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After Sappho

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“The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for “The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for Capri with nothing but her clotted paintbrushes; and in 1923, Virginia Woolf writes: “I want to make life fuller and fuller.” Writing in cascading vignettes, Selby Wynn Schwartz spins an invigorating tale of women whose narratives converge and splinter as they forge queer identities and claim the right to their own lives. A luminous meditation on creativity, education, and identity, After Sappho announces a writer as ingenious as the trailblazers of our past.


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“The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for “The first thing we did was change our names. We were going to be Sappho,” so begins this intrepid debut novel, centuries after the Greek poet penned her lyric verse. Ignited by the same muse, a myriad of women break from their small, predetermined lives for seemingly disparate paths: in 1892, Rina Faccio trades her needlepoint for a pen; in 1902, Romaine Brooks sails for Capri with nothing but her clotted paintbrushes; and in 1923, Virginia Woolf writes: “I want to make life fuller and fuller.” Writing in cascading vignettes, Selby Wynn Schwartz spins an invigorating tale of women whose narratives converge and splinter as they forge queer identities and claim the right to their own lives. A luminous meditation on creativity, education, and identity, After Sappho announces a writer as ingenious as the trailblazers of our past.

30 review for After Sappho

  1. 5 out of 5

    David

    After Sappho is a story of women and womanhood, a story of creativity, freedom, and excellence. And it is a story that provocatively excludes men almost entirely. This is scholar Selby Wynn Schwartz’s debut work of fiction, published by the excellent Galley Beggar Press. Schwartz traces the lives of women in the sapphic tradition who pushed against boundaries and laid the groundwork for liberation on their own terms. Many of these women are unsung, at least in our male-dominated society. Schwart After Sappho is a story of women and womanhood, a story of creativity, freedom, and excellence. And it is a story that provocatively excludes men almost entirely. This is scholar Selby Wynn Schwartz’s debut work of fiction, published by the excellent Galley Beggar Press. Schwartz traces the lives of women in the sapphic tradition who pushed against boundaries and laid the groundwork for liberation on their own terms. Many of these women are unsung, at least in our male-dominated society. Schwartz’s focus is unapologetically Euro-centric and covers the roughly 50-year period from the 1870s to the 1920s. The story is told in fragments, reflecting an effort to tell a reclaimed and reconstructed history from the lives of women who remain largely unknown. Readers with more experience with feminist literature - particularly those versed in the works of feminist writers of color - may find Schwartz’s take limiting or old hat, but for me this was eye opening and sent me on a hunt to bolster my sapphist reading. This is a pioneering work and I hope an inspiration for other writers to follow course.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Adina

    Longlisted for Booker Prize 2022 Sorry, but this isn't for me. i no longer lose time with books I do not enjoy. The fact that the book was not shortlisted finally made me decide to drop this. For me, this novel read like a series of academic Wikipedia entries about known Lesbian/Bi women from the past. Interesting subject but it felt like the book had no soul and I could not get invested. Longlisted for Booker Prize 2022 Sorry, but this isn't for me. i no longer lose time with books I do not enjoy. The fact that the book was not shortlisted finally made me decide to drop this. For me, this novel read like a series of academic Wikipedia entries about known Lesbian/Bi women from the past. Interesting subject but it felt like the book had no soul and I could not get invested.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer

