Revelations: The roots of invention

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The Independent Online
The time: 1982

The place: Odessa

The woman: Erica Jong, novelist

I decided that I was going to write a novel about my grandfather walking across Europe, and leaving Russia. And I was going to go back to Russia and find out all about my roots. I had been planning to go and do some research about my family, and didn't quite know how to go about it.

Then I was invited to a conference of poets in Kiev, in pre-glasnost time, and part of the inducement was that each of us was given a translator, who was to accompany us after the conference to see any part of the Soviet Union we wanted. I said I wanted to go to Odessa, where my grandfather had been a little boy.

So we flew from Kiev to Odessa on an Aeroflot flight that caught fire, which was pretty exciting. We checked into a musty hotel on the Black Sea and my translator was horrible. I don't even remember what he looked like but he was just horrible, I'm sure he was a KGB agent. He took me to the Writers' Union, to the sea resorts, everywhere.

And I looked in the telephone directories with him to see if I could find anyone with the name of my grandfather, Mirsky. I called all these people and none of them were relatives. I was given some addresses that proved absolutely worthless, because the time that my grandparents left was before the Revolution, and everything had changed: I couldn't locate any of these people. They had probably gone - many had settled in England or France. There was a period of great chaos and starvation - who knows what happened to the rest.

I wanted to find the atmosphere of the town and I remember wandering on the beach with this translator, on the shores of the Black Sea and thinking, dammit, every person on this beach looks like a relative, where are they, who are they? And I walked over to one man who looked like he belonged to my family, and he said, 'You're American? I have relatives in Brooklyn' - like all Russians.

People were pretty scared to make contact. There was a lot of fear. The time was not propitious.

I was disappointed. But I took away a lot of impressions, the rowdiness of the Black Sea resorts, the people at the Writers' Union who said to me, 'Welcome to the most Jewish city in Russia'.

I had started the book from the point of view of a young man, an artist, who left Russia because he felt that the Jews were so discriminated against and because of pogroms. But I never completed it. I knew all my grandfather's stories - he left Russia probably about 1905, he went to Paris, studied art there, wound up in London, where he met my grandmother; they were both from Odessa. I realised I was lucky in that I had a story-teller's childhood, I grew up in an extended family with my grandparents. When I was little my grandfather used to walk me to school and tell me endless stories about life in Russia, which were full of these rich materials but which I couldn't make sense of because I didn't have the historical context.

But nothing is ever wasted. These things cook in your brain and finally you find a way to make something of them. The trip rattled around in my head for 17 years until I found the form for it. After writing my autobiography, Fear of Fifty, I became so aware that that heritage had really made me who I was - in about a million different ways - and I wanted to go back and try to write a book about an artist who leaves Russia and establishes a new life in the New World. But I decided that in order to make it a different kind of book I would make this person a woman.

I wanted to write about the lineage of women and how one generation gives strength to the next, and how we rely on our ancestors to transmit energy and strength to us. So when I started to write my new book, Of Blessed Memory, three years ago, I went and read everything I could about Russia in the 19th century and Jews in Russia and for the first time a lot of the things my grandparents had told me started to make sense.

The whole process of going back in order to write my autobiography had made me realise I was formed by these people. I grew up in a totally assimilated, very unreligious background in Manhattan, more assimilated than many American Jews. There was no sense of being part of a minority. I never thought that ethnic roots were particularly important - and in America for the last 90 years or so all the immigrant groups have tried like mad to assimilate and forget where they came from. I think it's interesting that as we approach the 21st century people have a different view: rather than wanting to assimilate and to be all one thing and to be artificial WASPs, there's a feeling that there's something valuable in the heritage, something interesting and positive.

Once you decide not to be ashamed of who you are, almost anything is possible. You can investigate all these seemingly negative things and find in them what you need, which is 'who am I, where do I come from?' And I think that's a pretty interesting quest and a quest that everybody wants to go on around the time of mid-life, because of your grasp of your mortality, which is maybe the thing that makes us human.

With this new book I had a sense of being able to invent a family - it's not mine. It has certain elements in common, but I think because I had already written an autobiography I felt completely free to invent. I always come to things at the wrong time - now memoirs are chic I'm moving on to something different. It's tremendously liberating to realise you don't have to write only out of your own narrow little world. You don't have to be literal-minded to write what you know."

'Of Blessed Memory', Erica Jong's latest novel, is published by Bloomsbury on 12 June, pounds 16.99