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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

After Sappho

Selby Wynn Schwartz

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To purchase After Sappho

Title: After Sappho
Author: Selby Wynn Schwartz
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 253 pages
Availability: After Sappho - US
After Sappho - UK
After Sappho - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative take and approach; nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 20/7/2022 Lara Feigel
New Statesman . 31/8/2022 Pippa Bailey
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/1/2023 M.B.Sycamore
The Telegraph A 7/7/2022 Lucy Scholes
TLS . 16/9/2022 Harriet Baker

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Selby Wynn Schwartz’s bold and original novel, Woolf is part of a chorus that forms the narrative voice, calling for a collective, transhistoric experience of female being. (...) Schwartz’s most original move is to make her first-person narrator speak as “we”. (...) After Sappho is a book that’s wholly seduced by seduction and that seduces in turn. And that’s partly because the sentences, crisply flat yet billowing easily into gorgeous lyricism, feel so easily, casually of our time. The confidence in Schwartz’s ventriloquising of the past sends the reader spinning into the present, even if she herself doesn’t look it squarely in the eye." - Lara Feigel, The Guardian

  • "(E)xtraordinarily confident and inventive for a debut novel. (...) Moving between and keeping track of this great host of characters is not easy, but their stories, though fragmentary, are together a swelling chorus (indeed, Schwartz’s first-person narrator is a “we”, a collective), an urgent manifesto for female emancipation and for the broad church of womanhood." - Pippa Bailey. New Statesman

  • "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. (...) 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." - Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, The New York Times Book Review

  • "After Sappho isn’t just an equally glorious, genre-expanding work of fiction, it is also Schwartz’s tribute to Orlando and the genius of its creator. (...) After Sappho is a project of both imagination and intimacy, but also of significant research. Schwartz’s protagonists are all real people, but she has captured the essence of their lives and identities by means of what she describes as “speculative biographies”. One of the beauties of this strange, spellbinding novel -- other, that is, than the dreamlike, pellucid writing -- is this merging of fact and fiction, historical record and artistic vision." - Lucy Scholes, The Telegraph

  • "Wynn Schwartz makes use of a multitude of literary sources, though she rarely quotes directly. Instead she practises a kind of ventriloquism, not quite fictive, and at the same time subverting the genres of biography and literary criticism. Her style might be called hybrid, though the label doesn’t capture the pleasures of its originality or inventiveness. After Sappho is the kind of project that Woolf might have produced: part essay, part manifesto, a rewriting of history, a compendium of lives across time. Woolf’s irony and playfulness, which in part provided a guise for the radicalism of her writing, provide a methodology for this book. (...) After Sappho is hardly a reckless endeavour. Rather, it is a dexterous, scholarly performance that asks not to be read too literally. It takes a lesson from its subjects, women who passed across identities, who defied convention." - Harriet Baker, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Author Schwartz begins her (lengthy) Bibliographic Note at the conclusion of After Sappho by noting:

