Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sappho's Leap by Erica Jong

Told in the first person, this book begins with Sappho, the celebrated songstress, acclaimed as “The Tenth Muse” standing on the brink of eternity, on the edge of the cliff she is contemplating jumping from, a precipice renowned for curing those who leap from it of hopeless love. Some survive the leap, others perish, it is all in the hands of the gods.

For those who enjoy intelligent novels containing elements of adventure, romance, fantasy, and philosophy, this may well be just the book for you, though I recommend brushing up on your Greek mythology first if your school days are far behind you.

A devotee of the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, Sappho, a rather plain young woman with blue-black hair and a slightly twisted spine, falls passionately in love with the golden-haired poet Alcaeus, though he professes that he prefers boys. She joins his plot to overthrow the cruel dictator and as a result is parted from her lover and exiled from her native Isle of Lesbos on pain of death should she return and married to a drunken fool in the hope that the life of a traditional Greek housewife busy with the loom and larder, supervising the slaves and childrearing will keep her out of trouble. But Sappho finds fame as a singer, which gets her out of the house, and a new love when her daughter, Cleis, her “golden flower” is born from a seed already planted by Alcaeus before Sappho's marriage.

Anxious for her daughter’s future, she consults various oracles and, though her passion for the absent Alcaeus still runs strong, she becomes infatuated with the beautiful Egyptian priestess Isis. The two often make love in the priestess’s sarcophagus to “experience a foretaste of immortality.” Horrified by her behavior, Sappho’s visiting mother kidnaps baby Cleis and takes her back to Lesbos where Sappho cannot go without risking her life.

The rest of the book unfurls like a richly embroidered tapestry illustrating a grand, perilous, and passionate odyssey that takes Sappho to Delphi to consult the famed oracle, then on to Egypt where she is befriended by the famed writer of fables Aesop who helps her liberate her foolish brothers who have become literally enslaved by the wiles of a notorious courtesan, and then to the Land of the Amazons where she is commanded to be a female Homer and write an epic of their history. She loses several years wandering in Hades, the Land of the Dead, seeing the pale ghosts of her father, baby brother, and others she has known, and emerges to become a reluctant priestess of a failed Utopian paradise comprised of Amazon maidens and Egyptian sailors and their offspring.

After encounters with various gods, goddesses, and legendary beings, including the centaurs, the lovers are eventually reunited, but the course of true love never did run smooth. And when at last Sappho returns to Lesbos and meets her daughter, now grown to womanhood and a mother herself, ashamed of the song that has made her famous as her mother’s “golden flower” she finds the great love she has to give her only child rejected. Sappho tries but cannot give up her songs as her daughter wants and settle down into the quietly respectable life of a gray-haired grandmother, and live down her wild days and put them far behind her, and events, including slander, suicide, and an affair with a beautiful eternally young ferryman named Phaon with an “indefatigable phallus” eventually lead her to climb the Leucadian cliffs. Will she leap? And more importantly, will she live, or is Sappho fated to survive only in her songs?

A note for those concerned about sexual content in their reading: Although Sappho's name is today synonymous with lesbianism, in this novel Sappho is unabashedly what we would today call bisexual, which was common in the ancient world. There are some sex scenes, but they are brief and not explicit catalogs of every touch, kiss, and caress, so anyone sensitive to such things should not shy away from giving this book a chance. There are also some orgies with rather brutal and disgusting behavior that are briefly mentioned to illustrate the depravity of visitors to the courtesan Rhodopis's palace. In other words, this is a novel with some erotic elements but not a work of erotica.

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