Living in Extremity: On Julia May Jonas’s “Vladimir”

March 9, 2022   •   By Lily Hart Meyersohn

Vladimir

Julia May Jonas

I caution you as I was never cautioned: 

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth —

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THESE LINES, taken from Louise Glück’s 2001 poem “The Sensual World,” could well function as an epigraph to Julia May Jonas’s 2022 debut novel, Vladimir. In the novel, Jonas, a multidisciplinary artist, playwright, and theater director, took up the opportunity to describe interiority in a way a playwright is not generally afforded. In part, the interiority reflected in Vladimir’s narrator is Jonas’s own. But it is also a future projection: the narrator is many years older than Jonas. In a discussion with me in November 2021, she called the book a “letter of fear” — fear of wanting the earth, then more of the earth; fear that “I’m expected to want less as I get older. The world will ask me to shut myself down — just when I’m starting to finally feel like I want things.”

It follows that Vladimir is a cautionary tale. The opening page depicts the narrator looking over the body of a tawny, sleeping man shackled to a chair. Meet, well, Vladimir. The story’s trajectory will lead us back to this sinister image. But first, Jonas invites us to indulge a nostalgia for the university — its offices, its libraries, the picturesque town surrounding it. Think Upstate New York or Western Massachusetts; think Philip Roth’s 1995 Sabbath’s Theater or his 2000 The Human Stain (or, more recently, Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman’s The Chair [2021]).

At the outset of the novel, much of the “action” of the narrator’s life has come and gone. She is an unnamed middle-aged professor of English literature who has already received her tenure, written her novels (the first “deemed to hold promise,” the second “a disaster”), and raised her lesbian, public-interest-lawyer daughter. Much of the drama of her marriage to John, the English department’s “disgraced chair,” is also behind her. Their partnership is nominal: they do not eat or sleep together and stay largely out of one another’s way outside the office. John awaits a dismissal trial for — what else? — sexual misconduct: seven former students have signed affidavits accusing him of inappropriate behavior. We quickly understand that John has always taken his cues from his own desires, despite his better judgment.

Yet Vladimir does not waste its breath on John. We are little concerned with his affairs, or even with the well-being of those now-grown students with whom he had relationships. His Title IX trial basically functions as a backdrop to the narrative: on the trial’s first day, John and the narrator exchange a few texts about the proceedings, and that’s it. Instead, the bulk of the novel focuses on the narrator’s budding infatuation with a newly arrived star professor on campus, a younger Russian author named Vladimir. In Vladimir’s presence, the narrator begins to feel awake to desire once again. Suddenly, and with a growing ferocity, Glück’s sensual world begins to take shape.

Vladimir is essentially a work of affair literature. But it is, refreshingly, the story of a woman living out her own fantasies while questions about her husband’s affairs — those that make the news — swirl around her. These relationships are not wholly separable: her marriage is of course affected by John’s illicit relationships and their public scrutiny, and the events leading up to his trial help engender the narrator’s feelings of instability, without which her experience of erotic disruption might never have taken place. In this sense, whether Jonas intends it or not, Vladimir is positioned within the ongoing cultural conversation about relationships marked by power differentials, especially ones of age. Jonas does not address this matter head on, focusing instead on the motivations and perspective of a particular character.

True to form as a professor at an elite college, the narrator remains somewhat diplomatic on these issues. Yet we cannot ignore her position as — and the joy she takes in being — a teacher herself. It is almost serendipitous that one of the most significant recent contributions to this discourse about sexuality and power has been The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (2021), since Amia Srinivasan’s arguments in that book form an interesting complement to the relationships explored in Vladimir. In a New York Times op-ed adapted from The Right to Sex, the philosopher writes that, when we encounter relationships such as John’s, the question should not be whether “genuine consent or real romantic love is possible between teachers and students,” but rather whether “when professors sleep with or date their students, real teaching is possible.”

Both John and the narrator are lifelong professors; teaching is their vocation. Jonas goes to great lengths to evoke the college environment: the offices and classrooms, students and colleagues, libraries and departments. Any reader who has found a home within such spaces may again feel welcome in this world, and the narrator relishes life within the institution. But while the narrator has always seen her students as students — in her words, as people “in progress” — John repeatedly neglects to see them the same way. The narrator remembers being a college student herself, and her desire and excitement for her professors at that time. The reason she desired her professors was because she “thought they had the power to tell [her] about” herself. Srinivasan writes that a teacher’s responsibility is to recognize this yearning for what it is and, with caution and care and compassion, direct it toward the appropriate subject: the student’s education.

