To study the poet-musician Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 B.C.E.), scholars have mere fragments to consult. “We live/… the opposite/… daring.” “You burn me.” “Someone will remember us/I say/even in another time.” Her words catch the light, sometimes honey-golden, sometimes cool and silver.
Only one complete poem from her nine books remains, we learn in the prologue to After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz, the rest disintegrated to these dactyls. Schwartz’s heady debut novel, longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, channels Sappho’s voice through a chorus of women in Europe and the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century. They are poets, actresses, painters, and writers. They fashion themselves and their lives, choosing who to be and whom to love, against laws and attitudes that dictated otherwise. The poet Lina Poletti discards her given name, Cordula, which sounded “like a heap of rope.” The actress Eleonora Duse plays the character Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House — in life and in performance “clicking the door shut on a century of women whose only verb had been to marry.” For Sarah Bernhardt, also an actress, the ordinary is irrelevant: “She slept in a coffin and sailed in a hot-air balloon over Paris.”
The chorus that Schwartz assembles gains strength in numbers: Sibilla Aleramo (formerly the obedient Rina Faccio), Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Colette, Isadora Duncan, Eileen Gray, Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Eva Palmer, among many others. Daringly they test the contours of their worlds, taking on Sappho’s mantle, working toward becoming the women of her words: “not one girl I think/who looks on the light of the sun/will ever/have wisdom/like this.”
After Sappho unfolds as a scrapbook of short, pleasurable passages. The stories intertwine, interspersed with Schwartz’s playful readings of manuscripts, articles, plays, civil codes set in context, and, of course, Sappho’s lyrics. The protagonists’ voices start soft, uncertain, self-conscious: “We began writing odes to clover blossoms and blushing apples, or painting on canvases that we turned to the wall at the slightest sound of footsteps.” But they change, curious and emboldened: “We had ivory-handled knives and were no longer girls. In Odéonia we were acquiring manuals, atlases, translations of Greek tragedies with the choral parts printed on pages we cut open ourselves.”
This unified voice both maintains its ancient register and molds to the times. “Henceforth, we told Natalie Barney, Sappho would wear our clothes with buttons and collars. Sappho would drive our motorcars and write our novels.” As the novel moves from the 19th into the 20th century, it has notes of Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements — both books feature the lives of Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge — and an undercurrent of Virginia Woolf, who is instrumental to Schwartz’s project. Woolf wrote, “I want to make life fuller and fuller,” and the line reappears in After Sappho. Full lives are shifting, contradictory, wrestled. We are lucky when their fragments endure.
After Sappho, by Selby Wynn Schwartz (Liveright), is available online and in stores now.