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Erica Jong Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Erica Mann in New York City, 1942. Education: The High School of Music and Art, New York; Barnard College, New York (George Weldwood Murray fellow, 1963), 1959-63, B.A. 1963 (Phi Beta Kappa); Columbia University, New York (Woodrow Wilson fellow, 1964), M.A. 1965; Columbia School of Fine Arts, 1969-70. Career: Lecturer in English, City College, New York, 1964-66, 1969-70, and University of Maryland European Division, Heidelberg, Germany, 1967-68; instructor in English, Manhattan Community College, New York, 1969-70. Since 1971 instructor in poetry, YM-YWHA Poetry Center, New York. Member of the literary panel, New York State Council on the Arts, 1972-74. Since 1991 president of Author's Guild. Awards: Academy of American Poets award, 1963; Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1971; New York State Council on the Arts grant, 1971; Madeline Sadin award (New York Quarterly), 1972; Alice Fay di Castagnola award, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1973; International Sigmund Freud prize, 1979. Agent: Ed Victor Ltd., 162 Wardour Street, London W1V 3AT, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Fear of Flying. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973; London, Secker andWarburg, 1974.

How to Save Your Own Life. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1977.

Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones. New York, New American Library, and London, Granada, 1980.

Parachutes and Kisses. New York, New American Library, andLondon, Granada, 1984.

Serenissima: A Novel of Venice. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, andLondon, Bantam, 1987.

Any Woman's Blues. New York, Harper, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1990.

Megan's Two Houses: A Story of Adjustment. West Hollywood, California, Dove Kids, 1996.

Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"From the Country of Regrets," in Paris Review, Spring 1973.

"Take a Lover," in Vogue, April 1977.

Poetry

Fruits and Vegetables. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1971; London, Secker and Warburg, 1973.

Half-Lives. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973; London, Secker andWarburg, 1974.

Here Comes and Other Poems. New York, New American Library, 1975.

Loveroot. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1975; London, Secker andWarburg, 1977.

The Poetry of Erica Jong. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.

Selected Poems 1-2. London, Panther, 2 vols., 1977-80.

At the Edge of the Body. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1979; London, Granada, 1981.

Ordinary Miracles: New Poems. New York, New American Library, 1983; London, Granada, 1984.

Becoming Light: Poems: New and Selected. New York, HarperCollins, 1991.

Other

Four Visions of America, with others. Santa Barbara, California, Capra Press, 1977.

Witches (miscellany). New York, Abrams, 1981; London, Granada, 1982.

Megan's Book of Divorce: A Kid's Book for Adults. New York, NewAmerican Library, 1984; London, Granada, 1985.

The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller. New York, TurtleBay, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir. New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

What Do Women Want?: Bread, Roses, Sex, Power. New York, HarperCollins, 1998.

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Critical Studies:

Interviews in New York Quarterly 16, 1974, Playboy (Chicago), September 1975, and Viva (New York), September 1977; article by Emily Toth, in Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers edited by Daniel Walden, Detroit, Gale, 1984; "Isadora and Fanny, Jessica and Erica: The Feminist Discourse of Erica Jong" by Julie Anne Ruth, in Australian Women's Book Review (Melbourne), September 1990; Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation: the Example of Erica Jong by Charlotte Templin. Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 1995; Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters: Tracing the Maternal in Stories by American Jewish Women by Janet Handler Burstein. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

* * *

Erica Jong is an impressive poet who writes in the confessional vein of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman. She also creates an energetic, garrulous, witty, and tender verse, both erudite and earthy, about the conflict between sexuality and inhibiting intelligence, about death (and one's impulse both toward and away from suicide), the problems of sexual and creative energy (both consuming and propelling), and the hunger for love, knowledge, and connecting. Although she has aligned herself with the feminist movement, her poetry goes beyond the dilemma of being a woman in a male-dominated world, or for that matter, a Jew in an urban culture, to the ubiquitous need for human completeness in a fiercely hostile social and cosmic world.

Jong distinguishes her poetic and fictional forms: "In poetry I could be pared down, honed, minimal. In the novel what I wanted was excess, digression, rollicking language, energy, and poetry." Her stated preference was always for the novel that made one believe "it was all spilled truth." To be sure, "excess," "energy," and "rollicking language" are terms that well describe her fiction, along with its absolute quest for truth.

