Approaches to Literary Scholarship: Alter and Nafisi (one cent)

During the summer between my senior year in high school and first year in college, I remember getting the course catalog in the mail.  There were so many courses:  courses I wanted to take, courses I knew I would never be qualified to take, courses that didn’t interest me at all.  And there seemed to me an unlimited number in the first category.

I had been told that (for reasons I don’t remember) that I had placed out of taking any basic level literature courses; I could move right into an advanced level.  You  might think that this would mean that I felt that this was an area I should explore and that I should take advantage of this advanced placement possibility.  In my 18-year old mind, however, I had a different reaction.  I thought to myself:  well, I must know all I need to know of literature; I should take courses in different areas.  And in fact, except for one survey course of Russian literature in translation, I took no literature courses whatsoever.

This is to say that I never had any training on how to read a book of fiction.  I read novels for pleasure only.  I can like a novel, or dislike a novel.  I think a writer is great, or dull.  But I don’t think of characterization, or plot development, or anything else that someone who understands what literature is all about might look at.

And it was just by coincidence that, at virtually the same time, I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and attended four separate lectures by Berkeley professor Robert Alter.

Nafisi was a literature teacher in Tehran, educated in the United States, but returning to her native land in 1979, having leftist leanings and hoping that the revolution would turn her way.  Which of course, it did not.  But nevertheless, perhaps in part because she was married to an architect/engineer who was doing just fine in revolutionary Iran, she remained, teaching for a while at the university level, and then resigning, sitting home, reading and writing and teaching a surreptitious class to a number of young women that she had known at the university.

I was fascinated by her description of her life as an intellectual in Tehran during the 1980s and 1990s, and with respect to this part of the book, I was right at home.  This is the sort of thing I read all the time.  But Nafisi also writes about the literature she was teaching to her students, mainly American and English literature of a kind not looked upon with favor in Iran.  As it turns out, I had read some of what she writes about.  Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov.  Daisy Miller by Henry James.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  Others I have not read:  Washington Square by James, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

But I had read none of the books as she did.  She dug into the characters, deeply, much more deeply than I would ever think to.  Why did he do this?  What was he thinking when he did that?  I would never even begin to ask these questions; I would just take the characters at face value.  And Nafisi would go even further:  how did the way Gatsby react to this or that reflect what we are going through here in Iran?   I have never considered transposing a character in a novel from another place, another time, into my place or my time, to see how they would act, or if I would act as they do, or if I can learn anything about me, or them, or my society from their actions.

This to me was a new way to read a book.  I am not sure I can do it.  Or if I would find it worth the effort.  But I will surely think about things a bit differently.

Alter, like Nafisi, is a teacher of literature.  He has been at Berkeley since 1967 (he is in his 70s; Nafisi in her 50s), starting as a teacher of modern European literature, publishing books on Stendahl and Kafka, among others.  But he had also had early training in Hebrew and the bible, and (almost by accident) turned to bible studies in the late 1970s.  He is now perhaps the foremost authority on the bible as literature.  He has translated the five books of Moses (the Torah), I and II Samuel (the story of King David), and Psalms, and is working on the translation of Kohellet, Proverbs and Job (the Wisdom books).  He is brilliant, with what appears to be an almost perfect recall memory (in Hebrew) of these books.  He was scholar in residence last weekend at both are synagogue and for the Foundation of Jewish Studies; we attended his lectures on translation, on bible narrative, on biblical poetry and on Kohellet (Ecclesiastes).  He lecturing was somewhat dense in style, with example piled upon example, but even if the examples never affix themselves to memory, the broad picture that he paints does.

What interested me (among other things) is how different his approach and Nafisi’s appear to be.  Even though we are dealing with the bible, which, after all, is supposed to give us moral lessons adaptable to our own lives, Alter does not concentrate on the characterization or indeed on the stories.  He concentrates on the use of words.  Why is this sentence so similar to a sentence we find in a different book of the bible, or a different part of the same book?  And now that we see how similar it is, why is it different?  Why is this part of this book prose, and this part (even if only this line) poetry?  And why are some parts poetic, yet written in prose? What is the correct translation of this word?  How do we know?

Alter did not concentrate on the stories or the characters or how they relate to our lives today.  Nafisi did not concentrate on translation; how do/should you translate this passage into Farsi?  What choice did the translator make, and how does that influence how we read the book?

Very different, but equally valid, approaches to the study of literature.  I am sure there are others.  If only I had not placed out of basic level classes when I started college, perhaps I would have learned about them.

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