BOOK REVIEW / Misogynist messiah's number one fan: The Devil at large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller: Chatto, pounds 16

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The Independent Culture
'EVERY time,' declares Erica Jong, 'I read an article or a book in which a woman trashes another woman, I think Fool] You don't realise you have been programmed to attack women and coddle men. You don't realise you are the walking embodiment of male chauvinism even though you have the anatomy of a woman.' Female autonomy and objectivity lie, knocked by this conviction, on the mat. As for British reviewers, they are 'little well-bred boys who think sex is 'horrible and embarrassing'.'

Henry Miller is not a writer kindly regarded by feminists, but it is Jong's contention that, in spite of his alleged 'anti-Semitism, veiled homosexuality and not-so-veiled sexism', Miller 'recognised at once that all male literature was frozen compared to the fecund delta of female prose'. Throughout Jong's tribute to her fan and later friend, such wilful limitations of view occlude her ideas and their expression. She is a woman more intelligent than the positions she assumes, although her tic of exhibiting semi-erudition ('librophiliacs like myself . . .') can take the edge off the argumentative zeal that marks this foray into an account of a life for once not her own.

Not that she fails to read into the life, works and career of Miller an analogue to hers: 'The reasons that led to my writing Fear of Flying were remarkably parallel to those that led to Henry's writing and it seems he intuitively knew this when he 'discovered' my first novel.' Perhaps because in this book Jong has no need to fictionalise her own life, but simply sets down her misgivings and ambitions (guilt at the success of Fear of Flying, a lust for fame), her 'chthonic dybbuk' of a muse is less pressingly present than in her more fecund, deltoid novels.

Much of Jong's resentment at the marginalisation of her gender is understandable, but she goes perhaps a little far for the good of her own perceived balance: 'Who among women poets was kosher? Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore - women who neutered their voices, who did not wear their ovaries on their sleeves.' Miller shared this overemphatic habit, indeed tiringly but innovatively carried it off over reams of pages. Readers of differing temperaments may regard this as admirable emancipation from a trammelling literary self-consciousness, or as the product of a humourless tin ear.

Jong traces with care the influence on Miller of his family through his long, untidy life. His maternal grandfather, an ex-Savile Row apprentice, lived with the family in Brooklyn. They spoke German. The drunk father told stories and the mother cleaned so intensively as to drive her son into his lifelong burrowing into matters of bodily function. The countless simultaneous love affairs, five marriages (including one to a woman who now runs a Tokyo nightclub called Tropic of Cancer) and vulnerable old age are set down by Jong with an artless enthusiasm and partiality intended to send the reader back to read Miller.

In their correspondence, Miller had to ask Jong the meaning of the word 'menarche'. In the younger writer, Miller seems to have found a conduit to an Edenic America before it fell to the Cosmodemonic Telegraphic Company, his metaphor for the age of the machine. Their letters are swanky, naive, idealistic; they express the irrepressibility both writers possess, also a kind of constructive vulgarity that this squeamish, indoctrinated, female British reviewer had to struggle to admire.

(Photograph omitted)

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