BOOK REVIEW / The torture only stops for brief moments: Fear of Fifty - Erica Jong: Chatto & Windus, pounds 16

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The Independent Online
ERICA JONG'S problem seems to be that she wants to be all things to all readers. Let us begin with the serious writer. Much is made in this mid-life autobiography of her MA in 18th-century literature and her passion for the Oxford English Dictionary, forever open on her desk for profitable browsing. This does not prevent her from using 'picaresque' twice in three sentences. It gets into the chapter heading, too: perhaps proving that she has absorbed the Readers' Digest dictum to learn and use a new word every day.

She is deadly serious about her vocation as a great writer, viz: 'Writers are doubters, compulsives, self-flagellants. The torture only stops for brief moments.' She has not flagellated enough to prevent this, however: 'There's probably not one thing about giving birth that cannot be changed by culture except for the fact that it can only be done by a woman]' Everything possible is wrong with that sentence, including the exclamation mark.

Ms Jong keeps nudging us with her writerly persona, lest we forget. Her dog, a rescued 'mutt', is called Virginia Woof. Its owner proudly observes, 'She became a model pet - beautifully trained to bark at strangers and to never 'make mistakes' indoors.' This sentence alone, with its split infinitive and coy euphemism, is enough to debar Jong from the serious writers' pantheon; while anyone who (as she demonstrates on the next page) can pen violent pornography 'and then sit down to lunch with the family', should not jib at the word 'dogshit'.

Then we have Jong the insatiably lustful woman, exhausting 'various snake- hipped studs on various continents' to say nothing of four husbands. We return to Fear of Flying territory with a goatish yet aristocratic Venetian called Piero, 'smelling brownly of summer and sex'. She 'snatched perfect hours in the house he shared with the woman of his life'. A great feminist, Ms Jong, is she not? I lost count of the number of married men with whom she 'fucked her brains out', in her writerly phrase.

This is not a book about being 50 (Germaine Greer has recently given us that, infinitely better done and 10 times as honest), but a paean in praise of the great, the famous, the well-connected Erica Jong. Her success enables her to enjoy 'literary dinners with Arthur Miller and Inge Morath, Howard and Bette Fast, Muriel Rukeyser . . . and any number of other poets, playwrights, novelists'. She spends holidays in Tuscany with Ken and Barbara Follett 'with people like Neil and Glenys Kinnock popping down for pasta, vino, and polemic'. She is mistaken for Joan Collins who, it turns out, is 'really a cuddly Jewish earth mother under all that paint'.

Ah, yes, and then we have Erica Jong: mother of Molly. Has any child had such a great mother ever before? Never mind that Molly is looked after from birth by a series of mother-substitutes, one of whom nearly drowned her in the bath; never mind that Jong divorces Molly's father and then engages with him in a series of long-drawn-out law-suits; never mind that Molly shares the maternal home for five years with a kept stud who always has a loaded gun to hand (ah, but the remorse when she realises that Molly was afraid of him) - having paraded herself as a great writer, feminist, lover, traveller, gourmet, and friend of the famous, Ms Jong would also have us admire her motherhood. At this point I tossed the book aside. Enough is enough, and I'd had it.

Jong boasts that after the publication of her first novel readers wrote requesting her underwear - preferably unwashed. In this book she gives it to them.