Words can be an incantation; the right verse can summon desire and a depth of feeling that can seem at odds with the quiet act of reading. Heart rates can rise as readers quietly turn the page, changing even as they remain still. A good phrase can unleash something inside a person; it can unearth and provoke.
In Selby Wynn Schwartz’s novel “After Sappho,” long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize in fiction, the verses of the sixth-century BCE Greek poet do all this and so much more. Schwartz writes: “We read Sappho at school, in classes intended merely to teach poetic metre [sic]. Very few of our teachers imagined that they were swelling our veins with cassia and myrrh. In dry voices they went on about the aorist tense, while inside ourselves we felt the leaves of trees shivering in the light, everything dappled, everything trembling.”
The “we” in “After Sappho” is a very real and venerable who’s who of early-20th-century female artists working across the disciplines in Western Europe, who successfully expressed their nonconformist thoughts along with their nonconformist sexual tendencies — women like Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Sibilla Aleramo, Josephine Baker, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf. Fragmented vignettes about these women make up the novel, sometimes intersecting and sometimes disappearing, as if over a cliff, forming a cumulative history of female desire and thought.
Schwartz employs the second-person plural to great effect. The “we” is a collective narrator, a voice from the past, the present, and the future, fractured and eluding definition while constantly asserting a sense of self. The “we” is also gloriously sapphic, in every possible interpretation of the word “sapphic” — including the fact that the original Sappho also wrote as “we.”
In using the collective voice, Schwartz evokes the eternal — after all, time is meaningless to a narrator who is all-encompassing. But in Schwartz’s telling, the immutable still needs stating: Women have not always conformed to expectation, women have always struggled against cultural definitions of femininity, and women have always loved women.
To call “After Sappho” a novel is to push the definition of “a novel” right to the window without technically going completely outside. That being said, the novel as we know it could probably use a partial defenestration. “After Sappho” is unpredictable in form and mercurial in its structure — it has no real plot or chronology, other than to follow the lives of a select group of mostly (white and) incredibly privileged women around Western Europe during a time of great upheaval around women’s rights.
But it remains enthralling.
At the center of “After Sappho” is Lina Poletti. Born Cordula, Poletti changed her name to Lina at 14, as “Cordula sounded anyway like a heap of rope. Lina was a swift, sleek line, a hand brushing a row of buttons. Lina was the one who would read Sappho.”
Names matter. For these women, whose last names change as they are transferred from one patriarch to another, taking ownership of their first names allows them agency in a world designed to relegate women to objects. Poletti takes on a new name just as she takes on the 20th century, when industry and war demonstrated the potential and necessity of the female workforce, giving rise to independent women. Poletti studies vigorously, knowing that books and academia offer her a way out of the traditional familial structure, and in writing she is freed of both her first name and her family’s expectations for her.
Reading Sappho awakens a radical sense of queer womanhood in Poletti, and soon, instead of getting married and having children, she is at the First National Congress of Women, working toward women’s suffrage and welfare. She meets someone; they fall in love.They fall out of love. Depression lurks. Oppression persists. Art is made through it all.
This pattern repeats in “After Sappho.” Schwartz’s women forge ahead, even when their causes and hearts are doomed. But the doom of it all seems to be part of the appeal.
For as much as “After Sappho” is about the Greek poet, it’s also about Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess never to be believed. Even as the strength of the cumulative “we” pulsates with life, the shadow of impending disaster never seems to disappear. Modernist women were seemingly caught between two impossible futures, one dedicated to “becoming” an unencumbered self just as another predicted the self’s inevitable destruction.
“Was it any wonder that we read Sappho instead? The worst of Sappho’s heartbreaks are bitter dawnings of envy, the keen emptiness in her arms where a beloved no longer sleeps, an exile from one beautiful island to another. Sappho has the luxury of growing old in her own bed. Her hair goes white on the pillow, her acolytes listen to her cracked voice singing the memories of those wild silver nights: full appeared the moon/ and when they around the altar took the places. Sappho had many years of long afternoons and celestial nights. Nothing happened to Sappho except her own life.”
Selby Wynn Schwartz writes beautiful prose, with a keen eye toward the playfulness of grammar and the joy of language. This is a book to be consumed slowly, to be savored like a glorious sunset even as it screams the inevitability of night. “After Sappho” is an incantation against the darkness and a call to the light, however fragmented it may be.
By Selby Wynn Schwartz
Liveright, 272 pages, $28.95
Adriana E. Ramírez is a writer based in Pittsburgh; she is the author of “Dead Boys: A Memoir.”