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  • That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile by Azar Nafisi
  • Michael Wood
AZAR NAFISI. That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile Translated from the Persian by Lotfali Khonji. Yale University Press, 341 pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-15883-0

Near the beginning of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), her moving (and in some quarters fiercely criticized) memoir of a quiet civic rebellion through literature, Azar Nafisi mentions 'a book on Nabokov' that she 'had just published'. The year was 1994. That Other World is that book, now in English rather than Farsi, and in exile too, like its author.

Exile is a great theme of the book itself, in part because exile in Nabokov is never only literal, and in part because Nafisi was already living a kind of exile without yet leaving Tehran. In her introduction to the translation she says she has not updated the book because 'it belongs to a specific time and place', and because she is 'curious to know how it will do in exile' []. The answer is: very well. Not least because that earlier time and place are both everywhere and nowhere in the book. 'I wanted to see,' Nafisi says, 'if I could write a book without once mentioning the Islamic Republic' [p.xx]. It is a distinctly Nabokovian thought that such mentions would have reduced rather affirmed the work's topicality; and when Nafisi writes of a 'confiscation' of history by a government [pp.xiii], or of a child's life by a monster [p.xix], we know how close she is to Nabokov's world, and many other worlds. Again and again in her book, the question is what to do when reality, in the sense of hard actuality, is what seems most unreal or most absurd. 'The reader', Nafisi says, 'is asked to believe in the reality of a world that is constantly contradicting itself' [p.117]. And: 'Though art is elusive, reality, too, is an unreliable variable' [p.46]. That Other World explores Nabokov's fiction in broadly but not entirely chronological sequence. After an introductory chapter that sympathetically recounts the author's life, there is a chapter that brings together The Gift, Look at the Harlequins and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, suggesting the early book and the late book 'can be considered, respectively, as the introduction and the afterword' to the third [p.55]. The next chapter concerns Nabokov's 'political' novels – Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister - and after that four novels - Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita, and Ada - get a chapter each. Every chapter has interesting insights, but the strongest are probably those on Pale Fire and Lolita, since they offer the most comprehensive readings of their texts. Alice in Wonderland, for Nafisi, is not only a triumphantly nonsensical answer to a sadly nonsensical world, it is a kind of allegory of reading, and especially of reading Nabokov. 'A normal child', she says, seeing a well-dressed white rabbit talking to itself about being late, 'would probably have been petrified with fear'. 'But Alice has a curious nature', and 'when the rabbit disappears down the hole', she 'jumps after it'. 'Alice is a creative reader, unafraid of stepping into a world created by someone else' [p.82]. This is a fine perception, since many readers think worlds are created by God or chance and merely copied by novelists. They might be afraid to read if they thought otherwise. There is a similar perception at work in the suggestion that Pale Fire uses 'the most traditional elements of novel writing… the only difference here is that these elements have come to the party in disguise' [p.172]. Nafisi also understands, as few critics do, that games with narrative perspective can make 'the characters seem more real, more lifelike' [p.112]. This doesn't always happen, of course, but an old orthodoxy of novel theory holds that it can't.

Nafisi (or her translator) sometimes gets carried away by enthusiasm. I'm not sure Nabokov was a 'matchless translator' [pp.39-40] or that his perspective on autobiography was 'unique' [p.45]. Her views on politics are...