Book - After Sappho

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz...

In the Bibliographic Note at the end of After Sappho Wynn Schwartz says that:

“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 while she was drafting Orlando), as to have no recourse to a category at all.”

Which gives you some idea that this is not a straightforward novel. It is narrated in the first-person plural by a nameless chorus of Sapphics – and here I’m going to use that word instead of lesbians because Sapphic and Sappho are the centre of this book. They reflect the nameless women who have followed Sappho. But the book introduces us to various writers, feminists, activists, Sapphics and artists from the mid-19th century to the 1930s. Some of them are names we know – Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhardt, Vita Sackville, and Radclyffe Hall; others are less well-known (certainly in the UK) – Eileen Gray, Lina Poletti, Ada Bricktop Smith, Sibilla Alermo, and Eugenia Rasponi.

Selby Wynn Schwartz has described what she writes as a set of ‘cascading vignettes. Short snapshots of a woman’s life, her work, her relationships. It’s like people’s stories playing tag. I like to think it reflects the fragmentary nature of the surviving work of Sappho herself.

I often think Sappho carries a lot on her shoulders considering how little of her work survives and how little is known about her, even by the standard of ancient lives. But she is a figurehead. A voice from the distant past for women who are barely heard. Even now.

Yet this isn’t just a book about the past. The battles these women fought are still being fought. The way they fought to get control of their own lives in different ways at a time when women couldn’t vote. The early sections, which focus particularly on Italy, might feel like a horrible past where women had virtually no rights as individuals. Where if a man raped a woman, her father could force them to marry, and everyone called it quits. This was the 19th century, but we see now that women are still trying to fight for their own autonomy. How can women be seen to be treated equally when their bodily autonomy is stripped from them? These fights are still being fought. The right to be who we are is surely the central battle of the 21st century. What progress there was is being undone. Not all of it. But it might all be under threat.

It is a book that requires attention. If you don’t, you might find yourself lost as fragment after fragment slides by. But it re-pays that careful attention.

This book gives us examples to follow and women to learn more about. I read this on Kindle, but I want a hard copy of it now where I can paste in pictures of these women and make notes.

There are men in this book, but mostly they are the pompous, the cowardly, the ignorant and the censorious. The sections that cover the panic that the emergence of Sapphics into the limelight are both funny and frightening. Mostly though women are the centre of things. As Wynn Schwartz said in an interview on the Booker Prize, "What if the centre of history were occupied by what women thought about and how they related to each other?"

And that is what this book attempts to do.

It ends with a long Bibliographic Note, which opens a door to a whole lot of other reading. I’m looking forward to it.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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