    8th in my 2022 Booker Prize longlist rankings (although very close to my shortlist) - my Bookstagram rating, ranking, summary review and Book themed Golden Retriever photo is here: https://www.instagram.com/p/ChWflKqMP... Kudos to the Booker judges for picking such an innovative novel. In these new lives, Virginia Woolf wrote, there would be that queer amalgamation of dream and reality we knew so intimately: it was the alchemy of our own existence. These biographies would bring forth moments o 8th in my 2022 Booker Prize longlist rankings (although very close to my shortlist) - my Bookstagram rating, ranking, summary review and Book themed Golden Retriever photo is here: https://www.instagram.com/p/ChWflKqMP... Kudos to the Booker judges for picking such an innovative novel. In these new lives, Virginia Woolf wrote, there would be that queer amalgamation of dream and reality we knew so intimately: it was the alchemy of our own existence. These biographies would bring forth moments of becoming that lasted for centuries; there would be more than one life unfurling in every life. The lines would not break off on the page just when we had fallen in love, and in each chapter Sappho might become a different one of us. This book is published by Norwich based small press Galley Beggar – consistent publisher of excellent literary fiction and perhaps best known for one of their first (“A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”) and last books (“Ducks, Newburyport). Both of those books have won the Goldsmith’s Prize for fiction “that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” (two wins in the nine years of the prize being astonishing for a press which publishes only 1-3 novels a year). Similarly Galley Beggar have, equally astonishingly, twice won the Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut Fiction in the last 10 years (with “A Girl …” and “We That Are Young”). And I think this is very relevant here as this is: a debut novel; a novel which not just itself extends the boundaries of the novel form (the author in her Acknowledgement pays particular tribute to Elly and Sam – the co-founders of Galley Beggar who “decided this was going to be a novel”;) but also one which largely celebrates female authors who themselves deliberately aimed to extend that form; and a novel which very explicitly celebrates women who broke the mould (not just in literary or artistic terms but in societal ones). This is a book I think best sampled over multiple readings – the author herself describes it best in what is an excellent and extensive Biographical note: 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. The subjects of these biographies are real-life turn of the 20th century women who as the book’s blurb says were “trailblazers … push[ing] against the boundaries of what it means, and can mean to be a woman” or to take a Q&A from the Galley Beggar website “they wanted to say for themselves what their genders & sexualities & artistic practices & political rights should be” Many if not most were I have to confess completely unknown to me I suspect someone more familiar with the characters would have a very different reading experience) such as Lina Poletti, Rina Faccio, Anna Kuliscioff, Laura Kieler, Sibilla Aleramo, Eleanoro Duse (to pick from some earlier chapters) and others know at least a little (Virginia Woold, Vita Sackville-West, Sarah Bernhardt, Gloria Stern) if perhaps often filtered through the gaze of male biographers and contemporaries. On this last point I did particularly enjoy how the author not just wrote these women back into the story of history but wrote many men deservedly out, as the author says in the aforementioned Note: Moreover, men like Gabriele d’Annunzio – who swaggers prepotently through every account ever written of Eleonora Duse and Romaine Brooks – do not merit here even a footnote about who they married or how they died. It has been surprisingly easy to leave out these sorts of men: a simple swift cut, and history is sutured without them. I think of Vita Sackville-West, who said in a letter in 1919 that the only revenge one could take on certain men was to brazenly rewrite them. Aside: earlier on we are told of Sibilla Aleramo’s “Una Donna” was “was published instead by a small typographical agency in Torino, and almost immediately throngs of readers bought up all of the copies. The editors in Milano were greatly surprised, but as reasonable businessmen they acquired the rights for reprinting the book.” – and one could hardly help reflect on what happened to “A Girl is A Half Formed Thing” (a book rejected by all conventional publishers over a decade or so) after Galley Beggar published it to success. Many if not all of the subjects practiced sexual freedom and the subject of lesbianism is explored through the book – via the writings of the titular Sappho (and at least for me the fragmentary biographies was an excellent way to mirror the way that poets writing has come to us in fragments), via the actions and writings of the biographical subjects and, particularly amusingly, by the attempts of male writers and legislators to somehow come to terms with, explain and contain it. Sappho becomes something of a role model/inspiration for the characters and also for a Greek chorus “we” which permeates the writing - and with Cassandra I think set up as something of a voice of warning/despair against the inspiration/encouragement of Sappho. I must say here that I have little knowledge of or interest in Greek antiquity and literature (not exactly on the curriculum at my state school) so I probably had much less identification with and understanding of these parts than many other readers will have. If I had any minor criticism the novel is perhaps a little lighter on intersectionality than diversity. I may be wrong but it felt like the subjects were; overwhelmingly white (Josephine Baker was featured on a wonderful set of cards that came with the novel, but was not I thought a major character in the novel itself); almost if not all European or North Americans; almost all writers or actors; and also again almost all of them, by virtue of either birth, artistic status or connections (or even a combination of those) more privileged than almost all their female contemporaries with a much greater degree of economic freedom as a result (for me this reached bit of a literal peak when two characters travel to Greece and decide to buy a hill and have a temple built there). I would say that in an interview I. The Galley Beggar page the author does say of the importance of the central quest for identity ”And I believe that this should also hold true for people who are not mostly well-educated white women with comfortable incomes in Western European cities.” What I did find thought was that if I was slightly struggling to follow or connect with one section (some of the Italian political sections or Greek literature/Island settings started to lose me) it was best to move on to slightly more familiar ground (e.g. Virginia Woolf), re-establish the connection (for example I particularly loved the nuanced way in which the characters reacted to the literally man-made horrors of World War I) and then return to the earlier sections, to find that the connections there were partly re-established. And the writing is uniformly excellent – this is an author completely in control of her research, her love for her biographical subjects and her literary skills and who is able to allow those three areas to support and reinforce each other to the benefit of the reader. So a book to persist with, to explore and to return to – and ultimately to really enjoy. In 1923 “The Birth of the Day” was published … What, we demanded plaintively of Colette, what genre of thing was this? Smiling mischievously, Colette replied that its genre was feminine: Biographies without births, elegies without deaths: we could hardly tell what bounded a life any more. Moreover in French genre means both gender and the form of a book. Some autobiographies were disintegrating into solipsism while others were turning their warmest parts outwards, opening at the centre into a dizzying constellation of moving parts.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alwynne

