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'After Sappho' brings women in history to life to claim their stories


Writing on the literary representation of women in A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf mused that "What one must do to bring her to life was to think poetically and prosaically at one and the same moment, thus keeping in touch with fact [...] but not losing sight of fiction either — that she is a vessel in which all sorts of spirits and forces are coursing and flashing perpetually."

After Sappho, a brilliant debut work from Selby Wynn Schwartz, takes Woolf at her instructive word. Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, the book is partly a love letter to Woolf and the female poet Sappho, partly a work of literary criticism and partly a work of speculative biography. It's innovatively narrated from a perspective that might be called the first person choral, levitating among multiple consciousnesses of women writers, painters and actors who channeled the spirit of Sappho in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like Woolf's lushly polyphonic novel The Waves, which she called "my first work in my own style!," After Sappho eschews plot in favor of riverine vignettes — in this case, of and about historical personages both well-known (Colette, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, and Radclyffe Hall make frequent appearances) and more obscure, like the American writer Natalie Barney, the painter Romaine Brooks, and the actress Eleonora Duse.

After Sappho is billed as a novel, but can't really be said to lodge in any one category. It skates much closer to a work of "critical fabulation," the scholar Saidiya Hartman's term for a method of storytelling that crosses genres and responds to omissions in the historical record by imaginative reconstruction. As Hartman (who is acknowledged in a lengthy bibliographic coda) elaborates in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, critical fabulation is a type of "close narration, a style which places the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text." What Hartman accomplished for a cast of Black women living in Harlem and Philadelphia a century ago, Schwartz does for her Sapphic figures, who often traversed paths in real life and found a way to make of their lives "beautiful experiments" in the face of forces ready to snuff them out.

The Italian writer Lina Poletti provides an anchoring presence and is also the book's dedicatee. We follow her along a stone-skipping path from her lonely childhood, when she was called Cordula (which she thinks sounds like "a heap of rope") to her various romances with other women, to her writing of a manifesto as the Fascists prepared to march on Rome in 1921. In passages often recalling the sensuous prose of Ali Smith, After Sappho tracks not just outer movement, but psychological ambulation, picking up on the subtlest shifts in mood with the delicacy of a weathervane. There are many more dramatis personae, but to speak of any of them in isolation is to miss the point of this puckishly allusive book, to do violence to how it asks to be read. The development of these women as writers, thinkers and artists, it is clear, can only be understood in terms of their relations with one another; as Schwartz writes, Lina "had many lives, all of her own and ours tangled in among them."

Most of the figures are white Europeans, but we occasionally hear from more marginalized women, like a Black chorine who makes a living by singing minstrel songs and works her way up to becoming the "empress of her own nightclub." Should more of these figures have been included? I vacillated over this question until the very last page, but ultimately felt that what would seem an oversight in a more traditional work of scholarship here seems a more forgivable lapse. The open-ended fragments never pretend to comprehensiveness, after all, and even exercise a degree of self-reflexivity about their own state of incompletion. As the ill-fated prophet Cassandra says in one section, there are "lines missing from the fragments" — lines that are lives.

Schwartz, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature, could have easily written a series of monographs on each of the women populating her pages, but she has instead created a ravishing mosaic of creative subjectivity and self-fashioning. Rather than being embalmed in the past tense, the characters move about in the "present continuous," which imparts a thrilling, vertiginous sense of being everything everywhere all at once. The book is exquisitely alive to the way that biographies written against the regulative grain can, as Schwartz writes, "bring forth moments of becoming that lasted for centuries; there would be more than one life unfurling in every life." That activity of becoming is palpable on nearly every page. In one section, actresses are likened to "verbs as yet unconjugated; they contained in themselves the heady potential for any deed, any command, any future." It's not just actresses who possess this quality, though; in Schwartz's skillful hands, all the characters vibrate with a sense of blood-surging-through-the-veins immediacy.

The book ends in 1928, the year when English women gained the right to vote and when Woolf has just published Orlando, a novel that cheekily called itself a "biography." Yet it was also, as Schwartz notes, "a whole fantasy," "a talk on fiction and the future," "a series of portraits, a manifesto, an alcove in the history of literature, an alchemical experiment, an autobiography, and a long piece from life now." It's a luminous summary of a book that started as a "heroically private joke" to Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, but also much more: a statement of Schwartz's own artistic intent, here splendidly and indelibly fulfilled.

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer from New York whose criticism has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, Public Books, Village Voice, and others.

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Rhoda Feng