TEETERING INTO a hotel lobby in heels and sunglasses that mask nearly all of her face, her hair a coiffed white-blonde, Erica Jong still makes people gawp. And that’s before she starts to speak. Nearly 40 years after she coined the phrase ‘zipless fuck’ in her first novel, Fear of Flying — a phrase intended to evoke the “absolutely pure” sexual encounter, free of exploitation, of messy, tangled emotion, of anything other than the sex itself — Jong is still able to titillate the buttoned-up middle classes, make them quiver in their seats and squeal with self-conscious laughter as she details another of her ex-husbands’ peccadilloes, describes another frank fantasy. On the THiNK stage, Jong performed her conjurer’s trick, reducing a distinguished audience who had sat through any number of fascinating, if dry, presentations by scientists, journalists, politicians, businessmen, to howls of shocked laughter. Did she really say that? What was that about her second husband’s penis?
Jong likes telling a story about her “very, very, very, very handsome” father, a musician, walking down the street in Provincetown (Bohemian nirvana from as far back as the 1930s), “buck naked and he had a bell and would scream ‘hear ye, hear ye farbissina goyim’ (listen, listen you uptight gentiles)”. Fear of Flying is the literary equivalent of that nude paternal stroll. Whenever I spoke to Jong in Goa, we were interrupted by women, across generations, who wanted to express their admiration, their relief at her flamboyant rejection of false prudery. The novel that made Jong’s name turns 40 next year and she talks about the plans being made to celebrate it: the new edition; a film produced in part by Jong herself; and the, no doubt, many book tours in which Jong will be feted for her boldness, for her sheer brass neck.
The cost, and there is a cost even if offset by selling over 20 million copies of the one novel, is in the damage done to people close to you. Jong tells me her mother used to say: “You are a great poet, but when you write fiction I feel like you write my obituary.” She also talked, more than once, about an incident a couple of years ago when, at a ceremony to honour Jong at Columbia University, her sister, uninvited, told the gathering of journalists and professors: “I love my sister very much, but Fear of Flying has been a thorn in my side for decades. It ruined my life.” It ruined my life, Jong says again, slowly, savouring the drama of the phrase, its irrevocability. “I think,” she says, “that if you worry about what your family will think, you will never write a line. In every family, every member takes a different view of the same event. Your mother and father will be shocked that you take the view you do. So it’s hard to write a novel. It’s hard for a man, but for a woman it’s even harder.”
Fear of Flying, which everyone (including, obviously, Jong’s family) reads as ineffectively disguised memoir, has overshadowed Jong’s other writing. She began as a poet, and even as she waits to go onstage at THiNK, the presenter before her still in the middle of his talk, she shows me a poem she thinks will interest me, this one on James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s dogged biographer. Her interest in the 18th century, the subject of her Columbia MA in English Literature, is manifested in her creation of the female picaresque, imagining a female Tom Jones (the hero of the eponymous novel by Henry Fielding, not the tanned Welsh crooner), say, or a real-life Fanny Hill. The latter, she does in her novel Fanny, perhaps the novel of which she is most proud. “Anthony Burgess,” she says, quoting his review from memory over 30 years later, “said ‘Jong has gone further than Joyce, she has invented an imaginary 18th century language that draws on Fielding, draws on Swift, but that is totally her own creation like the language of Ulysses.’ Not bad, huh?”
‘I think if you worry about what your family will think, you will never write a line’
Her pride in Burgess’ praise is a reminder of the girl who as a 12-year-old “fell in love with Edna St Vincent Millay”, the girl who wanted nothing more than a “shelf full of books to my name and to be the greatest writer in the English language”. Her doggedness and productivity, at 70, are impressive. She pressed on me the importance of reading her “feuilleton”, an essay published as a ‘Kindle single’ in support of Barack Obama’s candidacy and in which Mitt Romney is mostly referred to as “the Mormon”, as in: “the Mormon’s so-called party” or “[t]he Mormon’s plan, or lack thereof”, that sort of thing. She also tells me about her next collection of poems, “the best I’ve written,” which may be titled ‘Visible/Invisible’. There’s a new novel, as well, which is about “a woman whose father dies at a very advanced age”. The woman’s father, Jong says animatedly, is a “health-food faddist”. He exercises carefully, eats right, but contracts colon cancer, which he beats, only for his medication to kill him. Meanwhile, his daughter’s marriage is disintegrating. The working title, Jong says, is ‘Happily Married Women’. It’s ironic, she adds helpfully.
THE PLOT Jong outlines of her latest novel loosely follows her own father’s death. Her mother, who Jong says couldn’t read her fiction, died only three weeks ago, having crossed a century. Jong tells me how mothers and daughters share mitochondrial DNA, share a closer chemical bond than sons with their fathers. Her own daughter Molly is a writer and they take their show on the road, Molly playing the conservative to her mother’s airy progressiveness. “It’s very much for effect,” says Jong, perhaps thinking too of her own onstage eviscerations of her ex-husbands. It doesn’t take much prompting for her to launch into a scandalous digression — her quoting of Burgess’ review of Fanny, for example, leads to a small disquisition on his marriage to an “alcoholic who absolutely made him miserable”, to a small meditation on her second husband’s prowess as a lover: “Allan was a stud really, he had a fabulous penis with a mushroom top that hit the G-spot… I’m not kidding.”
From her husband’s penis, Jong moves easily to his mother’s struggles as an immigrant, arriving from the US in Hong Kong to find that her husband already had two wives. “I want to write her story.” Jong’s rambling speech, her flights of fanciful memory, her bewildering digressions, reveal a writer interested in every facet of a story, in making every connection. After Fear of Flying, Jong tells me, she was “sitting in Malibu with Mario Puzo”. He said he could get her a million dollars for writing a script. But Jong wanted to write a second novel. “He looked at me as if I was insane and he said, ‘But Erica they’re going to kill you!’” She wrote her second anyway. They didn’t kill her, even if some of them tried, and she went on to write a third, a fourth, a fifth, a 10th. Erica Jong has her shelf full of books; she deserves, for all the faux outrage caused by her sexual frankness, to be taken seriously as a woman of letters.
Shougat Dasgupta is Literary Editor with Tehelka.