    Selby Wynn Schwartz’s hybrid of novel and creative non-fiction opens in an era dubbed “the golden age of the lesbian.” Multi-millionaire Natalie Clifford Barney held court in France, centre of a queer circle so famous/notorious that Paris became widely known as “Paris-Lesbos.” Lesbos because, for Barney and the women who flocked to her literary salon, the poet Sappho was both their icon and central to their sense of self. Schwartz structures her work using Sappho as a point of identification, he Selby Wynn Schwartz’s hybrid of novel and creative non-fiction opens in an era dubbed “the golden age of the lesbian.” Multi-millionaire Natalie Clifford Barney held court in France, centre of a queer circle so famous/notorious that Paris became widely known as “Paris-Lesbos.” Lesbos because, for Barney and the women who flocked to her literary salon, the poet Sappho was both their icon and central to their sense of self. Schwartz structures her work using Sappho as a point of identification, her choral narrator speaking on behalf of a community of women to a community of women, as some believe Sappho and her followers acted in their time. These poetic voices weave together the lives of a group of self-proclaimed, sapphic women from Italian poet Lina Poletti, author and activist Sibilla Aleramo to artist Romaine Brooks, and writer Gertrude Stein through to Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf and many, many more. Sappho as a signifier for women who loved women was not new, even the Ladies of Llangollen tucked away in their 18th-century hideout named a succession of their beloved dogs after the poet, a clue to the true nature of their so-called “romantic friendship.” It was the notion of sapphic as an explicit identity, a whole way of being, that marked the beginnings of something radically different. In the wider society lesbians or sapphists were labelled deviant figures, corrupt, depraved and doomed to a bad end unless, of course, men of science could somehow save them from themselves - although they could also be sources of unusually stimulating, voyeuristic pleasures. But, as Schwartz demonstrates, Barney’s inner circle with its roots in the iconoclastic Decadent movement, had no interest in men’s theories or desires, choosing to forge their own paths through society, active in newly-emerging feminist movements, as well as in art and literature. Schwartz documents the lives of her chosen women in a series of fragments, echoing what remains of Sappho’s verses, shifting between individual women and moments in time. But her subjects are also looking forward to modernism and modernity, their actions a challenge to the limits of patriarchal authority, their very existence threatening the established order of things. And Schwartz counters the optimism of a sapphic yielding to desire by invoking the shadow of Cassandra, the ill-fated, prophet whose words went unheard, resulting in chaos and despair. A figure who becomes increasingly important as Schwartz’s narrative moves forward to the outbreak of war and then the first stirrings of fascism. There are some excellent passages here, some exceptionally-fascinating material, but there were times too, when I felt this read like a rather dry, academic thesis. Although I particularly enjoyed Schwartz’s probing of the nature of writing in her discussion of Orlando versus The Well of Loneliness. Overall, After Sappho’s an ambitious, often intriguing piece, but it’s also a puzzling one, part of what Schwartz claims to be doing relates to speculative biography, which mingles the factual with the imagined. She’s openly drawing on the work of novelists like Bernadine Evaristo, and, significantly, historian Saidiya Hartman who’ve experimented with ways of documenting hidden histories of marginalised, Black women. Hartman’s imagined Black lives were playing out in America, at a similar point in history. Yet, unlike Hartman’s dispossessed, her obscure, queer girls and women, whose existence could only be glimpsed in court records and official documents, Schwartz’s overwhelmingly-white subjects were predominantly privileged, most of them already exhaustively documented by biographers and writers, like Diana Souhami, who focus on lesbian histories. So, for the most part, Schwartz’s is well-trodden ground, tied to an established, lesbian canon that’s easy to track because of the sheer volume and array of source material available, much of it still widely accessible: from artwork to diaries to fiction and memoir. Although branding this as somewhere between truth and necessary fiction does mean that Schwartz’s is freed up to be partial, which perhaps explains why her treatment of issues around gender identity sometimes seems limited and oddly conventional. It’s a book I’d recommend trying but not in isolation. Instead, for a slightly different. less narrow perspective, I’d follow this with Hartman’s exquisitely-written Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and LOTE, Shola von Reinhold’s brilliantly inventive take on Woolf, queer lives and Black modernism.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Roman Clodia

