Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, September 02, 2005

More reading in the west

After my recent post surrounding Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, there's a response by Amardeep Singh. I'd like to reply here, although my reply extends beyond it as there is nothing in particular he says with which I disagree.

First, I have to say that I have yet to read the book. The copy in my local library is currently borrowed, unlike all the other literary critical works. Need we wonder why?! My concern, as this suggests, is with the ‘credulous critical reception’. I read many reviews when it came out and I don’t recall one mentioning the acknowledgement given to Paul Wolfowitz. I would have found that difficult to forget. This is why my interest was aroused.

Imagine the reviews of a similar book by someone unjustly-detained at Guantanamo Bay (though one doubts that they have access to a library) that included a dedication to a leading member of Al Qaeda. Would this be a side issue? For this reason I took the phrase ‘objectively pro-fascist’ (which I’d never heard before) to mean one who is not themselves fascist but who lends their support to fascists through expediency or complacency. Since then I’ve discovered that it was a phrase Orwell used to label pacifism in the face of Hitler. So I understood right. For pacifism, I now read the liberals who regard the manifold corruption and aggression of the Bush junta as part of the legitimate spectrum of opinion.

But back to the reception of the book. There’s an unspoken imperative running through its uncritical welcome, something that probably has little to do with the book itself. This is that literature must remain an escape. Reading Lolita in the west must remain happily meaningless; an indulgence afforded by our 'freedom'. (I’m not expecting Michael Wood’s brilliant book on Nabokov, for instance, to become a bestseller on the back of Nafisi’s success). It can mean something only when used as a defence against our official enemies. This is what I was thinking of when I referred to a possible ‘literary resistance’. Trying to think about it now after another long day of wage-slavery, I can only recall Elizabeth Costello (of the eponymous novel) trying to explain her distress to her son:

I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupifying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences.

What is thrilling about this novel is that there’s a moral and literary challenge in the story (though in effect they are the same) that includes itself and our own reading habits. The pages on Paul West’s novel are particularly chilling. As might be expected, Coetzee’s novel was patronised, ridiculed and dismissed by critics (I’m thinking of Jonathan Yardley in the US and Robert Macfarlane here in the UK) who don’t like to have the little people’s escape tunnel routed back into areas which they require fiction to keep at a distance. And I mean fiction in itself, not its subject.

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for the argumentative support. We are certainly in agreement about this. Great blog, by the way.

    ReplyDelete

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