Julia May Jonas’s debut novel, Vladimir, opens with an arresting tableau. The unnamed narrator, a 58-year-old literature professor, has the object of her obsession — a hot young colleague — unconscious and shackled to a chair in an isolated house out in the country. The narrator’s unhinged desire ultimately leads to many revelations and transformations, not least regarding how she sees herself. “I’m always interested in sex as an act of self-perception,” she told me. For our “Best Sex I Ever Read” column, Jonas picked a passage from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: A Man in Love, in which Knausgaard and his wife watch the 1979 Tarkovsky film Stalker before sleeping together. “The interesting thing is that even attempting to watch this film is arousing in and of itself for him,” she said. “There’s something that appeals to me about people not having a straightforward relationship to their desire.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: A Man in Love:
‘Are we up for Stalker?’ I asked, turning to her.
‘OK as far as I’m concerned,’ she said. ‘Put it on and let’s see.’
I inserted the DVD in the player, switched off the ceiling light, poured a glass of red wine, sat down beside Linda, took the remote and chose the language of the subtitles. She cuddled up to me.
‘Does it matter if I fall asleep?’ she asked.
‘Not at all,’ I answered, putting my arm around her.
I had seen the introduction with the man who wakes up in the dark damp room at least three times. The table with all the small objects shaking as a train passes. The man shaving in front of the mirror, the woman who tries to hold him back but fails. I had never got much further than that.
Linda placed her hand on my chest and looked up at me. I kissed her, and she closed her eyes. I stroked her back, she held me tight, almost clung to me, I laid her down, kissed her neck, cheek, mouth, rested my head on her bosom, heard her heart pounding, removed her soft jogging pants, kissed her stomach, her thighs… She looked at me with her dark gaze, with her beautiful eyes which closed as I penetrated her. We don’t have any protection, she whispered. Do you want to get it? No, I said. No. And when I came, I came inside her. That was all I wanted.
Afterwards we lay close to each other for a long time without speaking.
‘Now we’ll have another child,’ I said at length. ‘Are you ready for that?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Oh yes. I am.’
What came to mind when I thought about the best sex I’d ever read was the line about how he “removed her soft jogging pants.” Knausgaard’s whole project, especially book two of My Struggle, is about constantly trying to reach for a sense of the sublime while being stuck in banality. At this moment in the book, he and Linda have three kids, and he feels very oppressed by fatherhood and family life. But the sweatpants line captures this attempt to reach for something profound while also being stuck in your life, on your couch, with your crumbs. When I reread it, I remembered that they were watching Stalker, which I have fallen asleep to ten times. I so relate to that idea of aspiration. Watching this film allows him to think of himself as a certain kind of person. He has more self-regard for himself because of his choice of watching Stalker, and that alone is arousing to him in his long marriage with his three kids. He’s seeing himself in this new way, and that’s what allows him to approach his wife.
I really respond to sex that is put forward very straightforwardly because I think the characters’ minds are retreating in those moments. At the same time, there’s something that appeals to me about people not having a straightforward relationship to their desire, particularly in long-term relationships. I’m interested in how you break through these barriers, be they the crumbs on your couch or your aspirations or anxieties. How do you find what will lift you out of that in order to actually release into sex?
The sex in Vladimir is so much about my narrator trying to find a new way to look at herself in a changing world. Her marriage is changing, her job on campus is changing, her relationship to her daughter is changing, and the sexual fixation on Vladimir gives her an opportunity to see herself in a new way. That’s what’s so energizing about it. That’s the benefit of a crush — this ability to re-situate yourself in your own perception, or at least hope for that. In her mind, Vladimir is so beautiful, so completely uncompromised, and that’s why I think he’s so sexy to her. She’s painted him in these beautiful strokes, like a Tarkovsky film. She makes him with her perception, and he becomes that uncompromised object that then can elevate her.
We are given a lot of very straightforward scripts about what is actually sexy. But when I can see a character being aroused, in this case because of art and his own shifting self-perception, I find that inspiring. We’re so much more unpredictable about sex than we think we are. Often, there are these moments of opening where we become receptive to sex. Take the way he jumps viewpoints. We’re watching him, he puts his arm around her, we’re watching them. Then we’re watching the screen, and we’re trying to get inside of the thing he’s talking about wanting to see. The dark, damp room, the table with the small objects shaking. It’s a moment of thinking about the persistence of images we can hold onto. He’s remembering these images, but I always get a sense that they are watching the movie as these images are unfolding. There’s something really sweet about the fact that he gives us the images — he wants you to slow down and really see them. By doing that, he’s trying to give you imagery that will energize you. And then he feels her hand on his chest, and his viewpoint switches back to her. By that point, you can feel that he’s stirred. The juxtaposition is so good. He’s attempting to be an artist, even as the actual reality of life is fundamentally inartistic.
The sex itself is very straightforward. We’re inside his mind and there’s not a lot of editorializing. Something I’m always struck by with Knausgaard is that he is always looking at the people around him as objects in a way. He doesn’t feel particularly connected to Linda. It actually feels like someone writing who’s not necessarily fully comfortable writing about sex. The language is purposefully removed. He’s someone who can write forever about how Tarkovsky makes water look afresh in our eyes. But when it comes to a physical experience, you get the sense that he can’t fully connect. We’re not getting any sense of her response, for instance. And who knows? She could be moaning. But he very rigidly sticks to what he’s doing inside of the passage. It’s more about the real impossibility of truly and clearly seeing another person. He’s inside of his experience, not reaching out for hers. And in writing about their sex, you get that sense he doesn’t fully know how to connect to her or what she’s feeling.
And then there are the huge consequences that come with sex. I love the idea of sex as these erotic flashes, and when we remember it, we only remember it as bursts and bits of light. It emerges in the darkness for us. But it can have these immense consequences. For them, at the end, he comes inside of her and they go on to have another child. It’s the fourth child, which really does break them by the end of this series. But he comes inside of her so simply. In the moment, he’s taken away. He thinks, I will have another child! Four! They live in a very small apartment in Sweden. The news is delivered so economically, but when you think about it, it is so reckless. It’s the human trick — we can’t understand how much this act is going to affect us in the moment. He’s tricked by the Tarkovsky, and by his new sense of possibility that comes from even choosing this film to think that this thing will be okay. The very thing he’s trying to escape, he gets sucked back into.