    Longlisted for the Booker 2022 For example, we might open a seemingly ordinary biography, its chapters neatly partitioned, and find that it was webbed throughout with the most extraordinary filaments of life. A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units. Thus this biography would be bound together with all our lives, twined through from preface to index: curling, animate, verdant. That 'with all our lives' is one of my nagging issues with this book which, fundamentally, I'm Longlisted for the Booker 2022 For example, we might open a seemingly ordinary biography, its chapters neatly partitioned, and find that it was webbed throughout with the most extraordinary filaments of life. A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units. Thus this biography would be bound together with all our lives, twined through from preface to index: curling, animate, verdant. That 'with all our lives' is one of my nagging issues with this book which, fundamentally, I'm all for. The thing is - and I'm not alone in pointing this out - the women traced here are almost totally white, European, and largely privileged in terms of wealth and material support. They are writers, artists, actors, dancers; they build themselves houses in France and Italy; they travel; they agitate; they call out the patriarchy - but to what extent are their lives supported and enabled by countless nameless working class women who act as their maids, their cleaners, their dressers, who remain nameless and unacknowledged? Even more disturbing, is that when one of only two Black women is cited, she is called 'you' rather than 'us' or 'we' so is placed outside of the community whose story this is, however empathetic the narrative is to her: 'But Ada Bricktop Smith had also learned things we would never know: what it was to black up your face when you were already a black girl, for example, in order to earn your living singing minstrel songs to white Southerners' (my emphasis). For the record, the other Black woman is Josephine Baker, called Josie, and merely name-checked. Just saying... It's a shame because this is the Booker longlister that I really wanted to love: the writing is wonderful - fluid and pliant, with a distinctive rhythm, witty and sharply scathing with some deliciously funny lines ('Léo Taxil claimed, the Sapphists communally delivered themselves to unnamable orgies. Had there in fact been a Lesbian Academy of any accreditation, we would have valiantly undertaken the curriculum'). But I would have liked to see a more wide-ranging collection of women unearthed: too many of these are the usual suspects - Sibilla Aleramo, Liane de Pougy, Pauline Tarn, Mabel Dodge (recently fictionalised in Cusk's Second Place), Gertrude Stein, Colette, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West, Djuna Barnes... and the latter sections seem to become all about Virginia Woolf. The premise is that the extant remains of Sappho's poetry become the bones that are filled in with the lives of modern women, from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century: 'from her fragments would emerge our new modern forms' and the narrative itself braids together slices of larger lives to create both a chorus of 'we' female voices and a tapestry of (artistic) women to reclaim a chronology through history that has largely been seen as male. I think I'd have liked to have seen a little more self-consciousness about the fact that Sappho's fragments were never intentional, simply that they're all that have survived, and that modern feminist scholarship has questioned the easy readings of her poetry as 'lesbian' - one suggestion is that her poetry was to acculturate Greek young women to the idea of marriage and the all-important business of providing children, after years of being told by patriarchy they had to be pious, virtuous, silent and essentially asexual. It's also ironic that for her early Roman readers, Sappho was seen as 'Eastern' (the 'East' started in Greece for classical Romans) with Lesbos once the possession of Troy in present-day Turkey yet this book appropriates her as completely Western and, implicitly, white. Still, this is a historicised reception and positioning of Sappho, even as it's one we might wish to interrogate more closely. For all my questions, there's no doubt that this is joyous and positive in its approach and affect as it, tongue-in-cheek, recreates these 'sapphists, inverts, tribades, Amazons, viragos, actresses, delinquent women', and I love the way it moves from broken fragments to an interwoven textile of women's lives, loves, friendships and community. One of the loveliest moments is when the text foregrounds the connection between queer sexuality and modernist textuality: 'In these new lives, Virginia Woolf wrote, there would be that queer amalgamation of dream and reality we knew so intimately'. So, perfect? No. But creative, striving, politicised and imaginative - I'd love to see this win the Booker this year.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Meike

    Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022 This book is crafted around an ambitious, interesting idea: Amalgamating and intertwining the biographies of important lesbian feminist thinkers and pioneers in order to show their cultural impact and tell their stories in context. Alas, it does not work: The short alternating paragraphs do not come together to form a coherent whole, the text just reads like cut-up literature using Wikipedia articles about lesbian feminists. These women are fascinating charact Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022 This book is crafted around an ambitious, interesting idea: Amalgamating and intertwining the biographies of important lesbian feminist thinkers and pioneers in order to show their cultural impact and tell their stories in context. Alas, it does not work: The short alternating paragraphs do not come together to form a coherent whole, the text just reads like cut-up literature using Wikipedia articles about lesbian feminists. These women are fascinating characters, but the novel is a boring slog, because it does not provide the key factor that would be required to make this work: To open the window to the consciousness of these women instead of enumerating biographical facts (even if slightly fictionalized in parts). Frankly, I don't see how anyone could perceive this as revelatory, because it doesn't really distill anything new or offer an innovative angle by employing this particular aesthetic concept. And to point out that men are not the main characters here and that this is like a super-feminist idea is unbelievably sad (I mean, who are you if you really believe that in the year 2022?). I wanted to love this, and I applaud the ambition and the daring idea, but the result falls short.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lark Benobi

    This novel drives home for me that my reviews here on goodreads aren't in any way recommendations to read, or not to read a given book. They are just my thoughts about what a book has meant to me. Here is a novel where I can see the merit on every page. The novel is thoughtful and full of surprises and new revelations, and it even has a thesis or two about women and creativity, and how creative women survive, or not, in a repressive patriarchal world. But here's what happened to me when I read i This novel drives home for me that my reviews here on goodreads aren't in any way recommendations to read, or not to read a given book. They are just my thoughts about what a book has meant to me. Here is a novel where I can see the merit on every page. The novel is thoughtful and full of surprises and new revelations, and it even has a thesis or two about women and creativity, and how creative women survive, or not, in a repressive patriarchal world. But here's what happened to me when I read it. I felt no connection, as I read, with the mind and works of the women I was reading about. Late in the book I realized that there is almost no attempt in the book to enter the interior mind of any of these women--the story trots along from one exterior fact to the next. It feels like a missed opportunity. It leaves each woman a cypher on the page. I think, in this way, that Schwartz's nonfiction roots for the novel show through--she doesn't allow herself to speculate beyond what can be observed from the outside of each historical figure she surveys. Surely any novel with Virginia Woolf as a character would venture inside her mind and give her passages a rhythm not unlike what Michael Cunningham imagined for his modern Mrs. Dalloway? In some passages the women's voices join in a sort of greek chorus, or to answer one another wittily, but I was more interested in the solitary interior truth of each of these women. Fiction allows you to speculate about what someone was like on the inside, and to take the most intimate and audacious liberties about what people think and how they feel. Another reader will love the novel for exactly what it does so well and be glad it doesn't do what I'm craving for it to do.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Hugh

    Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize Another gem from Galley Beggar, this is a book which I am struggling to find words to describe, and as a man maybe I shouldn't. It is a historical novel whose focus is on a group of remarkable and groundbreaking women, some of them well known (Virginia Woolf, Colette, Vita Sackville-West) and some rather less so (notably Lina Poletti whose story both opens and closes the book). Like the surviving remnants of the work of the Greek poet Sappho who inspired them, Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize Another gem from Galley Beggar, this is a book which I am struggling to find words to describe, and as a man maybe I shouldn't. It is a historical novel whose focus is on a group of remarkable and groundbreaking women, some of them well known (Virginia Woolf, Colette, Vita Sackville-West) and some rather less so (notably Lina Poletti whose story both opens and closes the book). Like the surviving remnants of the work of the Greek poet Sappho who inspired them, their stories are told in short episodic fragments mostly shorter than a page, but there is a loose chronology than runs from the 1870s to the late 1920s, and the fragmentary nature of the story never makes it difficult to follow. Their fights against the limits imposed by patriarchal legal systems have uncanny echoes in current events that give the story an additional relevance. It is also lively, engaging funny and perceptive. There is a degree of fiction, and I am not really enough of an expert to know where the boundaries of fact and fiction lie, but my perception is that most of the fiction comes from fleshing out the characters, particularly those for whom the historical records are scant, and adding a chorus that gives a collective voice to a wider group of observers. There are also editorial constraints - for example the list of Natalie Barney's lovers is too long for them all to be given space, and Schwartz made a conscious and understandable decision to leave out the roles of most of the men involved.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Maxwell

    Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize This book is poetry. It's fragmented. It's a tapestry of sapphic women of the late 1900s/early 20th century. It's not so much a novel as a window into a time and place; a reimagining, or simply an imagining, of the many lives, the interior lives, of women like Lina Poletti, Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf, Romaine Brooks, Gertrude Stein. Selby Wynn Schwartz weaves together these stories of women overlapping, seeking equality, making a life for themselves, model Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize This book is poetry. It's fragmented. It's a tapestry of sapphic women of the late 1900s/early 20th century. It's not so much a novel as a window into a time and place; a reimagining, or simply an imagining, of the many lives, the interior lives, of women like Lina Poletti, Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf, Romaine Brooks, Gertrude Stein. Selby Wynn Schwartz weaves together these stories of women overlapping, seeking equality, making a life for themselves, modeling Sappho and her poetics. It's very much a *vibe* book and it took me a bit to get into, but once I did, I was hooked. I don't even know if I fully understand everything this book did, but I feel like it's brilliant. It's both reverential and reformative. Attempting to honor the past and craft a future from those remnants. As the lives of the women in this story unfold, Schwartz also creates something wholly new and yet indebted to those who came before. It's at times extremely, glaringly transparent, hiding nothing from the reader; and yet feels like it's written for a specific audience whom I'm sure will appreciate this even more than I did.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Katia N

