LOVE BITES ; Her First Novel, `Fear of Flying', Was the Original Tale of Sex in the City. 30 Years on, Erica Jong Talks to David Usborne about Lust, Literature and How Today's Women Have Lost the Plot. Portrait by Abe Franjdlich
Usborne, David, The Independent (London, England)
ERICA JONG, in jeans and a sort of artsy blouse in marble shades of green, settles on to the sofa of her large Upper East Side apartment and ponders where she is at sexually nowadays. Coupling with strangers on trains no longer holds appeal, even as a fantasy. Fifteen years into her fourth marriage this seems like a good thing. She is, she admits with a giggle, very interested in tantric sex right now. Insisting she is no kind of expert, the aim, she says, is "to experience orgasm through the whole body, not just your genitals".
Goodness, such racy talk from a 62-year-old woman who only recently became a grandmother. But then it has been Ms Jong's burden since 1973 that most conversations with outsiders, especially journalists, must necessarily meander quickly into matters carnal. That was the year she published her wildly successful first novel, Fear of Flying. The book, which sold 7 million copies in the US alone, broke barriers in its candid discussion of women and their appetites for sex.
With one leg tucked beneath her and her hands occasionally straying to her black standard poodle, which goes by the name of Belinda Barkowitz, Jong does not immediately look like someone you would feel comfortable talking to about orgasms and private parts. Don't get me wrong. With her thick blonde hair and enquiring eyes, she is clearly one spunky kind of grandmother. Even so, it takes a certain courage to ask this apparently well-to-do lady of high- society Manhattan what her thoughts are nowadays about the "zipless fuck".
That was the phrase anyone who has read Fear of Flying (if not you then mostly likely your mother) is most sure to remember from it. The book, heavy with elements of autobiography, traces the adventures of Isadora Wing who, aged 29, abandons her husband of five years because, well, he just isn't lighting her fire any more. "Even if you loved your husband," she wrote at the book's beginning, "there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the tastebuds, no bittersweet edge, no danger."
The zipless fuck is what Isadora discovers as she breaks free of her marital monotony, travels to Europe and rediscovers the heat of sex with, among other people, a stranger on a train. It is sex unbridled from all the baggage of marriage, monogamy and fidelity. "The zipless fuck was more than fuck," she told her enraptured readers. "It was a Platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover."
With that one book's release, Jong became the prophetess of sexual fulfilment for women around the world. Its impact, at a time when the women's movement was in full bloom, was undeniably enormous, not least on her own life, as people in almost equal numbers either applauded her for helping them explore their own uncharted sexual fantasies, or excoriated her - and here we are talking mostly about men - for writing such a "dirty" novel.
"At the beginning, it was sort of a cataclysm. You can't believe how many stupid people there are out there and you have to learn how to protect yourself," she explains. "I am talking about people who find your number in the phone book and appear at your door. I wasn't very good at that and I never expected it to happen. It was really tough. There are a lot of crazy people out there who want to stalk you."
Jong says she eventually learned to ignore the fuss and attention and get on with her life, and more writing. Her eighth novel, Sappho's Leap, is an imagined narrative of the life of the Greek poetess who was writing her own (mostly bisexual) lexicon of love in verse 600 years before the birth of Christ. She is also a prolific writer of poetry herself. …