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Posts Tagged ‘Invitation to a beheading

“Invitation to a Beheading” by Vladimir Nabokov

This indirect review is extracted from “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi had invited 7 of its students to her home “sanctuary” to discuss literature, primarily English books. For two years, the students showed up every Thursday morning, rain or shine, with reading assignment completed and noted down in diaries…

The original Russian version was published in installments in 1935, and the English version was published in 1959.

Nabokov begins with the announcement that Cincinnatus C., his fragile hero, has been sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostic turpitude”: All citizens are expected to be “transparent”for the common “good feeling” of the community…

Worse, a condemned person to death has this “privilege” of knowing the time of the execution. Cincinnatus C was not to have any idea when his time has come. This is one of the many arbitrariness of the system.

In fact, the executioner, Mr. Pierre, is the cell-mate of the hero, and the hero doesn’t know it. The two prisoners must learn to befriend and cooperate in the act of the execution…

Everything in the cell is fake: the windows, the moon, the spider in the corner…The director of the prison, the jailer,  the defense lawyer are the same person: They change roles and positions.

The world of the novel is one of empty rituals, celebrated in a gaudy feast: Every act has no significant sense, and death is a spectacle that citizens are invited to purchase ticket to watch the execution…

It is through these empty rituals that Brutality becomes possible. This close relation between banality and brutality is expressed by the term “Poshlust

Poshlust is not simply the trashy exhibitionist: It is the falsely “importance, beauty, cleverness, attractiveness…” of authority figures, politicians, the dominant classes…that are required to display…

What standout in the novel is this nightmarish quality of living in a totalitarian atmosphere of perpetual dread…The forces of Evils are also frail creatures and ridiculous, and can be easily defeated: This tragedy of total waste…

Cincinnatus C. is fighting with his instincts and he takes refuge in writing as means for escape, an open space: He refuses to become like all the rest in the community.

In totalitarian and theocratic systems, citizens poke fun at their own miseries, in order to survive, one day at a time: There is no knowing when the arbitrary and absurd decision strikes down

You are completely alone in an illusory world, full of false promises, unable to discriminate the savior from the executioner: An acute sense that reality is fickle and frail.

And yet, when all options are taken away, there is this possibility of a boundless freedom: You could invent to be the violin or be devoured by the void in the empty room...(I am reminded of the movie of the Marquis de Sade who wrote erotic novels, and when all options to write were denied him, even with his blood, he used his excrement to write on the walls of his prison cell…)

At the start of the first session, one of the girls shouted “Upsilambda“. This word is Nabokov’ creation , a possible combination of the 20th Greek letter and the 11th letter. It might signify that vague sense of joy, the impossible joy of a suspended leap, a symbol for a sensation that separates the good readers from the ordinary ones…

Nabokov novel is the modern time initiator to many other novels that tried to describe and express what goes on in totalitarian systems, like “1984” by George Orwell or Fahrenheit…

Note 1: Nabokov wrote in the foreword of the English version: “This novel does not offer “tout pour tout”: It is a violin in the void…I know…a few readers will jump up, ruffling their hair…”

Note 2: To Azar, the work of fiction that would most resonates with lives in this Islamic Republic of Iran are:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, 1984 (George Orwell), Invitation to a beheading (Vladimir Nabokov), Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), Persian classical literature, A Thousand and One Night, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Madam Bovary (Flaubert), Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and of course Lolita

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi resigned from her last academic post at the Tabatabai University in Tehran.  The administration refused for two years to accept the resignation. It is not polite to resign: It is the system that takes the initiative to fire people…

It is the fall of 1995. Azar decided to invite 8 of her best female students to visit her at her home every Thursday morning to discuss literature.  (Thursday and Friday are week-end in Moslem countries).

The theme of the meetings is “Relation between fiction and reality“. Nafisi repeated her warning:

“Do not, at any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction. Refrain from trying to turn a fiction story into a carbon copy of real life….We search in fiction the epiphany of truth…”

One male student insisted on his rights to be included, and he was allowed to read the assigned books and talk on special days.

The girls would shed their veils, scarves, loose black robes…as they entered this sanctuary of mind “open space”: Splashes of color separated the girls, their styles, clothes, length of hair, smiles, laughters…Even the two girls who insisted on keeping their head scarves didn’t look the same.

The girls gained individual outline, shape, inimitable self.

The window faced the Elburz Mountain Chains, covered with snow even in summer.

This reading sanctuary mocked the reality of the black scarves, timid faces in this sprawled city, confiscated and driven underground…

To Azar, the work of fiction that would most resonate with lives in this Islamic Republic of Iran are:

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

2. 1984 (George orwell)

3. Invitation to a beheading (Vladimir Nabokov)

4. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)…

For two years, rain or shine, the students arrived to discuss their reading assignments. Only one student defaulted early on.

This circle of girls read Persian classical literature, A thousand and One Night, Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin), Madam Bovary (Flaubert), Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and Lolita

You have got to use your imagination, picturing girls defying the tyranny of time, politics, ideologies, constraints, the absurd and arbitrary decisions…Girls who didn’t dare imagine themselves other than how they were defined in the family and community…

Girls who transcended to other “open spaces“, of most private and secret moments, most extraordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down shady streets, reading Lolita in Tehran…

Girls giving a different color to Tehran, redefining Nabokov’s novel, and extending variations on Lolita…


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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