frankly shares her resentment of her husband’s ability to go about unmolested (“what do people who are made irrelevant do?”). A personal manifesto for freedom of thought and movement, her memoir is both extraordinary and somehow utterly recognisable.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester - John Murray, £7.99

Middle-aged Lillian reflects on her life, which is framed and structured mainly by her relationships with men. Her mother gets a mention (they did not get on), and the occasional female friend winds her way in somehow, but mostly, this is about men. Some of this can be quite subversive, as Lillian skirts the expected routes for a woman born in the early 1930s by not getting married and not having children (her mother’s horror at having a 35-year-old daughter who is not and has not ever been married, “even if you were divorced you would at least have done it”, says it all). But she rarely looks beyond what it means for her life to be directed this way: an early lover, she recounts, rapes, not “seduces” her but it’s not clear how this realisation helps her later on. She lives her life through these men – her last partner, Ted, is both her boss and a married man, and dies just when they plan to be together at last. It’s an easy read but one suspects it probably shouldn’t be.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny - Bloomsbury, £9.99

Many of us who “find” feminism when we are young do so through books. For many women of my age who were young in the late 80s, it was Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics; for many young men and women of today, it will be Laurie Penny’s personal yet political take on the state of sexual politics now. One can hope so, anyway, for Penny cuts through much of the obfuscation and compromise that often marks discussions of contemporary life, and of the current crop of excellent feminist commentators (Laura Bates, Caitlin Moran, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, Caroline Criado-Perez), she probably strikes the best balance between the personal and the political. She knows how important her personal experience of suffering anorexia is to her readers on a human level, but she also knows how to extrapolate political points from that experience, too. Her voice is passionate without being one-dimensional, her experience of Occupy protests and internet trolling relevant without being narrow. She addresses the need today for young men to be included in feminism’s discussions whilst never losing sight of women’s own particular experiences.   

The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin - Europa Editions, £8.99

This novella, its author recalls, is based on a story told to him by a photographer, Benoit Gysembergh, whilst he was reporting on the “Arab Spring” in 2011. It’s a war story told to Gysembergh by his grandfather about his own experience after the First World War. Almost one hundred years later, Rufin turns what he calls a “short, simple anecdote” into a beautifully memorable and unusual story about war and what it does to us. Morlac is being held prisoner in a country jail for a criminal act that is not specified until the end of the book. He is visited by Major Lantier du Grez, who tries to persuade him to apologise for this act and so avoid a prison sentence. All the time Morlac is imprisoned, his dog sits in the square, barking day and night until it collapses with exhaustion. Members of the town sneak food and water to it, signs of compassion that sit in stark contrast to the acts of war that have so recently taken place. Utterly compelling in its psychological understanding.

All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden - The Friday Project, £8.99

The denseness of Govinden’s prose, along with a lack of clarity about who is speaking, to whom and about what, at the beginning of this novel might put off readers more than it attracts them, but it’s well worth sticking with this story of artist Anna Brown, whose husband John is missing from home, having set out on a lone journey. Anna’s voice may not be at all times a convincingly female one, in the sense that often her gender just slips away from her entirely, but Govinden’s play with voice and address (John is addressed as “you”, mingled with the personal of Anna’s personal reminiscences, to contain a message of love as well as of accusation), is always intriguing and somehow magical. A writer’s writer, he may not have the broader literary appeal of some of his contemporaries, but this is thoughtful and rewarding work.