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A manifesto for readers: The Republic of Imagination reviewed

The task Azar Nafisi sets herself here, to build an argument for fiction in western culture, is one that has driven her personal and professional life.

The Republic of Imagination: a Case for Fiction 
Azar Nafisi
William Heinemann, 338pp, £18.99

What made Azar Nafisi’s “memoir in books”, Reading Lolita in Tehran, such a remarkable success? Published in 2003, Nafisi’s reading of some of western literature’s greatest works, set in the context of revolutionary Iran, struck a chord with readers around the world: it appeared in over 30 languages and spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The title alone catches the eye and the mind, with the contrast between what we know of Vladimir Nabokov’s seductive, shocking tale of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, and what we know – or think we know – about living under an oppressive, theocratic regime. Even before we open the book, we are invited to think creatively, to envision another life. It is that kind of creative thinking that has been the driving force in Nafisi’s life, and which powers her new book, too.

Nafisi, the daughter of a prominent Iran­ian family (her father was once mayor of Tehran), was expelled from the University of Tehran in 1981 for refusing to take the veil. She left Iran for good in 1994, first for Oxford and then the United States, where she is now a visiting professor and the executive director of cultural conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. This book, The Republic of Imagination: a Case for Fiction, has been on her mind a long time. She was at work on it before she wrote Things I’ve Been Silent About (2009), a memoir prompted by her mother’s death. The task she sets herself here, to build an argument for fiction in western culture, is one that has driven her personal and professional life. It is a kind of answer to Reading Lolita in Tehran – and a necessary one at that.

Like that book, The Republic of Imagination blends personal recollection and impression with close literary analysis, this time focusing on just three books. “Huck”, “Babbitt” and “Carson”, her chapters are called: the three books she has chosen as exemplars of why fiction must be central to our understanding of culture are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). There is an epilogue, too, centred around the work of James Baldwin.

These are very American books; indeed, all but one of them, I venture, may not be on the shelves of British readers. But Nafisi is concerned that they may not be on the shelves of American readers, either (though the McCullers novel got a bump from Oprah’s Book Club a few years ago), and while this work is about the state of American culture, what she has to say applies to what is happening on this side of the pond, too. Of the bookshops and libraries she toured to promote Reading Lolita in 2003, many were gone by 2009 (including 12 of the once 14 bookstores in Harvard Square).

But this isn’t just about the rise of Amazon: “The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis; something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people’s actual well-being, that dismisses imagination and thought, branding passion for knowledge as irrelevant.”

How can reading Huck, Babbitt and Carson reverse this crisis? What do these books have in common? Like almost all great novels, they portray the societies in which they are set through the eyes of highly individuated characters. Nafisi argues passionately against the idea that we learn by “identifying” with these characters; it is the fact that the people we encounter in books may be very different from us that allows our imaginations to grow and to change. They are books that shine a light on the societies out of which they were built; reading them closely means looking not only at the worlds they sprang from but the world around us, too. What has changed? What has not? Who are those people and who are we? This is what great fiction does.

Nafisi quotes Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. It is this almost magical attachment that connects readers to a book and to the world. Nafisi’s book calls the reader to return – or to turn for the first time – to the texts she discusses, to look through their authors’ eyes. But the spider’s web is fragile, for all its silken threads are strong; it needs champions like her.

The irony of prizing literature in Iran, where it was considered contraband, and coming to the supposed freedom of America, which disregards what can be consumed so freely, is not lost on her. “But do we need the stark contrast with a totalitarian society to be reminded of the value of free thinking? Why do tyrants understand the dangers of a democratic imagination more than our policymakers appreciate its necessity?” 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game