Fear of Flying, still Jong's most influential work, is a funny, moving, and deeply serious book. "Nothing human was worth denying," her heroine, Isadora Wing, says, "and even if it was unspeakably ugly, we could learn from it, couldn't we?" Isadora, a picaresque heroine, is a bright, pretty, Jewish, guilt-ridden writer, who accompanies her Chinese-American, child psychiatrist husband, Bennett Wing, to a psychoanalytic congress in Vienna. Torn between the stability of marriage and her sexual fantasies for the "zipless fuck," she abandons Bennett for Adrian Goodlove, an illiterate, sadistic, but very sexy London psychiatrist. Adrian is a selfish and pompous bully, whose words arouse her as much as his sexual promise. (Bennett, though "often wordless," is a far better lover.) Her excursions into the past, where we meet her family and childhood world, her brilliant but sad and mad first husband, and her various sexual partners, are drawn in an earthy and ebullient fashion. But beneath all the bravura is Isadora's basic lack of fulfillment. Sex is only the apparent means toward connecting and feeling alive, an outlet that confounds desperation and freedom. It is only a temporary departure from guilt, an illusory means of flying. Isadora's life remains tortured. The end of the book only half-heartedly suggests some sort of insight and the half-believed: "People don't complete us. We complete ourselves." Isadora has struggled to write as a means of self-discovery and as a sublimated but illusory fulfillment for the frustrations of the real world. She retains an unremitting sense of guilt, vulnerability, childish impulsiveness, and romanticism.

The less successful sequel, How to Save Your Own Life, focuses on Isadora's literary success, her divorce from Bennett, and her subsequent move to Hollywood with its virtually limitless number of disappointments, sexual and otherwise. As Jong again portrays it, the plight of the woman is to be torn between her own restlessness and the bourgeois virtues of marriage. She illustrates poignantly and powerfully how a woman's greatest fear is of being alone, and yet her deepest wish is to break free as "hostage" to her own "fantasies," her "fears," and "false definitions."

Fanny, Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones is an extraordinary tour de force. In the style and spirit of the eighteenth century, it tells of the tragic and comic fortunes of the beautiful and brilliant young Fanny, whose picaresque adventures en route to becoming a writer and member of the gentry include everything from membership in a witches' coven—really a modern sisterhood—a brothel, and a pirate ship to a series of sexual adventures with the likes of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Theophilus Cibber. It is a rich, racy, and enormously funny and serious book—moving, at times to the extreme, in its focus on love, friendship, motherhood, and courage. It is filled with serious, playful, and frequently ironic references to an enormous body of literature. Fanny is conversant with Homer, Virgil, Horace, Boileau, La Rochefoucauld, Voltaire, Locke, and Pascal. Although as a character, Fanny speaks with a 1980s consciousness, the kind of woman she represents might have lived during any age for, to quote Jong's stated intention in creating her, Fanny transcends her own time. Fanny, as a character and novel, embodies, above all, an unflagging and uncompromising search for truth.

"A Woman is made of Sweets and Bitters…. She is both Reason and Rump, both Wit and Wantonness," Fanny remarks, in an observation that is applicable to all of Jong's females, including her Isadora Wing character in Parachutes and Kisses. Here Jong portrays the famous, rich, brilliant, and beautiful writer, now nearly forty and separated from her husband. Isadora once again possesses a prodigious sexuality, but it is now accompanied by a purposive loneliness. Although she would seem to have reconciled her sexuality with her personal and professional responsibilities—mainly as mother and writer—it is the quest for love that remains her driving force. Isadora relates her experiences with a series of lovers—including a real estate developer, rabbi, antiques dealer, plastic surgeon, and medical student—but the need for love and security remains insatiable. Isadora may long ago have given up the fear of flying, but she remains, in many ways, the woman she described herself as in the earlier works: "My life had been a constant struggle to get attention, not to be ignored, to be the favored child, the brightest, the best, the most precocious, the most outrageous, the most adored." Such is her relationship with parents, lovers, and not least of all, the world.

Serenissima, another historical novel and tour de force of the order of the Rabelaisian Fanny, is set in the Venice of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It is filled not only with details and characters from Shakespeare's life and plays but also with echoes from any number of other Elizabethan writers, as well as often hilarious reminders of numerous more modern authors—from Byron and Ruskin to Dylan Thomas, Henry James to James Joyce. Jessica Pruitt, a middle-aged, jet-setting movie star, has come to Venice as a judge for the Film Festival. Although she plans to play Jessica in a "filmic fantasy" of The Merchant of Venice, she is forced to remain in Italy, since she has become ill. She takes this as the occasion to embark upon a trip back in time to sixteenth-century Venice. The city, with its grand history, labyrinthine canals, and reflexive surfaces, permits not just her thorough investigation of the Bard himself—in all his natural (i.e., sexual), as well as social and literary capabilities—but it provides the means for a personal journey into her own female identity, in fact and fantasy. It is a pagan rite de passage in preparation for her future. She is, after all, forty-three—an aging woman who must survive within a professional and everyday world that adulates youth; even Shakespeare's heroine, Jessica, is a celebration of youth.

