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NEW YORK — The most widely known anecdote about the poet Sappho concerns her death: She is said to have thrown herself off a cliff because of unrequited love for the hunky boatman Phaon. Erica Jong, whose new novel is “Sappho’s Leap” (W. W. Norton & Co.), contends that this story is nothing more than the fabrication of jealous male writers who wanted to undermine their rival’s credibility. There were, after all, many satires that caricatured Sappho after her death.
Jong maintains that there is no theme or metaphor in lyric poetry — or for that matter, song — that was not created first by Sappho. She is justly celebrated for such lines as “I have a daughter like a golden flower” and “a subtle fire runs under my skin.” “Every poet of consequence from Catullus to Sylvia Plath has rediscovered and reinterpreted Sappho,” Jong says, “and all these years, she has never got the credit for it.” In short, Jong contends that Sappho is the mother of all poets.
“Sappho’s Leap” is a rollicking, imaginative re-creation of her life, times and writings, using historical characters such as Aesop, Sappho’s slave Praxinoa and the courtesan Rhodopis as part of the mix. Needless to say, the central character, who is bisexual, doesn’t commit suicide — in fact, she doesn’t even die in the book.
It seems appropriate that Jong would take on the calumny that has attached itself to Sappho’s reputation, since she began her career as a poet and has published six books of poetry in addition to her eight novels. Then, too, she’s known for giving voice to unheard women’s thoughts, as in her famous bestseller, “Fear of Flying,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “A lot of my books are an attempt to find women’s histories that are the histories of women rewritten by men,” Jong says. Sappho, who was Greek, lived 2,600 years ago, 200 years after Homer and a short while after Plato. But unlike those writers, most of what remains of her poetry is fragments. Some of the latter, Jong reveals, were actually so little regarded that the papyrus they were written on was used to wrap mummies, and the poems were only preserved and discovered by chance.
In addition to her new book and the anniversary of “Fear of Flying,” Jong is working on another task, this one long-running — turning her 1980 novel “Fanny” into a musical. Her top choice for the lead, which she once summed up by asking, “What if Tom Jones were a woman?” she notes, is Bernadette Peters because, “I’ve been following her for years. She has a wonderful voice and her renditions of songs are not like anybody else’s.” “Fanny” has been optioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club.
At 61, Jong is still blonde, attractive and youthful-looking. She lives in a big, stylishly furnished apartment on the Upper East Side and in Weston, Conn., with her fourth husband, Kenneth David Burrows, who’s a lawyer, and also with a black standard poodle, Belinda Barkowitz. When she published “Fear of Flying,” Jong says, she was a poet and a medieval scholar in a Ph.D. program at Columbia. The book was a cataclysm, she recalls: “I went from being obscure to being the kind of person other people call in the middle of the night.” She actually spent a year replying to readers who had written her about the book and their personal experiences; it wasn’t until later that she realized that she didn’t owe them anything and didn’t have the time to do that.
As a writer, she says, her primary motivation is to get the reader to “turn the page.” Her next project will concern aging, the way in which women in particular find that they are devalued as they get older.
These days, however, the woman who helped liberate so many others from sexual conservatism, says that “the door opened in the Sixties and Seventies to sexual freedom hasn’t fulfilled its promise. Younger people today, if they’re not totally self-destructive, feel that they want to settle down with partners.” Her own daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Jong and her third husband Jonathan Fast, who is also a writer, has never read her mother’s books because she doesn’t want her writing to be influenced by them. Jong-Fast, who wrote “Normal Girl,” is engaged and is writing a series for Modern Bride about her upcoming wedding.