In Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which young female students meet in secret with Xeroxed copies of Nabokov's masterpiece on their often chaste and recently chadored laps, it is at first a surprise to discover how unscandalized the women are. Without exception, it turns out, they concur with Vera Nabokov in finding that the chief elements of the story are "its beauty and pathos." They "identify" with Lolita, because they can see that she wants above all to be a normal girl-child; they see straight through Humbert, because he is always blaming his victim and claiming that it was she who seduced him. And this perspective—such a bracing change from our conventional worried emphasis on pedophilia—is perhaps more easily come by in a state where virgins are raped before execution because the Koran forbids the execution of virgins; where the censor cuts Ophelia out of the Russian movie version of Hamlet; where any move that a woman makes can be construed as lascivious and inciting; where goatish old men can be gifted with infant brides; and where the age of "consent" is more like nine. As Nafisi phrases it,
This was the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of
Lolita'sstory is notthe rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another. We don't know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life … Warming up and suddenly inspired, I added that in fact Nabokov had taken revenge on our own solipsizers; he had taken revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini …
It's extraordinary to think that the author of those anti-tyrannical classics Bend Sinister and Invitation to a Beheading, who would surely have felt extreme pleasure at this tribute, can be posthumously granted such an unexpected yet—when you reflect on it—perfectly intelligible homage. In his own essay on the fate of Lolita, Nabokov recalled a publisher who warned him that if he helped the author get it into print, they would both go straight to jail. And one of the many, many pleasures of Alfred Appel's masterly introduction and annotation is the discovery that Nabokov did not realize that Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press were specialists in—well, shall we just say "erotica"?—when he let them have the manuscript. (The shock and awe surrounding its publication were later well netted by the great lepidopterist in one of John Shade's cantos in Pale Fire: "It was a year of tempests, Hurricane / Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.") Innocence of that kind is to be treasured.
And innocence, of course, is the problem to begin with. If Dolores Haze, whose first name means suffering and grief, that "dolorous and hazy darling," had not been an innocent, there would be nothing tragic in the tale. (Azar Nafisi is someone who, in spite of her acuity and empathy, fails what I call the Martin Amis test. Amis once admitted that he had read the novel carefully before noticing that in its "foreword"—written not by the unreliable Humbert but by "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D."—we learn that Lolita has died in childbirth. She's over before she's begun. That's where the yearning search for a normal life and a stable marriage got her. I fear that the young ladies of Tehran missed that crucial, callous postdate/update sentence as well.)