Book Review: ‘After Sappho,’ by Selby Wynn Schwartz

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AFTER SAPPHO, by Selby Wynn Schwartz

“A poet is someone who swims inexplicably away from the shore, only to arrive at an island of her own invention,” Selby Wynn Schwartz writes in “After Sappho,” her first novel.

The twin currents of lesbian desire and creative self-invention drive Schwartz’s narrative, an informal history of the emergence of modernism, told through interconnected anecdotes about real-life women artists, writers, intellectuals, actors, translators, dancers and feminist troublemakers in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

Throughout the novel, the legendary life and work of the Greek poet Sappho beckons with inspiration. Some of Schwartz’s subjects are obsessed with her poems; the Italian writer Lina Poletti, born in 1885, studied the classics so intently that she “could translate Sappho without a dictionary.” Natalie Barney, born in the United States in 1876 and educated in France, met Eva Palmer when they were teenagers, and “they took off their clothes to read Sappho, declined nouns naked in the leaves.” Barney would go on to create a salon in Paris that became a haven for women artists and intellectuals who were barred from the institutions of elite scholarship reserved exclusively for men.

“The first thing we did was change our names,” Schwartz writes, at the beginning of “After Sappho,” and this book is filled with the stories of women taking new names and identities, creating and transforming themselves in a world that consistently refused their autonomy.

The novel’s greatest innovation may be the way its disparate subjects fashion a collective we of lesbian world-making and feminist activation. This we transcends time and place; it can maneuver both inside and outside history, in opposition to the forward march of misogyny and patriarchy, war and marginalization. “Some acts can only be written as fragments,” Schwartz writes. Her story, in kind, forms and re-forms itself through fragments — of desire, longing and belonging — which float between and beyond boundaries.

Sappho’s writing, too, exists almost entirely in fragments, and translator after translator has attempted to conjure them in full, creating a lyric poetry that may or may not be what Sappho intended when she was singing her words while playing the lyre. Likewise, it is an imagined whole that gives “After Sappho” a momentum beyond that of its individual stories. The overlapping histories, most titled simply with names and dates, fit together like the puzzle pieces of Sappho’s poetry (which appears intermittently in the book).

They also invite a larger conversation about literature. When the French novelist Colette asks, reflexively, toward the end of the book, “You may have sensed in this novel that the novel does not exist?” she is talking about “Break of Day,” her 1928 book, but one could also ask this question about “After Sappho.” Is it a novel if it doesn’t have fictional characters so much as meticulously researched historical portraits of artistic luminaries? Is it a novel if it includes a 16-page “bibliographic note” at the end of the book, as well as an extensive bibliography online?

Schwartz begins the bibliographic note by stating: “This is a work of fiction. Or possibly it is such a hybrid of imaginaries and intimate nonfictions, of speculative biographies and ‘suggestions for short pieces’ (as Virginia Woolf called them while she was drafting ‘Orlando’), as to have no recourse to a category at all.”

Colette, Woolf and many of their contemporaries refused to accept the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between imagination and life. “After Sappho” considers the intimate moments beyond historical record, shifting our gaze and questioning the discipline of history itself. Schwartz builds a novel around women’s struggles for self-determination, excising the men who were in their way. For the most part, these men simply do not appear in the book at all. The novel is erudite and chatty, grounded in scholarship yet freed from any masculinist impulse for certainty or linear cohesion. She draws from history in order to reimagine it.

“Have you forgotten that a poet lies down in the shade of the future?” Schwartz asks. “She is calling out, she is waiting. Our lives are the lines missing from the fragments.”

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author, most recently, of “The Freezer Door.” Her next book, “Touching the Art,” will be published in 2023.

AFTER SAPPHO | By Selby Wynn Schwartz | 272 pp. | Liveright | $28.95

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