SAPPHO'S LEAP: A Novel by Erica Jong (Norton), 315 pages. $37.50 cloth. Rating: N Rating: N
I think of Erica Jong as the American sister to Canada's Sylvia Fraser. Both identified as female-positive in the 70s and wrote early novels that brashly challenged female sexual norms. But where Fraser has moved on to deep personal discovery (My Father's House is one of the best books ever written on incest, and lately she's been exploring other cultures and ancient healing arts), Jong appears to have settled into a too comfortable midlife.
Sappho's Leap is ostensibly a historical novel about the great Greek poet. But it's really all about Erica - how she feels about men, sex and children, all crammed into a fictionalized biography.
To be fair, Jong has read Sappho's work in the original Greek, has translated some of the poetry and scatters faux poems through the narrative. Plainly, she was inspired by the lesbian icon.
And what's not to get excited about? Sappho was a brilliant writer, a charismatic teacher and a huge influence on a generation of young women in her time and again in the context of 20th-century feminism.
She was exiled from Lesbos early in her life and spent her years away from the island yearning for her first love, the poet Alcaeus, and for the daughter taken away from her by her own mother.
She was already celebrated as an unparalleled singer and poet, and while she travelled and plotted, her reputation continued to grow, so that when she returned to claim her due she was not only able to be reunited with her daughter but also to reap the rock-star benefits of her fame.
Someone could interpret Jong's version as an attempt to claim Sappho as a heterosexual so highly sexed that she'd even get it on with women. But give up. That's not supported by the texts, which, thanks to the benefits of an inflected language, make the gender of Sappho's love objects very clear.
All that wouldn't matter if the writing were strong. But practically every name or place reference in the book has a subordinate clause giving basic information about it, as if to say "Look what I learned!"
The whole thing reads as if it was written by someone who just took her first course on ancient Greek civilization.