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 drafting Orlando), as to have no recourse to a category at all.
       Peopled -- indeed, crowded -- with real-life figures, After Sappho is built up on historical (in the main, biographical) fact and a large body of literature -- much of it then documented in that Bibliographic Note. It focuses mainly on women writers (though there are also some women active in other fields) who come after Sappho -- and who also, in various forms, take after Sappho.
       Narrated by a chorus -- a 'we' that comments and reflects on much of the material --, the novel opens with a Prologue, the opening lines proclaiming:
The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho.
       So too, many of the historical figures become, in their various ways, modern incarnations of the Greek poet. (As Schwartz also repeatedly points out, many of them also changed their names, the shifting of identity to a more suitable one one of the novel's themes.)
       The women Schwartz features lived and were active from the end of the 19th century through 1928, when Virginia Woolf published Orlando. The novel opens and closes with Cordula 'Lina' Poletti, born in 1885 (and who, remarkably, lived until 1971), and she is a prominent figure in the novel, but Schwartz presents many more women of those times. Among the many significant figures are Rina Faccio, Virginia Woolf, Liane de Pougy, Renée Vivien, Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall, and Vita Sackville-West, but many more also find mention.
       Common to all the women is a dissatisfaction with the place they are allowed in the societies of those times, which they fight against in various ways. They are 'independent' women -- in times when it was socially and often legally difficult for women to assert any independence. (Schwartz notes several of the legal restrictions and limitations on women of the times (and the absurdity of some of these), a shocking reminder of how recent many gross inequalities were perversely enshrined in law in European countries.)
       Many try on a variety of identities, as, for example:
A new name was like a blank notebook; Rina could write herself into it. With a folio of fresh pages she could write herself into becoming Sibilla, enigmatic and sibilant.
       With writers and their work at the heart of the novel, Schwartz emphasizes the efforts of women to write their own stories -- staking ground, as it were, and as Sappho had done. As she nicely puts it, about the literature of the time:
Someone had got modern fiction terribly wrong. Or rather a number of men, writing their copious novels, had so persistently hammered it into wrongness over the course of thousands of pages that English literature was concentrated into one flat mass.
       Sappho presents an alternative to what has been (otherwise) taught and presented, a different woman's-life and story:
When we were children, we learned what happened to girls in fables: eaten, married, lost. Then came our bouts of classical education, imparting to us the fates of women in ancient literature: betrayed, raped, cast out, driven mad in tongueless grief. It was not unusual, we discovered, for women to be dragged across the seas as slaves and then murdered on the threshold. Cassandra was merely one of many.

Was it any wonder that we read Sappho instead ? [...] Nothing happened to Sappho except her own life.
       Sapphic love is also prominent in the novel; among the few unions with a man that is presented is that of Lina Poletti with a librarian who: "would loan her any book in the archives and asked for nothing in return", a marriage purely of (Poletti's) convenience, helping her to get around some of the legal restrictions of the day.
       After Sappho is presented in short (sub-)chapters -- "cascading vignettes", the jacket copy suggests -- a rapid-fire back and forth among the many, many different characters and examples (though in more or less chronological order). Several biographies unfold, at least in part, across the novel, and there is a sense of unifying sweep across it, but Schwartz does range very widely. The mosaic is also very much built up on not just on the experiences but also the writing of its many subjects; unsurprisingly, too, there are many after-echoes of Sappho's fragments. Sappho -- both the figure and her art -- is very much the guiding light of the chorus, the women featured in the novel, and the novel itself -- not least in its tending to the fragmentary itself.
       The writing is crisp, the tone light but sharp -- and often clever. Schwartz does not harangue, letting her examples and descriptions make her points readily enough -- often quite delightfully:
In fact Eva had been practicing Sappho for years. In 1898, in a dormitory room in Radnor Hall, Eva had been apprehended while practicing with two or three other girls. They had exam in intermediate Greek, Eva protested, and the other girls could hardly manage the aorist tense, she was only trying to help them grasp the concept of past action. But the president of the college would not hear a word of it. Eva and Sappho were expelled for a year.
       At one point Schwartz mentions Colette's observation about one of her works, that: "You may have sensed in this novel that the novel does not exist?" and After Sappho too is such a work -- fiction in the broadest sense, even as its components are largely factual. But then, as Schwartz also notes: "in French, genre means both gender and the form of a book". It is, also, a (multi-)biography -- but, as the chorus notes at the end:
We write the lives of Lina Poletti, but we did not always understand them.
       A very creative take on the female artist and independent woman in the early twentieth century, After Sappho is thoroughly enjoyable but also thought-provoking literature. Limited to a slice of (European) life and a relatively short period, it illuminates these very well -- with much also applying beyond these, even to the present day. Well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2023

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After Sappho: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Selby Wynn Schwartz was born in 1975.

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© 2023 the complete review

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