The feminist maverick who’s been tweaking sexual conventions ever since Fear of Flying (1973) now reimagines the life and numerous loves of the seventh-century (b.c.) Greek poetess.
Sappho herself narrates, in another deconstructive romp akin to Fanny (1980) and Serenissima (1987), at the moment when she’s standing on a seaside cliff about to “leap” to her death. Her story begins on the island of Lesbos, where she grows up a devotee of the goddess Aphrodite, who grants Sappho “gifts of immortal song.” She falls in love with the handsome singer Alcaeus, who fathers her daughter Cleis (even though he prefers boys), and colludes with her in opposing the tyrant Pittacus, which sends her into exile. This allows Jong to parade her (quite impressive) research into classical culture and legend, as the politically and increasingly sexually conflicted adventuress undertakes an odyssey at least as arduous as Odysseus’s. As Aphrodite and her randy father Zeus look down from Mount Olympus and comment on Sappho’s peregrinations, she endures arranged marriage to the moribund merchant Cerclas, then sails about the known and unknown worlds, consulting the Oracle of Delphi, matching wits in Egypt with the notorious courtesan Rhodopis (who’s extorting their family’s fortune from Sappho’s lovestruck brothers), and—accompanied by the taciturn slave-fabulist Aesop—detours among the Amazons (whose queen commands the noted singer to compose a celebratory Amazoniad), the Islands of the Philosophers and Centaurs, respectively, even the Land of the Dead. Eventually reunited with Cleis, Sappho settles into celebrity status and middle age, until a virile young ferryman rekindles the familiar flames. Much of this is highly entertaining, and the sexuberantly anachronistic one-liners are sometimes wonderful (“Unless they [men] are castrated, their brains do not function properly”), sometimes effulgently absurd (“My longing for Cleis became the worm in the golden apple of our love”). But it does go on.
Nevertheless: one of Jong’s most enjoyable books.