Here's to New Mrs. Robinson
In Julia May Jonas’s shocking debut novel Vladimir, the unnamed narrator — a 58-year-old female English professor — takes her lust for a younger colleague to unimaginably dark lengths. How do the ripple effects of patriarchy impact how we understand, even empathize with her monstrous actions? Jonas joins Virginia to mine the depths.
Listen to the episode here, and read a short excerpt below:
Virginia: Julia. Welcome to This Is Critical.
Julia: Thank you so much for having me.
Virginia: I am a little bit too eager to have you here. And so eager that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the narrator of your book Vladimir would dress for a Zoom call. Yeah. And I said, there's makeup involved. There is hair involved. So maybe you can tell me how your unnamed narrator might handle a Zoom call to help us get to know her.
Julia: Sure. I mean, I think she might use, or have someone help her put in a kind of filter to make it more appealing. And I think she would definitely get a light. I think she would do a little bit too much research to her own chagrin about what could make her look better?
Virginia: So let’s go back a little bit. For people who aren't, haven't been living and breathing Vladimir for the past month or so, tell us a bit about the characters. Let’s start with the unnamed narrator.
Julia: Yeah. So she is a 58-year-old college professor, and her husband, who's also a professor, is being investigated for former past relationships with students when the novel opens essentially
Virginia: And then there's also the younger man, the man in the title. Tell us a little bit about him.
Julia: So Vladimir is a 40-year-old experimental novelist who has gotten the position at the college where the narrator works. And he's had one semi-successful novel, successful in the literary way, but not in a necessarily commercial way.
Virginia: Right, so as her marriage is becoming strained, the unnamed narrator becomes completely fixated on this man, Vladimir, almost 20 years younger than her. And the examination of his body, just the beautifully detailed, heavily eroticized description of his body, I don't think I've ever read a description of a man like that before.
Julia: Well, I mean, I think that definitely what I'm trying to do is think about the way that we might have a female writer look at a male body in the same way that female bodies have been looked at by male writers for eternity.
Virginia: And certainly, I mean, it's worth noting that the title of the book, the title of the object of desire is the same first name as Nabokov's. And clearly there are parallels with Lolita.
It took me a while, but slowly of all the shoes that drop while you're reading it, one of them, that you might be reading a female Humbert Humbert, is just, it's your blood runs cold and hot at the same time.
Julia: Right, right. Yeah, I mean, I was reflecting today about when Lolita first came out, Nabokov had to do all these interviews in which these male critics would be like Humbert Humbert, what a fantastic guy, Lolita, what a temptress. Nabokov kind of laughs his way through and feels very uncomfortable answering these questions. But he has charisma. And I think what I was really interested in was thinking about an anti heroic female narrator, who is extremely charismatic, who does the same thing, who tricks us, you know?
Virginia: And with her sophistication. So there was, I taught Lolita for a little while and there were always very earnest, mostly women in the room who were concerned simply that it was a novel about child molestation. And that was, seemed like certainly a legitimate reading, but there were others who, like the people you say, who interviewed Nabokov in the early days, male students, who just couldn't break with Humbert Humbert, because he's so sophisticated. He uses Russian phrases. He uses French phrases. He's got great taste. He's funny. They were willing to countenance this relationship with Lolita because it was something Humbert Humbert wanted, and for an American reader, especially to say, I just find Humbert Humbert so disgraceful, is to forfeit the possibility that you might be a guy like him.
Julia: Right. Right, right.
Virginia: So your narrator, her sophistication. Tell me a little bit about that too, because I found that very interesting.
Julia: Yeah. I mean, I, again, thinking about the Nabokov of comparison, I remember in an early interview, they ask him, you know, in what ways are you like Humbert Humbert? And he says, well, I'm a man of letters. And I thought very much about what it would mean to be a woman of letters. And what positions her as a female intellectual and what permissions that gives her, what perspective that gives her and how she can use that to seduce us really as, as a reader.
Virginia: One of her tricks to seduction, which is all too familiar to me, is to read Vladimir's book really closely and then give him just like incredibly attentive feedback. She writes about it in raptures, but she's obviously completely enthralled him otherwise. This is a question I have maybe not everyone has is Vladimir's book all that good?
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