Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile

by Azar Nafisi ; translated by Lotfali Khonji edited by Azar NafisiValerie Miles

Pub Date: June 25th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-300-15883-0
Publisher: Yale Univ.

Essays on how the work of Vladimir Nabokov evoked the feelings of alienation and loss that many experienced in post-revolutionary Iran.

When a “violent ideological totalitarian revolution” proclaimed itself as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi (The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, 2014, etc.) felt “in a perpetual state of exile” from her beloved homeland. As a teacher and critic, she found in Nabokov a clear articulation of those feelings. “For him,” she writes, “exile was not just a physical migration,” but “a feeling of unreality, orphanhood, isolation.” Her close readings, along with critical and biographical studies, inform seven empathetic, incisive essays that together provide a sweeping overview of Nabokov’s major works. Translated by Khonji and revised for this publication in English, the essays predate, and contextualize, Nafisi’s acclaimed memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003). Nabokov, more than other authors she was reading and teaching, spoke to the “deep traumatic and anguished existence” that pervaded life under a repressive dictatorship. He was acutely sensitive “to bad literature, autocratic regimes, and racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice.” In his two overtly “political novels,” Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, he represents totalitarianism as a mindset that believes it alone holds “a monopoly on reality” to which all must defer, and in which all artistic creativity and expressions of individuality are considered subversive and dangerous. In confronting this tension between politics and art, Nabokov, rather than depict totalitarianism’s destructive and “horrific reality,” explored how “creative minds” perceive and “resist its onslaught.” Among other works Nafisi examines are the parody Pnin, in which the main character “can be considered a literary descendent of Quixote”; Pale Fire; The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; and Ada (the first of Nabokov’s novels that she read), which influenced her profoundly. The novel, she writes, “did not merely portray quotidian realities—it articulated the reader’s subjective realities.” In a sensitive, cleareyed reading of Lolita, Nafisi sees the novel as more than a portrayal of obsession or parody of love but an inquiry into questions of individuality, personal liberty, and loss.

Graceful, discerning literary essays.