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After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz: A Dazzling Portrait of Lesbians Through Time

Welcome book lovers, you are among friends. We all know this sign. But at Foyles Charing Cross Road, from 14th July to 15th August, an exhibition dedicated to After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz took place on the ground floor below these words. The Foyles staff were so astounded by Schwartz’s work that they set up panels of information and pictures about the book for anyone passing by to admire. Thus, I was taken on a short journey through the history of women inspired by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and ended up with a signed copy of Schwartz’s book in my hands. Since then, it has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and has become one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

someone will remember us / I say / even in another time’, Sappho, Fragment 147.

This is exactly what this book is doing. Schwartz pulls together the skeins of these sapphic women’s lives across centuries, highlighting their connections through vignettes that tie back to Sappho’s fragments. She enhances their histories with imagination and stunning poetic prose. She immerses us in their worlds and interweaves the past, present, and future; ‘we’ are the women in this novel. If only for a moment, we are the fiercely antifascist poet Lina Poletti (Schwartz dedicates the book ‘to all of us who are Lina Poletti’); we are the renowned Parisian actress Sarah Bernhardt. We are even Natalie Barney, the writer who had countless lovers and who hosted a literary salon in her garden with her Doric Temple à l’amitié. In this way, not only do we remember the women ‘after Sappho’ — where both the term ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ comes from, as Sappho resided on the island of Lesbos and wrote poems expressing queer desire — but Sappho ‘become[s] us’ (p. 170). The small pieces of Sappho’s poetry that survive continue to infuse our lives, but also, ‘[o]ur lives are the lines missing from the fragments’ (p. 168).

Image credit: Lara Mae Simpson

This novel is dappled sunlight peeking through shaking trees. It is concerned with capturing such ineffable wonders, what Sappho describes as ‘aithussomenon, the way that leaves move when nothing touches them but the afternoon light’ (p. 16). By focusing on similar ancient Greek terms, such as kletic poems, the optative mood, and the ‘genitive of remembering’ (p. 14), Schwartz creates motifs that thread through the book, connecting the characters and Sappho’s fragments together. For example, the optative in ancient Greek means ‘to utter a wish or a hope’ such as ‘if only’ (p. 94). In the Temple à l’amitié, the characters often retreat from the world’s oppressions, hoping to transport themselves to a garden in Mytilene, Lesbos. However, with the onset of WWI and modernity, this became impossible: ‘No longer would we follow in the style of, wistful and optative. Sappho was going to become us…Sappho would wear our clothes with buttons and collars. Sappho would drive our motor cars and write our novels’ (p. 170).

Through this book, then, I learned ‘yes many and beautiful things’ (Sappho, Fragment 24A). I was in awe at sentences like, ‘There must be a verb in some language that means, to leave the lamps burning for someone who has not yet arrived’ (p. 177). I learned about the ancient Greek terms that Schwartz uses, even if I had to keep referring back to previous pages to remind myself of their meaning. And I discovered about the lives of many sapphic women, some of whom I already love (such as Virginia Woolf) and several that I had never heard of before: Lina Poletti, Renée Vivien (whose androgynous style I was dazzled by in the exhibition), and the painter Romaine Brooks. In the bibliographic note, Schwartz writes about how she managed to foreground only women in contrast to most of history dominated by men: with ‘a simple swift cut…history is sutured without them’ (p. 259). Therefore, After Sappho not only tackles how these women were affected by the patriarchy in the past, but also constructs a new feminist narrative for the present and future.

Nevertheless, it is a narrative not wholly intersectional. Set mostly in Italy and France, this book is almost overwhelmingly white — the blurb promised accounts of Josephine Baker but mentions of her are only fleeting. An uncomfortable othering effect is created when the few Black women of the novel are not necessarily included in the ‘we’ and ‘us’ of women ‘after Sappho’ due to their different experiences — this is surprising when the rest of the novel combats fascism, patriarchal laws, and homophobia. Furthermore, as most of the women depicted here are wealthy and well-educated, we must recognise that some women are still being erased from history here — are they less important if they were not aware of Sappho’s poetry? In a Q&A with Galley Beggar Press, Schwartz acknowledges this: she says that one of the novel’s key themes, ‘the quest and right to one’s own identity and life…should also hold true for people who are not mostly well-educated white women with comfortable incomes in Western European cities’. Understandably, Schwartz could not cover every woman's narrative without veering into superficiality. But perhaps it should have been more clearly stated that this was a novel set in Europe, focused on a particular group of people, who had the luxury to live in the ‘optative’ at least for a while.

Criticisms aside, After Sappho is incredible and unique. Although its academic tone requires attentiveness, those interested in history, sexuality, and feminism will find Schwartz’s work an absolute treat. It makes me emotional to read a book (and see it being critically acclaimed) that is so unapologetically queer and outlines our history with such confidence and joy. If I struggle to describe myself with the term ‘lesbian’, remembering that it came from Sappho, who inspired all of these amazing women, might fill me with a ‘violent, luminous wave’ (p. 17); a resistance to those who have torn it down.


After Sappho is available to purchase here.

Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor


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