Vacation reading

I’ve been relaxing for a couple of weeks – as you may have inferred from my prolific post production. Among my diversions, I’ve been reading. The pandemic had mostly eviscerated my appetite for words (as it had for sex), but, as I’ve emerged from my depression, I’ve seen a concomitant increase in almost all of my appetites – including, thankfully, for words written by others.

My recent reading jag I kicked off with Remains of the Day. I never saw the movie and I’m not sure what led me to borrow it from the library, but borrow it I did. And I just loved it – much to my surprise. The book is heartbreaking, subtle, and really really interesting in its depiction of the British serving class in between the two world wars, and in the lead-up to – and aftermath of – the second of those.

While I was reading that book, I read of a book the odious Bret Stephens mentioned, in an aside, in a typically disagreeable column of his. He wrote:

Naipaul intended his lecture as a celebration of the West. But he sensed an undercurrent of disquiet, which he found expressed in Nahid Rachlin’s 1978 novel, “Foreigner.” The book is about an Iranian woman who works in Boston as a biologist and seems well assimilated to American life. But on a return visit to Tehran she loses her mental balance and falls ill. The cure, it turns out, is religion.

That passage (which turns out to be pretty misleading, or at least its last sentence is) led me to the book.

I’m not sure what led me to depart from my typical avoidance of Stephens’s thoughts, but in any event, these very few words about Foreigner: A Novel, by an Iranian emigre to the US, published in the very-interesting-year-for-such-a-novel of 1978, inspired me to buy the book. And, more important, to read it.

Foreigner: A Novel is fascinating, a semi-autobiographical novel about an Iranian emigre to the US, returning to Iran to visit her aging parents. Loosely based on the author’s own such trip, in 1975, the novel tells a compelling story both about the protagonist and about Iran, on the eve of the revolution. And because she published the book in 1978, she didn’t yet know of the massive transformation her erstwhile country was about to undergo.

Foreigner: A Novel reminded me of my curiosity about Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir about which I had long been curious, which I read next. Though much of the book soared over my head – it’s a very erudite discussion of dozens of 19th- and 20th-century works of British and American fiction, as a way of understanding Iran in the years leading up to, and after, the revolution. And, like Foreigner: A Novel before it, through the eyes of women. The erudition was mostly wasted on me – I never read 95% of the novels the author uses to tell her story – but I loved it nonetheless. After reading it, I feel like I have a much better understanding both of Iran and of literature. The book would make a great organizing principle for a reading group. [A note: the author – a secular Iranian – clearly idealizes pre-revolutionary Iran, often describing it idyllically, as if SAVAK had barely existed, as if the Shah had been a benevolent leader, and the US, a benevolent ally of the Iranian people. This seems wrong to me, or at least, reflects the experience of a very particular slice of pre-revolutionary Iranian society.]

And though Reading Lolita in Tehran only incidentally concerns Lolita – the book’s marketers clearly devised the title – I decided it was time for me to re-read that book – a glorious novel I last read twenty or thirty years ago. And that’s where I am now – about a quarter of the way through Nabokov’s masterpiece. And I. Am. Loving. It. Nabokov is such a phenomenal, evocative, clever writer. I find myself highlighting spectacular passage after spectacular passage, and looking up word after word. One stellar example, of Humbert’s experience on discovering that his first wife’s lover had neglected to flush his urine:

I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually, I daresay it was nothing but middle-class Russian courtesy (with an Oriental tang, perhaps) that had prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me), a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle.

Another lovely turn of phrase: “moth holes had appeared in the plush of matrimonial comfort.” And, “Years of secret sufferings had taught me superhuman self-control.” And, “Actually, she was at least in her late twenties (I never established her exact age for even her passport lied) and had mislaid her virginity under circumstances that changed with her reminiscent moods. I, on my part, as as naive as only a pervert can be.” And “… an asthmatic woman, coarsely painted, garrulous, garlicky, with an almost farcical Provencal accent….”

And just a couple of words and phrases: coruscating (sparkling), le gredin (French for “scoundrel”), melanic (afflicted with melanism, or unusual darkening of body tissues caused by excessive production of melanin), and voluptas (pleasure or delight).

I have a feeling that, when I finish Lolita, more of Nabokov will follow. I never read anything else by him.

I do enjoy reading.

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