Jong Redefines ‘Sapphic’ Along Omnisexual Lines

Sappho’s Leap, by Erica Jong. W.W. Norton, 316 pages, $24.95.

The Nile isn’t the only sodden delta in the ancient world. No. As she trips about the Mediterranean, tricky-fingers Sappho-that peerless crooner-leaves behind a trail of damp deltas that would give Anaïs Nin pause.

But this isn’t Anaïs Nin-it’s the fearless Erica Jong, whose latest historical novel, Sappho’s Leap , takes us back to 600 B.C. and all those ancient waterways.

According to Sappho, you can’t understand Sappho without understanding Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This is how our heroine begins explaining why we first find her standing on a cliff, contemplating a “jump into the wine-dark sea”-a lover’s leap. Her long life flashing before her eyes, Sappho reasons that this is as good a place as any to begin her story.

Which begins and ends with a great love: Alcaeus, the golden-haired, honey-voiced, muscle-bound warrior poet. Alcaeus and Sappho are separated early on, banished from each other and from Lesbos. After Sappho gives birth to Alcaeus’ love child, the baby is kidnapped by her mother. From there, Sappho begins a lifelong pursuit of reunion with her man and her daughter-an action-packed journey that will bring her, 50 years later, to this cliff, where she will either leap or fall.

Led by wit, wile and the gift of song, poor Sappho is really only a pawn in a bet between Aphrodite and Zeus. Aphrodite claims that “a woman singer can be as great as any man.” Zeus counters that Sappho would “throw it all away for the love of an unworthy man.” Those gods, they’re always playing with us.

In her classic essay “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” (1914), Rebecca West argued that literature is too important to take lightly and that it should be judged with respectful severity (“We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom”). At least where Erica Jong is concerned, critics have always lashed away. Ever since Fear of Flying , 30 years ago, reviewers have lambasted her gimpy syntax, cartoonish diction and habit of putting supporting characters on soapboxes. “Don’t pay attention to critics” is one of Ms. Jong’s cardinal suggestions to young writers. She practices what she preaches: All the old defects are present and accounted for in Sappho’s Leap .

But a reader grows quickly inured to purple prose. Lines like “A gash in his thigh lets life leak out of him. The boar’s tusk has opened his leg as if it were a womb and the ground is clotted crimson with his blood” only rankle in the first pages. None of her harsh critics denied that once you’re used to the “clotted crimson,” there’s something totally irresistible about Ms. Jong’s yarns. Call it a brazen imagination, a passion for her subject and a bare-naked, almost discomfiting psychological astuteness.

That psychological insight shines through in the portrayal of Sappho as daughter and mother-roles she’s not terribly good at. She pines 20 years for her daughter, but when the family is finally reunited, Cleis is embarrassed by her eccentric, oversexed and slightly out-of-fashion mother. She wishes Sappho would act more “normal.” Sappho tries to be a good parent-the kind who might lead a Girl Scout troop-but deep down, she’s incapable of suppressing her true, ribald nature for anyone, even her beloved “golden flower.” Meanwhile, Sappho’s relations with her own mother are heated, irrational, jealous and carnal. When Sappho gives birth, she physically craves her estranged mother’s presence. When her mother is on her deathbed, only Sappho’s forgiveness and affection bring final comfort. With every altercation, Sappho manages to twist the issue, Electra-like, into a battle over who loved and was loved better by her long-dead father. Variations on a theme: When Sappho and friends are captured by Amazon warriors, they learn that even the original girl-power advocates banish their sullen daughters during the “terrible age”-13 to 17. “How wise! How wonderful!” exclaims one of Sappho’s group. You wonder if teenage girls were as awful back in the days when 15 was practically middle-aged; separation, though, does seem a wise, wonderful remedy for the adolescent jag.

Actually, Sappho likes girls of the “terrible age.” Indeed, she can’t keep her hands off the nubile lovelies in her own care: “Each night, I would take one of the girls to bed with me and teach her about pleasure-a priestess’ prerogative.” This randy enthusiasm for same-sex couplings is ironically where Ms. Jong’s wrests Sappho away from Queer Theory. Her Sappho doesn’t love women; she has sex with them. She’s an omnivore: “the divine delta, that juicy fig, the powerful phallus, that scepter of state …. If you are lucky enough to love,” she wonders, “who cares what decorative flesh your lover sports?” But, in fact, where true love is concerned, this Sappho is an unreconstructed heterosexual.

The most engaging interpersonal dynamics are reserved for Sappho’s three heterosexual affairs. Alcaeus is the eternal soul mate who, like all good love interests, is mostly off-stage. Their love is perennially one step away from “happily ever after … ” by virtue of a Shakespearean catalog of tempests, misunderstandings and political infighting. Aesop, the fable-maker-an Egyptian stud, it turns out-is enamored of Sappho, and acts as her protector and companion for the bulk of her “middle period.” But his ardor is unrequited; Sappho thinks of him more as a friend. Predictably, when she takes an eventual tumble with Aesop, it’s a moment of weakness (cold feet), when she’s on the verge of making a “real commitment” to Alcaeus. In Sappho’s late period, she’s tempted by young, beautiful Phaon, and indulges a kind of Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone . Unlike Mrs. Stone, though, Sappho doesn’t lose her heart. She sees through the bewitching youth, bequeaths him instead to her daughter, and extricates herself with a final leap to freedom.

Ms. Jong’s warm-blooded Sappho, with her writer’s block and 21st-century neuroses, is less “Sapphic” than she is a champion of squirmy physicality, epic love and-best of all-heroic nonconformity.

Minna Proctor is working on a book for Viking about the idea of spiritual calling.