Once back in time, in Shakespeare's Venice, she is a reborn Jessica. She cavorts with an enormous retinue of suitors and even fancies herself as Shakespeare's Dark Lady, among any number of other real and fantasized roles. Amid all the disguises, ruses, and exposes, however, Jong casts a number of tasteless scenes, such as the incredible romping of the Bard with his own creations (like Juliet), or with specifically important people who lived during his lifetime, like his patron, the Earl of Southampton. Jong portrays, for example, Shakespeare and Southampton with a courtesan posing as a boy. They were, she writes, "a three-backed beast that pants and screams and begs for mercy." The reader may be similarly offended by Jessica's numerous attempts to describe "Will's stiff staff." Jong remains at her best linguistically, in her use of quotes and puns. When Jessica first meets Shakespeare, for example, in the Ghetto Vecchio, he says to her: "Who ever loved, who loved not at first sight?" and "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Any Woman's Blues portrays yet another "sexaholic," as Jong's newest sexual Wonderwoman, Leila Sand, describes herself. Presumably authored by Isadora Wing (which we learn in a foreword and afterword), the novel deals with an artist in her mid-forties. Leila's (midlife) crisis, as the epigraph announces, is that "the blues ain't nothing/but the facts of life." Despite all her celebrity, Leila fears that her talent is waning; she must also come to terms with drugs and alcohol; most importantly, she must confront her masochistic relationship with a young, blond WASP named Darton Veneble Donegal IV. (When she first sees him he is "helmeted like Darth Vader.") On the one hand, Leila says, in the typical poor prose of the novel: "He rarely said anything that wasn't loving, sweet, and dear. He spoke, in fact, like a Hallmark greeting card." But she adds: "It was just that his actions belied his words." Dart, her "great primitive god," is also, a "con man, a hustler, a cowboy, a cocksman, an addict." He is also well celebrated for being "born with an erection." As Leila tries, still like Isadora in Fear of Flying, to "get free" and be her own person, she utters the cloying: "Life … is a feast. It is there for the taking. You have only to … love one another, thank God, and rejoice. At its most simple, it is a prayer." Leila's words ring hollow: "Give, give, give! is the cry of the gods. It rhymes with: "Live, live, live! Why else are we passing through this sublunary sphere?" Such a conclusion—and the language in which it is couched—is unworthy of the lusty, witty, and utterly unrepentant Jong persona, whose wild and wicked adventures we have otherwise enjoyed in her previous novels.

Having coined the term "zipless fuck" in Fear of Flying, virtually a classic in its portrayal of female libido, Jong now uses the word "whiplash" in Fear of Fifty to describe what she calls the "women of her generation." Once more, in her autobiographical novel form, Jong focuses on many women who grew up during the respectable 1950s and feminist 1960s—women who burned their bras but subsequently had children and discovered the joys of simple motherhood. The book rings painfully true for many women torn between career and motherhood, sexuality and traditional reserve, and even feminism as opposed to femininity. Subtitled "A Midlife Memoir," Fear of Fifty more importantly deals with the "terror" women experience when they realize they are no longer young and beautiful. Although Jong appears less concerned with her body (while still capable of great sexual prowess), her words ring true in such statements as: "I wander around," wondering if "I have the right to my immortal soul." Perhaps she laments her earlier romans a clef and the devastating impact they must have had on her barely disguised characters; now she says: "Writing matters only if it … ripens your humanity."

Jong's most recent offering is strikingly reminiscent of the rash of multi-narrator, mother-daughter novels that have become popular in the past decade—novels such as Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere. Sadly, Jong's Inventing Memory does not live up to the high standards set by other novels of this genre. Telling the story of four generations of women, in this case of Jewish heritage, she demonstrates their growth as they are "shaped by the challenges of Jewish history and the misery created by the deeply flawed men they choose." The novel was greeted with highly critical reviews, suggesting that the greatest value in Jong's fiction may be found in her early work.

—Lois Gordon,

updated by Suzanne Disheroon Green

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