Lila Azam Zanganeh and the Contagion of Happiness

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 loggernautEven on first acquaintance it's clear that Lila Azam Zanganeh is someone who believes deeply, unreservedly in the power of literature to make and remake the world—or at the very least, to help us make our way more richly through it. Her first book, The Enchanter, is the journey of an imaginative, devoted reader into the language and the mind of Vladimir Nabokov. The book is part biography, part critical appreciation, part invention, part homage, and entirely sui generis—a passionate engagement with Nabokov's work and life. Anyone who has read and loved Nabokov's books—and really anyone who has sought and found, in the act of reading a certain author, a life-affirming immersion in remarkable language—will appreciate Azam Zanganeh's creation. The subtitle is "Nabokov and Happiness" and that's one of The Enchanter's main assertions—that happiness is a rare and difficult literary terrain to master, and that Nabokov is "the great writer of happiness."

Although she scarcely mentions it in the book, Azam Zanganeh's life has had its share of parallels to the famous Russian expat. She was born in Paris to Iranian parents who, like Nabokov's, were forced to flee a revolution. Like VN, she grew up in the shadow of an unattainable homeland, and like him she was raised with fluency in several languages before acquiring it in others (remarkably, English, the language in which she now primarily writes, was her fourth language of the six she speaks).

Azam Zanganeh has contributed articles, interviews, and essays in English, French, and Italian to The New York Times, The Paris Review, Le Monde, and La Repubblica, and edited an anthology of contemporary Iranian writing. She was the recipient of the 2011 Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. The Enchanter has been translated into nine languages. -Jesse Lichtenstein

Jesse Lichtenstein: Setting aside the similarities in biography, both you and Nabokov chose English, among several languages you knew, as the language in which to work and spend most of your time. That's interesting to me—that journey into English by choice more than by chance (or due to the simple fact of immigration). Is there some affinity that you see between Nabokov's writing and your own journey into English? What about the English language calls to you as a convert?

Lila Azam Zanganeh: Much as I was reluctant to draw parallels between Nabokov and myself—for obvious reasons, because it would have been pretentious, arrogant, and also kitsch—I think that, for certain, there are similarities in terms of how we came to the English language. It's true that English was a choice for both of us. He could have written in French—he did write a couple of texts in French. I could have written in French, as well, and I decided to improve on my English and inhabit it fully instead.

JL: So, why did you make that choice?

LAZ: A number of reasons. English is totally unique in its expansive vocabulary: there are something like three times as many words in English as in any of the Romance languages, for instance. The lexicon is wider in English because English has borrowed from several source languages at multiple points in time. Sometimes you have the same word via Latin, then Anglo-Norman, then Middle French, etc., borrowed repeatedly across various layers of its history. The French were all about keeping the gates shut and exerting a radiating influence from the center. The English were much more tentacular, so to speak, absorbing everything on the periphery. And as a result the lexicon is prodigiously rich in English. That alone is exciting from a writer's perspective. At the same time, paradoxically, the language is very compact. Apparently, the only language with a shorter version of Hamlet than the original is Russian. So, you have possibilities in English—where you are able to pack and fold things because of the verb-preposition construct—that are wonderfully rich and amusing, that allow you a lot of elasticity and creative freedom. You can say, for instance, "to write oneself into happiness." You can't say that in any of the other languages I am aware of. And, of course, the fact that there are so many English speakers in the world is important—one wishes and hopes to use a language that is widely readable and accessible.

JL: Do you feel, then, that you're at the point where writing in English is entirely natural?

LAZ: It's somewhat natural. I hope it never will be entirely natural. Every day I write, I come up with things and wonder, "Is this exactly correct? Is this completely idiomatic?" But then, even that gray area, that level of uncertainty, is interesting. When one is a bit in love with language, infatuated, and also a bit bold, and perhaps a little mad—because it's always scary, it's always menacing that there should be a degree of uncertainty linked to a language you don't know—well, in the end it's liberating. French for me would not have been liberating. French is a very classical language. It's a language of the 17th century with a more restrictive vocabulary—very ridged, syntactical. Had I stayed within the French language, perhaps I never would've known a medium that sometimes seems so liquid and ethereal. It's just thrilling to make one's way into that uncertainty and learn every day. The thrill and delight of learning new words never seems to wane. This morning I was reading "The Eve of St. Agnes," by John Keats. It's so lovely. There are a few words that I didn't know and that I was looking up, and every single word I went looking for felt rich with color, density, and taste.

JL: You mention in The Enchanter the trilingual sense of echoes and resonances that run through Nabokov's writing. When you're reading Keats, it sounds like you hear these same kinds of echoes from other languages that spring up into the text...

LAZ: It always happens—it's connected to the texture of English. There are so many words in Keats that come straight from the French and that, in truth, I would not have understood had I not spoken French. Take one







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purchase selected works by Lila Azam Zanganeh:

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness

My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes

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