Sappho, who dates from the 7th century BCE, is considered by many scholars to be one of the world’s greatest love poets, the woman who “gave us the metaphors for passion — ‘I burn for you’ [and] ‘love is a fire’ —lines which people have been recycling for 2,600 years, without knowing who wrote them,” said novelist Erica Jong. According to Jong, her entire career has been about “trying to create female heroines, to fill the gap, [to make up for] the absence and the erasing of women’s lives.” “All of my books,” she said, “are about getting rid of the erasures.”
This year, on the 30th anniversary of the publication of “Fear of Flying,” American literary icon Erica Jong will present readers with her ninth novel, “Sappho’s Leap” (W.W. Norton, May 2003).
As she explained in a recent interview with the Forward at her Upper East Side apartment, Jong “re-fell in love with Sappho’s fragments” seven years ago, and has spent much of her time since then thinking and writing about the ancient poet from the island of Lesbos. Her primary motivation was the insight that “Sappho’s concerns are our concerns: love, and passion for a daughter,” and she wanted to find out “what women from the ancient world have to say to us today.” As a self-labeled “defrocked graduate student,” Jong did the requisite research for the historical novel but found almost nothing that could be pinned down as fact. “What we do know is that her father was Scamandronymus,” who was, as she wrote in the novel, “a distant myth, always coming and going surrounded by men with bronze-tipped spears”; her daughter was named Cleis (as was her mother); and she was married off to a repellent man named Cercylas — a name which might very well have been one of Sappho’s practical jokes, said Jong, since it roughly translates as “a prick from the Isle of Man.”
Even the story of Sappho’s supposed suicide — a leap off of the Leucasian cliffs — was probably apocryphal, she said, “an attempt to diminish her, to humble her, and in effect to say, ‘See, she had talent and still couldn’t cope.’”
By imagining the life of Sappho, Jong said, she was “trying to give people the courage to take risks with their lives…. [When women] read great literature, and women are not in it, except as sirens, they feel they don’t have a spiritual place; they are just caretakers.” Jong avoided this perception in “Sappho’s Leap” by echoing the events in Homer’s “Odyssey” “from a woman’s point of view.” At the exact midpoint of the novel, for instance, Sappho goes to the underworld and meets her father, similar to how Odysseus meets his mother in the “Odyssey.” But she also addresses Sappho’s dilemma: “How do you survive, love, handle the responsibilities of motherhood, and try at the same time to be an artist?” She will address similar questions in her next novel, which she said will be “more autobiographical, and about getting older and dealing with aging parents.”
Although “Sappho’s Leap” is certainly not “The Shaker Book of Plainsong,” it is more than a sexual romp. “Writing about sex in 2003 is not new,” said Jong. “In ‘Fear of Flying,’ I was trying to break open Pandora’s box. That box has been opened, but the losing of women’s heroes has continued. What I was concerned with here is passion, and whether it makes us weaker or stronger, and that’s the point of this book.”
Despite a harried schedule, Jong said she will always make time for new work by the following writers: John Updike, “because he’s not afraid to take risks, to venture in and out”; Doris Lessing, “because she has an adventurous mind, and I love that”; Philip Roth, “because he infuriates you, and he’s a writer with a ravishing large talent and an arrested, truncated emotional development”; Anita Brookner, “for the beauty of her language”; and Wislawa Szymborska, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for “View with a Grain of Sand.”
“All of these writers,” said Jong, “tell me why it is better to be a woman than a man.”
Mickey Pearlman is the author of “What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers” (HarperCollins, June 1994).