"Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters," by Erica Jong. HarperCollins. 312 pages. $24.95
The title of Erica Jong's new novel might seem to be an oxymoron. But I believe that good fiction remembers, and memory benefits, from the spice of imagination. This blend is demonstrated with brio, in Jong's first novel, "Fear of Flying," which recounts the adventures of its heroine, a type of late 20th centuryAmerican-Jewish Moll Flanders.
"Inventing Memory," however, denies its title by being pure contrivance. It consists of a pastiche of journals, letters, notebook jottings and interviews concerned with four generations of fictional mothers and daughters, dating from 1905 to the beginning of the 21st century. But Sarah Sofia, Salome, Sally and Sara, unlike the lusty, flesh-and-bone creation Isadora, in the earlier work, do not come alive. Rather, they resemble puppets manipulated by their maker.
The life of each woman is a symbol, played out against her era, which proves to be the only way of distinguishing one from the other. Sarah Sofia, the immigrant, flees the pogroms of her native Russia to New York City. Her rapid rise from sweatshop worker to society portraitist is miraculous, not to say incredible. She gives birth to an illegitimate daughter by Sim Coppley, a member of Edith Wharton's circle, but marries landsleit Levitsky, a shady art dealer who will make a fortune. Lest we forget life's variety of vicissitudes, this section is prefaced by a proverb: "It is not as good with money as it is bad without it." Levitsky is impotent and he adopts Sarah's baby, Salome.
Salome, representing her age, becomes a flapper and joins the expatriate literary colony in Paris. Each successive period is anchored by a listing of actual people of reputation. Here we are presented with such names as: James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller. The latter is Salome's lover between his bouts with the more famous Anais Nin.
Salome returns to the United States, to the Berkshires, where she discovers Coppley, her biological father, old and dying, impoverished by the Depression, living in the crumbling family -- manse with an unloved wife from his own set. Salome meets and marries Aaron Wallinsky, a Holocaust survivor who will commit ,, suicide when his daughter, Sally, is still a child.
At this point, Erica Jong is guilty of a default of the heart. She delivers hasty disquisitions on the Holocaust, between chronicling Salome's agitated sex life as related in her diary: " ... August 1952 -- Aaron's suicide shifted everything in my head. Suddenly instead of my obsessions with Robin [a current lover], I am obsessed with the book I am writing [on the Holocaust]. ... I thought of Henry, Ethan, Robin and Marco ..."
Salome, her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandaughter consult the matriarch Sarah Sofia, during her long lifespan, and after her death via her diaries and notebooks. Despite the changing modes of life, they are attentive to the paradoxical utterances of their progenitor.
Salome's daughter, Sally, the probable offspring of Aaron Willensky, is a Sixties star folk singer and composer, addicted to drugs and alcohol. In responding to an interview, the celebrated Sally "Sky" says:
"You were raised thinking Sally Sky was a symbol of freedom, not a person. Look, we were just kids, who like all kids want to distinguish ourselves from our parents. In my case that was hard since my parents were already weirdos. My mother had been in Paris in the thirties with Henry Miller. And my grandfather [Levitsky] was a big shot in the art world who knew everybody -- Picasso to Pollock ..."
Finally we come to Sara, Sally's daughter. She is introduced to us at the Council of Jewish History, where she is researching her family. She had lived in Montana with her "WASP" father, her mother having been unfit to assume the responsibility of child rearing. At 14 Sara ran away to find Sally, disintegrating in luxury in Venice and London. From the archives of the Council, Sara gathers information about the distaff side.
"Each of these women had left some unfinished business. Sarah put her husband's gallery ahead of her own work -- Salome also let herself be derailed, she gave up writing after her
disappointment of "Dancing in America" -- at that time nobody wanted to publish a book that honestly showed a women's point of view -- and Sally deliberatley destroyed her talent with men and drink ..."
Is "Inventing Memory" one more feminist tract? In part, perhaps, but I think that Sara's mission and that of the author, Erica Jong, is to remember the Jewish past. In this book it is limited to the lives of four figures, mothers and daughters, exemplars of four generations in America.
Toward this end, Jong has seen fit to affix a Yiddish saying or quotation about Jews at the head of her chapters, and to include a glossary of Yiddish terms -- devices unneeded by the great Yiddish storyteller and ardent proponent of his dying language, Isaac Bashevis Singer. On the pages of "Inventing Memory," these aids are no more than stage properties for the marionette show of Erica Jong.
It is to be hoped that the puppeteer will in the future use her considerable vitality as a novelist in the tradition of her own work, "Fear of Flying" a successful enactment of inventing memory.
Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgin and Other Species," and "Under the Canopy." Her writing is published widely in magazines such as Harpers Bazaar and the Partisan Review.
Michael Pakenham's column on books will not appear this week or next. He is on assignment.
Pub Date: 6/15/97