After Sappho: A Novel

Image of After Sappho: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 24, 2023
Reviewed by: 

After Sappho is labeled as a novel although most of the characters presented actually existed and the words and actions ascribed to them are translated, paraphrased, quoted with minor alterations, or quoted verbatim from actual letters, biographies, autobiographies, or other works of literature.

The book’s character is reflected upon by Selby Wynn Schwarz in her extensive bibliographic notes as follows: “This is a work of fiction. Or possibly it is such a hybrid of imaginaries and intimate non-fictions, of speculative biographies and ‘suggestions for short pieces’ (as Virginia Woolf called them when she was drafting Orlando) as to have no recourse to a category at all.”

The fictional element seemingly resides largely in the imaginary and imaginative juxtaposition of characters across time and space in the unnamed chapters. Many of the characters—Lina Poletti, Virginia Stephens/Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan and of course Sappho herself—put in appearances throughout the book at different dates, and are randomly juxtaposed. Some though not all of the segments dedicated to particular individuals in any given chapter are dated. A genuinely fictional character who makes many appearances is Cassandra, a Trojan priestess and a figure from Greek myth who is famous for uttering true prophecies that were not believed.

This publication was long-listed for The Booker Prize in 2022, and comes garlanded with praise for Schwarz’s erudition, lyrical writing, and her joyous celebration of pioneer women thinkers and artists who refused to be silenced in their time or later. The novel has been praised by some readers for its freedom from “masculine” modes of linearity or certainty. The absence of these qualities will appeal to some readers, regardless of gender, more than others.

Men who appear get relatively short shrift apart from some ancient writers such as Ovid, Aeschylus, and Theocritus. Though Oscar Wilde makes a reasonable showing in his efforts to get his new play Salomé performed by the Divine Sarah, Sarah Bernhardt. She declined and Wilde did not live to see his play premiered.

But as Schwarz notes, “men like Gabriele d’Annunzio—who swaggers pre-potently through every account ever written of Eleonora Duse and Romaine Brooks—do not merit even a footnote about who they married or how they died. It has been surprisingly easy to leave out these sorts of men: a simple swift cut and history is sutured without them.”

The paragraphs devoted to each individual in the brief chapters are largely insufficient to establish the character and profile of those less well-known, so the reader is faced with feminist or sapphist sentiments, words and actions, which can all seem rather standardized coming as they mostly do from genteel literary and artistic sources.

A welcome touch of farce is provided by Noel Pemberton Billing MP (a real person)“whose principle aim in life was to catch the wives of men in Parliament entangled in lesbian ecstasy. Not that he could have recognized lesbian ecstasy if it had bit him on the foot; this was a man who, reading Sappho, had thought her the headmistress of a finishing school for ancient young ladies.” In 1918 he declared that he was writing the Black Book which would contain the names of “every lesbian in Britain.” This publication remained in his imagination.

After Sappho is to be dipped into and can be read in either direction. Inevitably the most familiar names will catch the eye, and as ever, Virginia and Vita rarely fail to impress and amuse. And the same is true of Oscar in his rarer personal appearances.