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Arts and Culture News

A Reading from 'Lolita'

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It was 50 years ago this month that Vladimir Nabokov published "Lolita," and since then the classic story of Humbert Humbert's obsession with a 12-year-old girl has been analyzed, lauded, vilified and honored as great and daring literature. Azar Nafisi's memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," tells of her experience a decade ago secretly teaching the book and some of the other great works of Western literature to a group of Iranian women. We asked her to read us her favorite passage from "Lolita."

Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): I chose this passage from the last part of "Lolita." It's after Humbert Humbert has already lost any hope of repossessing Lolita, and has seen Lolita, who has changed from his beautiful 12-year-old nymphet to a broken 17-year-old pregnant woman. And he's now reflecting on what he has done to her and whether he can ever be forgiven for the sin of taking away Lolita's childhood from her.

(Reading) Unless it can be proven to me, to me, as I am now today with my heart and my beard and my putrefaction, that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac. Unless this can be proven, and if it can, then life is a joke, I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet, the moral sense in mortals is the beauty we have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.

There is so much miscomprehension about this book. Unlike what some people acclaim, this book is not a celebration of a pedophile's love for a 12-year-old child. But it is, in fact, about the cruelty of not seeing other people's reality, of imposing your own desires and your own illusions upon someone else's life and reality, the way Humbert did with Lolita. And I think that it is a celebration of the empathy imagination creates with us, whether it is with the 12-year-old Lolita or a child who has lost her parents in the hurricane or a mother who has lost her child in the war with Iraq or in Afghanistan or in Iran.

SIMON: Azar Nafisi at 22 minutes before the hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.