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Her banner yet waves

Erica Jong has made a career of asserting women's right to be sexual beings -- this time for an older set.

June 20, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

The high priestess of the sexual revolution is basking in the warm spring air wrapped around the Chateau Marmont. Erica Jong may not be the sort of person who's spent much of her adult life sleeping alone, but she's talking about how she definitely wasn't expecting company in her hotel room the night before.

"At 4 in the morning, the standing lamp in my room started to flicker, and it went on and off and on and off," she says as she sips iced tea on the hotel lawn. "Suddenly, it went on and I looked around and thought, 'This place is haunted. Who is visiting me?' " Jong laughs heartily.

The Chateau's anonymous interloper of yore isn't the only ghost visiting Jong these days. Isadora Wing, her lascivious fictional counterpart who made "zipless" an adjective for an activity that still can't be repeated here three decades later, is also back in town. Wing's bawdy romps in the groundbreaking "Fear of Flying" spurred sales of 12.5 million copies worldwide and asserted women's right to be sexual beings. Now, in honor of its 30th anniversary, the novel is being reissued by New American Library. (Norton is also reissuing paperback editions of Jong's novels "Fanny" [1980] and "Shylock's Daughter" [1987], with reading group guides.)

Of course, three decades is quite a chunk of time, longer than the fresh-faced young waitress delivering coffee to Jong's table has even been on the planet. In all likelihood, the Generation Y-er is a beneficiary of the shake-up in sexual mores accomplished by people her parents' age. But when she's asked if she recognizes Jong's name, she politely demurs. Jong, a radiant 61, simply smiles. "Fame is fleeting," she says wryly.

Fame may be fleeting, but maturity isn't, and Jong's latest heroine, Sappho, is heir to the author's hard-won wisdom. "Sappho's Leap" (W.W. Norton & Co.), her eighth novel, may still be animated by a heroine who considers sex to be her due, but the 50-ish Sappho is far from the miniskirted Wing who bounced from bed to bed in her nubile 20s.

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Greek poet re-imagined

The book opens with the archaic Greek lyric poet poised at a cliff, contemplating a leap that, legend holds, she made in her grief over being spurned by the handsome ferryman Phaon. In Jong's hands, Sappho has better things to do than kill herself over a cute guy.

After rereading Sappho's work, the author decided to re-imagine the poet's life. Jong was in her 50s and finally understood why Sappho's songs went on to inspire lovers and poets for the next 2,600 years. "Sappho is a mother. She's a grandmother by the end of the book, and she has a long view of the world. I have a long view of the world, and one of the reasons I wanted to write a novel set in ancient Greece was because I think that at times of trouble and conflict in the world, you go back to the ancients and say, 'What is enduring? What is eternal? What doesn't change about women?' "

Jong's ripened Sappho is finding little favor among critics except as a breezy read. Stanford classics professor Joy Connolly wrote in the New York Times, "Think swoons and sun-kissed skin, ripe flesh, ecstasy and anguish, and you're halfway to catching the drift of the novel." She later added, though, that "it's gratifying to encounter a Sappho whose sex drive is based in pleasure instead of neurosis, and who is interested in politics as well as pillow talk."

Connolly is referring to Isadora, Jong's masterwork of jumbled neuroses. Even Jong finds Isadora annoying at this point. "When I try to reread 'Fear of Flying,' which is very hard for me to do even now, I feel like this girl in her 20s.... Why is she so frantic? Can't she just relax? She's so fartutst," Yiddish for frantic, confused. "She's always falling into bed with the wrong man."

Jong laughs easily when she contemplates her life's surprising turns. "Fear of Flying" may have trapped the sexual revolution in amber, but for someone identified with the post-Pill, free-love era, Jong likes marriage so much she's done it four times (and happily figures she's on her last one, to lawyer Ken Burrows). For many years after the book was published, she labored under the unexpected epilogue to monster-hit first novels -- the pressure for an encore.

In the new afterword to "Fear of Flying," which is taught in women's lit courses around the country, she writes: "I used to worry that 'Fear of Flying' was so much more famous than my 20 or so other books that it dwarfed my life's work.... Such worries are behind me. It is rare for an object of paper and ink to become an event in people's lives."

Jong chalks up her newfound serenity to impending senior citizenship. "The terrible, terrible truth is that maturity is a great thing," she says with a laugh. "Yes, there's a lot of ageism. People want to put you on the shelf and all that, but actually what it does for you as a person is great."

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