After Sappho accomplishes what only the most generous art can: It makes a more perfect world out of the imperfections of our own ... The result is not quite narrative fiction and not quite history either. It is, however, a work of stirring genius, a catalogue of intimacies and inventions, desires and dreams ... This novel consists in just such a marshaling of shards. As Schwartz fictionalizes the real bonds between real women, she invites us to imagine a still more sprawling network of lovers and ways of loving, a whole world that never quite existed but that, in these pages, always has.
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. 'Some acts can only be written as fragments,' Schwartz writes. Her story, in kind, forms and re-forms itself through fragments... which float between and beyond boundaries ... 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.
The novel is diaphanous, celestial, disembodied — sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not ... The text swerves from breathy and adulatory to cutting and punky ... Schwartz’s snappiest lines would fit on coffee mugs prized by middle-age moms as tokens of unexplored rebellion. Nevertheless, I nodded along ... There is always an underclass of women, and I wonder about the Berthes who didn’t read Colette and couldn’t leave behind written documentation of their lives. They may be the fragments missing from Schwartz’s homage to Sappho — this elusive, at times joyful and enveloping not-quite-novel.
Evokes the lives of a loose arrangement of women across history who drew strength from Sappho’s example to fight for feminist causes and artistic independence ... Schwartz recounts pointed aspects of these women’s lives in a series of brief, cascading vignettes that are often organized around a line of Sappho’s poetry. The adulation of Ancient Greece is reflected in the prose, which is learned, refined and a touch mannerly. The tone, despite its emotional restraint, is resolutely celebratory, focused on the steady advancement of women’s rights and sexual freedoms. In this interesting passion project, art is put forth as an unambiguous force of beauty and inspiration.
Brilliant ... 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 ... After Sappho is billed as a novel, but can't really be said to lodge in any one category ... Puckishly allusive ... A statement of Schwartz's own artistic intent, here splendidly and indelibly fulfilled.
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.
A playful exegesis of, homage to, or riff on this incomplete miscellany of love ... To read After Sappho in the context of fifty years or so of feminist and lesbian documentation is to wonder, despite all its pleasures, why it is necessary to keep circling around a few iconic figures ... I question Schwartz’s choice to narrate much of the book in the first-person plural, the 'we' of a Greek chorus. 'We' can be an exhilarating invitation to collective action, but it can also be a barrier. Who is doing the work of shaping that 'we'? Who does 'we' leave out? On the other hand, the prose in After Sappho is seductively beautiful and wears its erudition with style.
The popular fiction genre of 'muse-lit', where the lives of misunderstood or under-appreciated women are reviewed through a contemporary feminist lens, often suffers in execution as the truth of these women’s experiences cannot be rewritten in an authentic way that offers the meaningful justice that readers crave. Schwarz, however, has overcome this challenge through the scrupulous integrity of her research and by staying close to primary sources produced by the women where they dictated their philosophies, experiences and aspirations in their own voices ... After Sappho is an ambitious literary project that delivers on its own promise with great stylistic power and verve.
Bold and original ... The book is written with an urgent sense of needing to speak right up to the present, yet its stories end in 1928. There is a danger of fetishisation here. Are 1920s Paris and Sussex still our best hope of liberation, and are we doomed if they are? Schwartz, for me, doesn’t quite face this question. But if I’ve quoted a lot from the novel in this review, it’s because the prose is so compelling. 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 ... In the Sappho-Cassandra dialectic Schwartz brings something new and necessary to the dance across time, and it’s a dialectic in which our embodied lives are central.
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 ... Some reviewers have questioned the ethics of moving so freely between fact and fiction in writing these women’s lives. In an extended biographical note the author describes her fragments as “speculative biographies”, and this feels closest to the truth ... It is a quietly radical technique, and not without risk. But Wynn Schwartz pulls it off. How else, these writers ask, to account for the lives of the unaccounted?
After Sappho is not an attempt to rework or adapt its inspiration. Instead, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s book is more of an ekphrastic text, using Sappho as a well to draw from, rather than an artist to imitate. Schwartz, to her credit, leaves any imitation to her characters ... For a reader, even aware of the tidal wash of names and dates as an intention, it might have helped to have a character list made available, somewhere in the text. This, of course, suggests countering the form of After Sappho, and indeed its political bent. The point of a book like this is to confound and to reject taxonomy, to refuse the dull binary norms of gender and experience ... Schwartz’s strengths are clearer in the macro view. She is excellent at threading her stories together, collecting people, dispersing them across the world, drawing lovers and friends under one roof to explore an alternative, sororal history. Schwartz’s voice is one of dry wit and cocked eyebrow, mocking the man-made record.
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 ... 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.
It calls itself a work of fiction but is really a series of mostly factual vignettes of women failed by men — women such as Josephine Baker, Colette and Isadora Duncan. The title and the fragmentary structure are nods to the fact that the works of the great poet of Lesbos survive mostly as fragments. But instead of brevity and glorious poetic imagery, we are offered cliché... repetition and didacticism. This is a manifesto masquerading as a novel ... It does not do anyone a service to rewrite women’s history in this way, even if veiled as 'fiction'.
Despite all these disparate parts, After Sappho is a brilliantly constructed, complex, and fascinating hybrid text ... After Sappho is a women’s text in that it is non-linear, non-hierarchical, multi-voiced, innovative, and highly creative and original. In the fragment on the oft referenced and revered Orlando by Virginia Woolf, the narrator asserts: 'In fact no one could tell what was its genre, it was as mercurial in mood and ample in form as Orlando themselves.' So too is After Sappho.
This book dares to invent a new form, one that embraces the maddening fragmentation of so many important women in history and reclaims it as a kind of revolutionary beauty. An exciting, luxurious work of speculative biography.
Schwartz’s account of what happens next as the central characters resist oppression speaks volumes on their efforts, and she contributes her own work of art with this irresistible narrative. Schwartz breathes an astonishing sense of life into her timeless characters.