Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fear of Flying - by Erica Jong

Because reading 50 Shades of Grey just seemed too trite, I decided to read Jong's classic piece of erotic fiction instead. This is the story of Isadora, torn between her husband Bennett, and her lover Adrian she reflects on her life, loves, and lusts. As a writer Isadora does quite a bit of research and tells of researching the history of the Third Reich at the USIS (United States Information Service Libraries) while her husband was stationed in Germany. After getting a job writing a column for a newsletter Isadora begins doing some research about a Nazi amphitheater she discovers in Heidelberg. In Heidelberg's main public library she finds a guidebook dated 1937 in "English and German on facing pages, with cheap, yellowing paper, black and white photographs and old Gothic type." Most intriguing about this work was that "every ten pages or so a paragraph or photo or a small block of type was covered over with a square of oak-tag. Like any good researcher worth her salt Isadora is determined to find out what is under those tags. "I checked out the book (along with four others so the librarian wouldn't be suspicious) and raced home where I carefully steamed the offending pages over a tea-kettle spout." (Normally, I would be bound by librarian ethics to point out that this would likely cause damage to a book, but censoring is way worse than making the pages a bit wavy, so in this case the ends justify the means).Once Isadora removes the offending tags she finds photographs with swastika flags, and of Nazi salutes and passages that give evidence of the German exceptional-ism of the time. In discussing the censorship with a former Nazi, Isadora begins to question her own honesty in writing, and realizes that she is self censoring her own true feelings.
I refused to let myself write about what really moved me: my violent feelings about Germany, the unhappiness in my marriage, my sexual fantasies, my childhood, by [sic] negative feelings about my parents...I had pasted square oak-tag patches over certain areas of my life and steadfastly refused to look at them.  
The book is the metaphorical removal of Isadora's oak tags as she explores all of the things she describes in the passage above. It is an intellectual exploration as well as a sexual one - and she does explore sex in the library. Isadora tells of flirtations in the Butler Library at Columbia University, as well as describing how she "studied together" (the quotes were in the original) with the man who became her first husband in the Butler Library "where [she] was later shocked to hear that some sacrilegious students actually screwed."

The Butler library was ultimately where Isadora went to escape her first marriage as she "sweated in the stacks...writing a ridiculous thesis on dirty words in English poetry."

And I thought I was going to have a "first" for this blog - a library dream. In the penultimate chapter of the book Isdoara describes a dream in which she is graduating from college. She walks up a flight of stairs "which looked more like a Mexican temple than the steps of Low Library."  But in doing a bit of research, I discovered that the Low Library at Columbia is no longer a library (and was not at the time the book was written). It is now the administration building.

As is true with much erotic literature (most recently with 50 Shades) Fear of Flying has been banned, and censored. See this entry from "The Field Guide to Forbidden Books" blog for more details.

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