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Living Between Lyric in “After Sappho”

Living Between Lyric in “After Sappho”

  • Our review of Selby Wynn Schwartz's novel "After Sappho."

Reworking, adaptation, reconsideration. There is always an appeal to mining the Ancient Greek poets for a timely retelling. Most recently—with the likes of Madeleine Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s two Trojan novels, The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy—there has been an interest in shifting the balance by gifting the often abused, Homeric women some kind of voice. Homer, however, has always been ripe for novelization. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey have enough characters, conversation, violence, and romance to easily be read as novels, and there are few heroes as magnetic to a writer as Achilles. The Homeric mythos is family drama and blood on the ground and, in its sweeping omniscience, a cinematic world.

Sappho, on the other hand, is not cinema. Though both epic and lyric poetry share roots in word of mouth, “Sappho was a musician. Her poetry is lyric, that is, composed to be sung to the lyre.” This is from Anne Carson, whose translation Selby Wynn Schwartz uses as a guide in After Sappho, and whose spirit pervades the entire book. Appearing to a modern audience as sparse, fragmented text, the Sapphic poem is a strange and beautiful thing. Even more so than in translations of Homer, her work continues to read as new and muscular as any contemporary literature; a language shared between poet and reader as between two lovers. In trying to adapt or rework Sappho, there is always a great risk of trying to fill in the gaps, to glue those brief lyrics into something much too heavy. “In translating,” Carson continues, “I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.”

Though its title suggests poetry written in the spirit of, After Sappho is not an attempt to rework or adapt its inspiration. Instead, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s book is more of an ekphrastic text, using Sappho as a well to draw from, rather than an artist to imitate. Schwartz, to her credit, leaves any imitation to her characters, all of which live “after” Sappho both in chronology and in performance. Narrated by a mass chorus, some of whom are the very characters we are to follow, After Sappho is a well-populated book. Beginning in 630 BCE with Sappho herself, we are introduced to Cordula Poletti, a born firebrand who changes her name to the “swift, sleek line,” of Lina; Rina Faccio, who becomes Nira, then Reseda, and later Sibilla, as she develops as a writer; Eleonora Duse, the star of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as Nora; Virginia Woolf, of course, who appears to be Sappho reincarnate; Sarah Bernhardt, reinvented from the ground up, an actress who “could take any shape she pleased; a boy, a queen, a murderer, a saint;” and many more.

Given the crowd of names, many of which rhyme with or resemble their neighbors, and the vignette form After Sappho takes, it can be a task to keep track of every character, rechristening, and relationship. Of course, this is the intention, to a degree: Schwartz, now in the spirit of Woolf, is looking for an effect like waves, onto the coast of an island, the characters all breathing in and out together, their distinctions and histories one wide ocean. Homosexual, -social, and exhausted by the aggressive land masses of men, Schwartz’s women are searching for their own Lesbos, a dream utopia more metaphysic than sediment (though the physical island does sometimes appear, like Lefkada in 1907, where Ancient Greece cannot be summoned). The choral dream is, throughout the book, one of escape: from domestic restriction, and laws such as Italy’s Article 544, which “may expunge the crime of the rape” of a man’s daughter, “by marrying her off to the man who has raped her, without a dowry.” Sibilla is one such woman made victim by this Article.

There is still, however, the question of making sense. For a reader, even aware of the tidal wash of names and dates as an intention, it might have helped to have a character list made available, somewhere in the text. This, of course, suggests countering the form of After Sappho, and indeed its political bent. The point of a book like this is to confound and to reject taxonomy, to refuse the dull binary norms of gender and experience. “This is a work of fiction,” Schwartz writes in the bibliographic note, “Or possibly it is such a hybrid of imaginaries and intimate non-fictions, of speculative biographies and ‘suggestions for short pieces’ […] as to have no recourse to a category at all.”

This is why I refer to the text as a book, rather than a novel. But the trouble with the above statement, and the ostensibly liquid state of character, is that the text doesn’t quite back any of it up. True, After Sappho is not exactly a novel, nor is it non-fiction, but it is not convincingly “hybrid” or experimental enough to suggest a radical style or shape. The vignettes—each titled with either a name and a date, a Sapphic fragment, or an important legal caveat, such as Article 544—take precisely the same form and voice as every other. Though fragmentation is evoked regularly, After Sappho is organized instead into tidy, solid house bricks, each one stacked atop the other to build something a little repetitive in its construction.

Schwartz’s strengths are clearer in the macro view. She is excellent at threading her stories together, collecting people, dispersing them across the world, drawing lovers and friends under one roof to explore an alternative, sororal history. Schwartz’s voice is one of dry wit and cocked eyebrow, mocking the man-made record. In one particularly fantastic sequence, she sends up Noel Pemberton Billing, the British Member of Parliament famous for fabricating “The Black Book, which he never bothered to write, supposedly containing the name of every lesbian in Britain.” Adopting the voice of the contemporary British press, one stirred by Billing’s own anxieties, Schwartz writes:

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What is a clitoris? the papers wished to know. Is it an unsteadiness in the hand? Is it a trembling in the mouth? Is it an organ unduly excited or overdeveloped? A certain Lord was overheard remarking to a fellow at his club, I’ve never heard of this Greek chap Clitoris they are all talking of nowadays!

Finally, it is the vicious men, like Billing, who are left on the outskirts of history in After Sappho—subject to the same kind of historical silence as women have suffered for millennia. Not the white space between Sappho’s verse, but the bruise-colored lacunae left by fear. “It has been surprisingly easy to leave out these sorts of men,” writes Schwartz, “a simple swift cut, and history is sutured without them.” When they do briefly insist on appearing at the island shore, they do so as administrators, sad sacks, and sex offenders; invaders of Lesbos, rooting around for this strange Greek chap they’ve heard so much about.

After Sappho
By Selby Wynn Schwartz
Published January 24, 2023

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