Do novels still matter in a world where real-life stories are so dramatic? Azar Nafisi’s captivating “Republic of the Imagination: America in Three Books” answers this question with a resounding yes.
Animated by an electrifying intelligence and a generosity that is nothing short of uplifting, this blend of memoir, biography, and a deep reading of three quintessentially American literary texts makes a successful case for the importance of fiction. Nafisi links the freedom of imagination that unites all readers to the founding ideals of our country and the personal values we claim as Americans.
In her 2003 memoir, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” Nafisi wrote about young readers finding respite in the novels of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov when their personal freedoms were scant. In this new book she turns her attention to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers.
Unpacking her own experiences as an exile from Iran and her route to American citizenship alongside her interpretation of these texts, Nafisi illustrates how the characters and conflicts informed her view of the world. “The more alien and menacing Tehran became, the more we had to withdraw from its public spaces, the more vibrant America’s fictional landscape appeared in my imagination.”
Conversations about the central themes and dilemmas in these novels, held in conference rooms, halls of academe, and cafes from Tehran to Washington, D.C., formed the backbone of her most rewarding friendships. This is a powerful suggestion: That when life is difficult and limiting, the connections readers make in and through stories is fundamentally sustaining.
“Republic of the Imagination,” Nafisi writes, emerged from and is meant to inspire “conversations with other readers, those I like to call intimate strangers,’’ bound by the books they read. Nafisi’s prose is breezy and conversational. The reading experience is like having coffee with your favorite brilliant professor, hanging on her every word about a beloved book. Throughout the narrative she also weaves fascinating biographical details from the lives of Twain, Lewis, and McCullers, offering additional insight into the fires that forged these literary minds.
Nafisi first examines “Huckleberry Finn.” Huck epitomizes the American notion of reinvention as he “created a new language from scratch, and, along with it, a new world.” The subversive message of Twain’s book was especially important to Nafisi during the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran. “Reality was confusing and polarized, while fiction was complex, paradoxical and illuminating: that whole vast continent of art and the imagination gave weight and substance to the urgent, emotional, simplified world of protests and demonstrations.” Huck, the vagrant hero, “was a mongrel, an outcast, uneducated and unmoored, and since his creation countless Americans have recast themselves in his image.”
Nafisi draws on a long friendship with her friend Farah, who was exiled from Iran under threat for her life and helped Nafisi formulate her thoughts about Huck and his meaning for contemporary readers. Because “Huckleberry Finn” is ultimately about independence — from racist ideals, from small-mindedness, from ignorance and cruelty — she holds up Huck’s journey as a mirror for Farah’s struggles.
“That image of Farah banging on the door has remained firmly etched in my memory. The price one pays when choosing exile is the loss of so much that defines you as an individual. The only thing that makes this immense loss tolerable is the discovery of a self you did not know existed — of a true independence.”
Although her discussion of Huck Finn is the most rewarding, Nafisi continues to use this method of analysis — a book shapes a person and a friendship, which reshapes a book’s meaning — to contextualize her discussion of “Babbitt,” “the first novel of anxiety,” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” in which the central message is that “indifference . . . is among life’s worst punishments.”
It is indifference that Nafisi argues against, concluding that in novels we find freedom of the imagination, over which no single person will ever have control. The message couldn’t be more relevant in this chapter of our country’s story.
Emily Rapp’s most recent book is “The Still Point of the Turning World.”