    I did not research how this book has been written. But it seems to me, it is an example how to imaginatively recycle the cast offs of an academic research (the bits that might not pass a test of vigour) into a creative piece of writing. And i mean it is a compliment in this particular case. As a novel, it is hardly groundbreaking - it consist of small fragments devoted to a prominent woman of culture or a group of them during roughly the first three decades of the 20th century. Each fragment is e I did not research how this book has been written. But it seems to me, it is an example how to imaginatively recycle the cast offs of an academic research (the bits that might not pass a test of vigour) into a creative piece of writing. And i mean it is a compliment in this particular case. As a novel, it is hardly groundbreaking - it consist of small fragments devoted to a prominent woman of culture or a group of them during roughly the first three decades of the 20th century. Each fragment is either in a form of a factoid (we do not know fictional or not) or an observation. Together, they do not necessary aggregate into a bigger common picture as it is often the case with this type of a novel. In fact, the author is ambivalent to assign her work to any particular genre like some of her protagonists. But I found the writing luminous and rhythmic; the observations quite special and the facts curious. So it kept me turning the pages. Here is an example - a randomly chosen passage I’ve just picked up by opening the book: “Eleonora Duse has been so many women that she could understand and sorrow: an actress is someone who carries ghosts for a living. Even if she is tired and ill, she remains a prism of other selves” (p 144) Implicitly or explicitly, Sappho plays an important role in the lives of these women. The book is peppered with the surviving fragments of her poetry. Another literary device chosen to echo the ancients is that the narrator’s voice is presented as “we” (second person plural). On one level, it is the obvious reference to the greek chorus. On another level, I found it a bit more confusing. It is relatively rare to see “We” as the main narrative voice. In my recent reading history, I remember it only two cases when it was successful. Once it was in The Years Ernaux where it represented the collective voice of the generation. It was very effective and relevant. Another time in Checkout 19. There, it was used only in a few parts just to add an additional dimension to the internal voice of the main protagonist. Here, it took me a while to understand who were those “We”. It was obvious pretty quickly it was a collective voice. But whom it belonged to? The prominent women each had their own third person voice. “We” were not the voice of the generation, not the voice of all the women of the generation, not even the voice of all the lesbian women of that generation. “We” was important though as it gave the main point of view of the whole book. Slowly, it was becoming clearer and clearer who were they (or “we”). And only in the last chapter I’ve read the following: “While we would admit to being vain, naive, spoiled, romantic, and arrogant, we were not lost souls. We had been fighting for decades, sometimes desperately, for the rights to our own lives. …It was 1928 and we insisted to Natalie, it was time for books where we could poetically be everyone at once. “ It actually characterises this group of women very accurately. The novel was written on behalf of well-off, educated, creative and sensual women (but also “vain, arrogant and spoiled”) who were opening up to a queer side of their identity and started to reflect this in their imaginative creative work (paintings, writing, dance etc). The prominent individual women featured in this book were their role-models in these endeavours. I am not totally sure this “we” voice has added anything to my personal enjoyment of the text. But at least it defined at the end the scope this work actually explores. This leads me to the next point - there are many potential angles here which this book does not attempt to consider. It is sometimes a very deliberate choice to make a point. On other occasions, it seems just not within the scope of the authorial intention. This book does not explore working class lesbians; it does not explore working class woman who helped our “we”- women in their daily life. In fact there is one maid mentioned and her memoirs brought about. But it seems she is used just to share her memories about the habits of her ladies. The passage below has brought a smile to my face. I really hope it was ironic. But this wasn't totally clear. In any case, it definitely characterises the other features of these “we”-women apart from their creative talents: “After an acquisition of another building Eva things of course it was not right Eva told herself as she looked out to sea, to expect all Greeks to revere the ancient verses. Some part of populace would want cheap modern things, ragtime and motion pictures and mail order stockings. … The woman of lesbos did not recite in dactylic pentameter and the girls were not nymphs mumbling in violets. As far as Eva could tell, these Lesbians were utterly ordinary, with no fragment of Sappho flickering anywhere in them. This was the lament that Eva tried to still in her heart.” And men. They are deliberately excluded it seems. In the bibliography, the author says: “Man like d’Annunzio who swaggers pre-potently through every account ever written of Duse and Brooks - do not merit even a footnote about who they married and how they died. Vita Sackville-West said: “Only revenge one could take on a certain man to brazenly rewrite them” However, some of the historical figures featuring were at minimum bisexual. Therefore men have played a big role in their lives including their creative life. So to exclude them all together it actually to exclude a significant dimension from the source of their creativity, and, respectively - the depiction of their personality. It brings up the old question how one should judge the work of fiction: by what is there or by what is not there? I am bit conflicted in this case. But the fairer part of me goes for the first option. The author set out the scope of her novel as it was. I think she has affectively reached her goal to celebrate a specific group of people. To some extent, it takes the depth out of the narrative. But I think the pathos and the element of the literary history in this work was more important to her than the depth. The general thread of this narrative is Sappho-Cassandra-Lina Poletti. The first two do not need an introduction. The third is “violent, luminous wave”. And you can read the book or look up who she was. This trio bears the main symbolism of this work as far as I can see it - a fearless feminine creative spirit is getting reincarnated through the centuries. (Orlando of course got a mention as well as a half of Woolf’s oeuvre. ). This spirit inspires other people, breaks new boundaries and help in the fight to make this world better place (let’s hope). That is as soon as these women are timely listened to (unlike Cassandra). Overall I enjoyed reading this book but I cannot say it was an event of the year for me. (3.5 stars for GR purposes for now).

