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April 30, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 30, 2004

Poetic license Poetic license (April 30, 2004)

Novelist Erica Jong revisits ancient Greece in 'Sappho's Leap'

by Robyn Israel

Erica Jong calls the subject of her eighth novel a cross between Madonna and Sylvia Plath -- like the Material Girl in her colossal fame and like the tortured 20th-century poet in her ferocious truthfulness and legendary suicide.

The person in question is Sappho, the Greek erotic poet whose songs were performed throughout the ancient world. Her images of love and desire have lasted for centuries and have inspired poets, songwriters and Jong.

"She invented the whole vocabulary of erotic love," Jong said in a recent phone interview from New York City. "She wasn't following a tradition that existed; she created the tradition. She created the metaphors that you still hear in songs today -- 'A fire runs over my flesh. I freeze. I burn.' Sappho was a very passionate woman."

Her amorous adventures are recounted in "Sappho's Leap," (Norton, 2003) Jong's fictionalized account of the poet's life. It is one of several Jong works that will be referenced on Monday when Jong speaks at the Stanford Bookstore on campus. The discussion will focus on American feminism, as it relates to her works and the culture as a whole. Afterwards, Jong and classics scholar Robert Ball will discuss their collaboration on "Sappho's Leap" at Stanford's Annenberg Auditorium.

Best known for her groundbreaking 1973 novel "Fear of Flying," Jong sees plenty of parallels between Sappho and Isadora Wing, her earlier protagonist.

"I've always been interested in women who are heroes, women who go beyond the limits imposed on their lives. My first novel has that, and I think 'Sappho's Leap' has that. And the contemporary novel I'm currently working on has that.

"My Sappho is a kind of female Odysseus who goes on remarkable adventures, even going as far as the Land of the Dead. I think all of my novels have been about women who go beyond the strictures that are put on them."

Jong was first introduced to Sappho in college, but "could not make head nor tail" out of her works, which survived only in fragmented form. Back then, the ancient Greek world seemed so remote, Jong recalled.

She read Sappho again in her 50s. This time, the writings resonated much more powerfully.

"Books sometimes wait on the shelf for us to grow into them; they wait for us to be ready," Jong said. "There came a time in my life when I could really understand Sappho in a deeper way than before. She blew me away."

What Jong realized was that even though Sappho lived 2,600 years ago, she was not dramatically different from the women of today.

"I suddenly realized she could be me," Jong said. "Here was a woman speaking from her heart. She encountered the same problems. The technology was different, but I don't think women from these two eras are all that different."

Not much is known about the real Sappho, other than that she lived in Lesbos circa 600 BCE. According to Jong, it was a time when women had considerably more freedom than women who lived during Plato's time.

People were bisexual, free of sexual guilt as we know it; it was a pagan world. Archaic Greece was every bit as cosmopolitan and international as our own world, Jong said. People traveled for trade, for war, for love.

Many legends about Sappho exist. The most famous is that she threw herself off a cliff in middle age (her 50s) because of the unrequited love she felt for a beguiling young ferryman.

In Jong's novel, Sappho is about to jump off the Leucadian cliff, but stops to tell her story. At the age of 14, she is seduced by the beautiful poet Alcaeus, plots with him to overthrow the dictator of the island and is caught and married off to a repellent older man. The unhappy union triggers a series of amorous adventures that take her from Delphi to Egypt. Throughout her travels, Sappho becomes the most celebrated singer of the ancient world and comes to understand the forces that have shaped her life.

Like so many poets who later adopted Sappho as their muse -- her disciples included Edna St. Vincent Millay A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy and Plath, to name a few -- Jong, too, came under Sappho's intoxicating spell.

But like her predecessors, Jong, too, fashioned Sappho in her own image.

"Of course I projected my own concerns on her -- how can a woman be creative and a mother? How can a woman be brave and a rebel and survive? I think it's impossible to put so much of yourself into a character and not project some of my concerns," Jong said.

Aside from telling Sappho's story, Jong also set out to adapt her fragmented poems. During the course of her research, she read myriad translations, which all produced different works.

Jong enlisted the help of Robert Ball, a professor of classics and chair of the classics division at the University of Hawaii. Well-versed in Aeolic Greek, Ball took apart the Greek verses line by line, translating them into English. He also read them to Jong in Greek, so she could get a feel for the poems' original rhythm and Sapphic meter (an 11-syllable line). The result is an adaptation stylistically appropriate to the flow of the novel, according to Jong.

"I wanted the poetry to move the story along," she explained. "And I wanted the language of the book to take you inside the mind of a poet who lived 2,600 years ago. I hope I've achieved that."

According to Ball, she certainly has.

"I think she was faithful to the Greek, while still capturing the spirit and essence of Sappho," he said. "And her amazing contribution was that she took these fragments and ingeniously put them in serious and humorous contexts throughout the novel. I think readers will remember them better because they are in context."

Asked how she did that, Jong replied: "I used my own poet's intuition to try and understand where those fragments come from in her own life."

Jong's life has been a subject of curiosity ever since the 1973 publication of "Fear of Flying," the groundbreaking story of Isadora Wing and her desire to fly. The book caused a national sensation, fueling fantasies, igniting debates, and even introducing a notorious new phrase to the English language. Thirty years later, the novel that pushed along the sexual revolution still stands as a timeless tale of self-discovery, liberation and womanhood.

In print in 27 languages, "Fear of Flying" has sold 7 million copies in the United States, with worldwide figures reaching approximately 12 million.

Jong went on to write other novels ("Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones," "Shylock's Daughter," "Inventing Memory"), works of non-fiction ("Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir," "The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller"), as well as six volumes of poetry. In 1998 she was honored with the United Nations Award for excellence in literature.

"For over 30 years, Jong has been a leading voice in American feminism, helping American women imagine and live richer, fuller and freer lives. 'Sappho's Leap' is a welcome contribution to the Jong canon," said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English and director of American Studies at Stanford University.

The novel concludes with nine of Jong's own poems that were inspired by Sappho's story.
...She tried to hold The sky in her two arms & failed -- As poets always fail -- & yet the effort of their reach is all..."

~from "Sappho: A Footnote"

by Erica Jong

Who: Author Erica Jong, who will discuss American feminism, as it relates to her works and the culture as a whole. She will also sign copies of "Sappho's Leap" and "Fear of Flying."

Where: Stanford Bookstore art alcove

When: Monday at 2 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 614-0280 or visit
Erica Jong and classics scholar Robert Ball will discuss their collaboration on "Sappho's Leap" on Monday at 3 p.m. at the Annenberg Auditorium, located in the Cummings Art Building, 435 Lasuen Mall. The lecture is entitled "Writing the Historical Novel: Can the Novelist and Scholar Work Together?" It will be presented by the Stanford University department of classics in conjunction with the department of English, the program in feminist studies, the creative writing program and the program in modern thought and literature. It will be open to the public.

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