Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Fragmented Historical Novel After Sappho
By Selby Wynn Schwartz
Liveright: 272 pages, $29
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After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz Goes for linear narrative in a big way. Perhaps narrative never really served women anyway — never properly told their stories or helped them write their own. Perhaps, as you read this debut novel, you think it’s time for payback.
Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, After Sappho feels like a group chat by a Greek choir, with voices slipping out of their identities and transitioning into new ones, stories gushing out chapter by chapter and then coming back roaring, big ones Swirl of nothing in the middle. If I had to write a promotional copy, I would call it a fictional collective biography of a real-life group of Sapphists – lesbians, yes, but spiritualists in particular, devoted to the celebrated but elusive ancient Greek poet, whose work survives only in fragments — paired with the political history of the women’s movement in Italy. But that description has way too much solidity. The novel is transparent, heavenly, disembodied – sometimes to its advantage, sometimes not.
A thousand milquetoast stories could have been written from Schwartz’s material, which dates largely from the early 1880s through the late 1920s. Her easygoing cast of characters includes writer and saloon host Natalie Barney, painter Romaine Brooks, novelist and provocateur Radclyffe Hall, modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, famed actress Sarah Bernhardt, avant-garde architect Eileen Gray, the anarcha- Feminist Anna Kuliscioff and prima ballerina Ida Rubinstein. Floating around them are lesser-known but equally captivating women.
“The first thing we did,” the novel begins, “was to change our names. We wanted to be Sappho.” Who is we? The nameless women who want to shed their strictures like snake skins. The secretly educated women who are driven to manual labor when they want to stick a sharp point in a man’s chest. The lesbians who are constantly being led underground by politicians who rant about moral indecency. Basically everyone who, according to the collective narrator, “wanted what half the population got by birth”. And what does it mean to be Sappho? For these women to create fearlessly, live unencumbered, and fuck who the fuck they want.
If it is generally assumed that the women’s movement developed in successive waves for the best part of a century, After Sappho aims to rewrite this linear history into a whirlpool – not waves, but whirlpools. In the early 1880s Leslie Stephen conceived two legacies: He began work on The Dictionary of National Biography, a definitive timeline of nearly 30,000 significant dead Britons. And he fathered Virginia Woolf, who was to free the written word from the constraints of time. Schwartz’s pseudo-history is a confirmation (and mimic) of Woolf’s experiment – “We believed that Virginia Woolf was right about everything” – and an arrow aimed at Stephen’s Victorian brain.
Woolf finally makes it in “After Sappho” (and livens it up a lot – a spritz of absinthe at a dinner party), but only after Schwartz’s wives congregate and disperse, fleeing forced marriages and finding adventurous heterosexual relationships of convenience. In their youth they shy away from the stories they were told: “When we were children we learned what happens to girls in fables: eaten, married, lost. Then came our bouts of classical education, giving us the fates of women in ancient literature: betrayed, raped, cast out, driven insane in speechless grief.”
As adults, they gather to recite poetry in ivy-clad gardens, organize women’s rights congresses, retire to Greek islands, begin and abandon manifestos and manuscripts, and venture into the arenas of life, especially art and sex, which men stubbornly avoid have guarded . One of the main things they want is “a century less muted in fabric”.
It’s hard to write concisely about work that tumbles in so many directions. Halfway through the novel, I grabbed a grab bag of vibrations. Schwartz loves “sky-blue and azure swaths” of the “open sea”, the adjective “sibylline”, fabrics like “almond-colored velvet” and “rough linen”, sunlight dappled by leaves. Sometimes her language is so exuberant that I would have expected feathers to flutter from between the pages.
The lyrics swing from breathy and coaxing to cutting and punky: “Marriage was basically a humiliation of women”; “And will not the adequate critic of women be a woman?”; “We also wished for desks that weren’t in the kitchen.” Schwartz’s most scathing lines would fit on coffee mugs, treasured by middle-aged mothers as a sign of uncharted rebellion. Nevertheless, I nodded.
The middle of “Sappho” gets muddy; the charm of its little swirls is fading. (Please hit me with a big wave.) That is, until World War I comes. As the narrator recounts, in the early 1910s, lesbians entered a golden age in miniature, “an elegant, exuberant step forward.” And then the men begin “their ‘Great War’: what absurd male fiction,” further proof that the world they rule is putting women at their bloody mercy.
But the muddy battlefields of the Somme give women something to set themselves apart from. (“Should the men of Europe be hired, they wondered?”) They push art away from the absent men and begin to tend to themselves. “Short bits of life… Enough poetry. Not another still life with flowers. More portraits of us.” Is that the key to artistic equality? Self-Portrait?
In the final pages of the novel, a sketch of an unexpected (but historically accurate) character appears. Berthe Cleyrergue cooked and cleaned for Barney and Brooks at the Villa Trait d’Union, the strip-shaped house they shared in southern France. She observed her habits and neuroses: She “not only had her whole life to herself; She saw through a dozen others, too.” Cleyrergue, the narrators exclaim, “taught us to be wrong about housekeepers.”
In 1980, Cleyrergue published a self-portrait of her own, documenting the exploits and personalities of the Sapphists she had awaited and associated with. If I can get my hands on a copy in English, I’m curious to find out if Cleyrergue ever held grudges against her employers who couldn’t cook and needed her to pour them kir, dust their Parisian town house, and pass around sandwiches. The housekeepers and maids, cooks and kitchen maids enabled other women to be artistically active.
Women replaced other women in the kitchen. Now they are replacing them in day care centers. There’s always an underclass of women, and I’m amazed at the Berthes who didn’t read Colette and couldn’t leave a written record of their lives.
They could be the fragments missing from Schwartz’s homage to Sappho – this elusive, sometimes joyous and enveloping not entirely new novel. As Colette remarked about “La Naissance du Jour,” a book she described as “feminine” by no other descriptor, “Perhaps in that novel you sensed that the novel doesn’t exist?” Is a novel even what Schwartz wanted? A one-off performance in a grove on Lesvos (followed by an orgy) might have suited their purpose better. Fleeting, immersive, surrounded by that dappled sunlight. I would watch it.
Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-01-25/a-novelist-makes-a-beautiful-hash-out-of-pat-feminist-histories-but-somethings-missing Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Fragmented Historical Novel After Sappho