The narrator has not been a student for many, many years. But her desire to understand herself has not entirely disappeared. Jonas argues that wisdom does not necessarily accumulate as we get older, and her letter of fear is also written in response to the possibility that one might never evolve from the “self-doubt, the anxiety, the feelings of insecurity” that stick to and mark young women. What if periods of instability — a husband’s misconduct trial, for example — make wisdom fall away? Perhaps we would no longer know ourselves; perhaps we would act extremely; perhaps we might even surprise ourselves. Indeed, the narrator takes herself by surprise — in part because she never expected to become (however temporarily) someone more like John: someone who takes cues from her own desires and is driven to act them out. She gives in to daydream, concocting plans — an elaborate meal, a pool party for Vladimir’s family. Then there is spying, lying, a kidnapping, a drugging. A tawny man shackled to a chair

These scenes nod toward Jonas’s admiration for Iris Murdoch, whose own stories often center on jealousy, obsession, and vanity. Murdoch’s characters balance an astute, self-aware quality with a capacity for living inside what Jonas calls “extremity.” Jonas’s narrator also treads this line: her narrator is astute, even cutting, but as her obsession with Vladimir snowballs, her behavior reaches extremity. The plot turns increasingly maximalist, and eventually leads toward peril. For although the narrator’s environment may seem cozy, even quaint, it contains a darker undercurrent. And Jonas duly notes that, if the book borrows from any canon, it would be the Gothic novel. She has always been more interested in “Camp Brontë than Camp Austen,” a place where “fire and blood and terror are always below the surface, ready to peek their heads out. Where we can trust no one. Least of all ourselves.”

It is not entirely clear what lurks beneath the surface of the narrator’s primarily imagined, and ultimately enacted, obsession with Vladimir. We understand that, even as a child, she loved to be captivating, that the approval of “old men […] filled [her] with pleasure.” But in the novel’s central twist, the narrator’s fear of never again being captivating is transformed into an infatuation with a younger man. Most readers will be all too aware that the object of obsession reflects more on the obsessive than it does on the love object. The narrator cannot dodge the self-absorption inherent in this kind of erotic obsession. She has always considered herself a vain person — in her eyes, vanity is her worst quality. Most often, this vanity is realized through judgments the narrator makes about herself and other women. “[W]omen’s bodies,” she learned in her youth, “were to be noticed and scrutinized and found attractive in all sorts of ways.” On page after page, she critiques her own body, struggling with its fluctuations: the tone of her calves, the effect gravity exerts upon her skin. I may never forget her description of upper-arm fat (what my own mother always called her “flubber”) as “flesh hanging like a ziplock bag half-filled with pudding.” Even the happy period when she and John first fell in love is described this way:

I was an ideal weight when he met me[.] […] [O]ver the next few years I gained a massive amount of weight and smoked like a chimney, so that when we finally married I looked like a little squat toad, wearing a face with no contrast, a bad haircut, graying skin, and dry patches.

These self-lacerating passages can be draining. They can also sometimes be irritating. But the narrator’s self-criticisms also twist back on themselves, becoming almost playful references to the male authors whose books — as much as she enjoyed or respected them — always made Jonas feel “ashamed to be a woman.” The Roths and Updikes of the world made it impossible to “get away with anything,” she says. “You can’t get away without being seen as a body.” Not when John Updike is describing your cellulite or the light down of your mustache. Vladimir’s narrator also can’t escape. The bodies of the students on campus, and the sense of possibility they represent, taunt her relentlessly. In these young women, she sees an energy she never harnessed in her own life — one that they might never harness as well. In the college library, she gazes out a window at a student leaning against a tree. “Even in one year,” she muses, the freshman’s body, “despite all her stubborn urgings and attempts, would thicken in the waist and haunches to support the load of her curves.” The thought is rife with schadenfreude, heavy with her own disappointment. Jonas echoes what may be Murdoch’s most famous lines: “Yes of course I was in love with my own youth. […] Who is one’s first love?”

The narrator’s pursuit of Vladimir allows her to pursue her own youth. This is in keeping with recent accounts of marital infidelity. In her 2017 book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, celebrity psychotherapist Esther Perel points to Octavio Paz’s description of eroticism as a thirst for otherness: “So often, the most intoxicating other that people discover in the affair is not a new partner, it’s a new self.” In line with this logic, Vladimir’s narrator is not turning away from John, or even toward Vladimir, but rather away from the person she has become. In doing so, she discovers a forgotten or ignored younger self begging for renewal. Vladimir himself perceives that (in Perel’s words) the narrator is experiencing an “intimate encounter with [herself], mediated by him.” Vladimir says this clearly, even cruelly: “[Y]ou cast me in this role — I’m just playing it out for you.” So, Vladimir proves disappointing — or rather, he proves unexceptional, merely human, which is exactly what the early stages of infatuation fail to consider.

Vladimir refocuses the “desire question.” The novel is fascinating not because of its treatment of desire per se, but instead because of its unquestioning acceptance of it — of its capacity to rear its ugly, craving head at any moment of our lives, even long past the time when it is expected to go quietly. Julia May Jonas is not content with asking what do you want? or even why do you want it? — those questions we fall into because we think they might help us understand ourselves, just as a professor might. By contrast, the novel begins to ask a harder question: What happens if you get what you want? What if you get the person you want, by any means necessary? What will you find? And what are the consequences? By asking and then putting forth answers to those tougher questions, Vladimir is able to descend into its own extremity.

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Lily Hart Meyersohn is a nonfiction writer living in Brooklyn, New York.