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, although I had already identified it for reading prior to that. Published by the very excellent Galley Beggar press. It’s something that I assumed I would love. It is a novel, although it does feel like a selection of fragments of biography. It is a look at the lives of mainly European lesbians and feminists from around the 1880s to around 1928. The women involved include Lina Poletti, Romaine Brooks, Isadora Duncan, Virginia Woolf, Natalie Bar This has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, although I had already identified it for reading prior to that. Published by the very excellent Galley Beggar press. It’s something that I assumed I would love. It is a novel, although it does feel like a selection of fragments of biography. It is a look at the lives of mainly European lesbians and feminists from around the 1880s to around 1928. The women involved include Lina Poletti, Romaine Brooks, Isadora Duncan, Virginia Woolf, Natalie Barney, Nancy Cunard, Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Eva Palmer, Eileen Gray, Rina Faccio, the remarkable Ada Bricktop Smith (a black woman who had to black up her own face to make a living) and many others. There are also interspersed fragments of and reflections on Sappho which are central. There is also, as the Guardian review puts it, a “Sappho-Cassandra dialectic” which is interesting. The novel because it is in brief fragments, is of necessity fragmentary, which has been a common critique for many reviewers as it feels difficult to follow. The novel is in the plural first-person (we) which gives it a more collective and communal feel. Noel Pemberton-Billings and his Black Book shows up with an account of the trial relating to Wilde’s Salome. There is also an amusing account of the necessity of having to explain to a judge what a clitoris was! There are pertinent points for today as well. In 1914 Eugenia Rasponi said: “We are still denying to women the right to their own bodies? It is as if the new century has changed nothing.” Given what is happening in the US, this could have been said this year. The role of men here, apart from being patriarchal oppressors don’t appear much at all (apart from Wilde) and Schwartz quotes Woolf: “Virginia Woolf wondered later if perhaps we should have asked the men of Europe why we went to war. Frankly it hadn’t occurred to us that they might produce a coherent answer.” There is a good deal of humour as well as pain and women reading to each other in gardens and trees. It is about learning from other women and from ancestors. There are laments as well as paens. A good deal of research has gone into this and I learnt about women I had previously barely any knowledge of. This is experimentally written. It must be pointed out that the women are primarily white and middle class. There are only a couple of black women and as other reviewers have pointed out she is referenced as you rather than us or we. There are issues with this, but there are lots of positives as well. It is fragmented and sometimes difficult to read, but it documents struggles for freedom and justice. “…we were not lost souls. We had been fighting for decades, sometimes desperately, for the rights to our own lives”

  12. 4 out of 5

    Constantine

    Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ Genre: Historical Fiction + LGBTQ+ After Sappho is a fictional reimagining of the lives of a few famous and influential female figures in the literary, poetry, and other artistic fields. The author takes the readers to experience the imaginary stories of these feminists in different time frames to see how they fight for their own rights and equality. They seek full liberation from societies that tend to treat females in a stereotypical approach. The book is both important and informati Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ Genre: Historical Fiction + LGBTQ+ After Sappho is a fictional reimagining of the lives of a few famous and influential female figures in the literary, poetry, and other artistic fields. The author takes the readers to experience the imaginary stories of these feminists in different time frames to see how they fight for their own rights and equality. They seek full liberation from societies that tend to treat females in a stereotypical approach. The book is both important and informative at the same time. The reformative approach that the author has taken makes the stories intriguing. However, the continuous jumps from one character to another and from one period to another have hindered the impact that this book should have made on me. I enjoyed the parts about Virginia Woolf the most because I’m already fascinated by her as an author and by her life story in general. Another problem that I feel this kind of narration will cause is the inability of the readers to connect with the characters. The narration gave me the impression that I was reading a magazine article about these women rather than a story. You need to have a suitable scene and setting, as well as other story components like a build-up to a conflict and a satisfying conclusion, in order to qualify something as a story. All this was lacking here, hence the feeling of reading an article instead. Despite its flaws, I nevertheless believe that this was a good read on such a crucial topic.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Anita Pomerantz

    I loved the overarching concept of this book, but really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it. After Sappho shares the lives of a number of women who were feminist, lesbian, and living in Europe over a span covering the late 1800's until just after WWI. Most of the women were also involved in the arts (writing, theater, painting, etc.). The book is broken into paragraphs, each with a heading, and each paragraph tells a snippet (not even a vignette) about one of the characters before moving I loved the overarching concept of this book, but really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it. After Sappho shares the lives of a number of women who were feminist, lesbian, and living in Europe over a span covering the late 1800's until just after WWI. Most of the women were also involved in the arts (writing, theater, painting, etc.). The book is broken into paragraphs, each with a heading, and each paragraph tells a snippet (not even a vignette) about one of the characters before moving on to the next snippet. The idea of focusing on the intertwining lives of women striving for visibility and recognition in a man's world is such a good idea. But, When We Cease to Understand the World did something similar, except with scientific discovery, and it was so much more engaging. I wanted to like this book, or at least appreciate it, but it was pretentious and overwritten and really didn't bring these women to life in any way. Plus it was nearly impossible to discern the biographical from the fictional, and I didn't really care enough to even try. I can so see this book being taught in an English lit class somewhere, and there were some gorgeous turns of phrase . . .but at the end of the day, I want a novel to move me emotionally and engage me with some semblance of a story, and this book just didn't do that for me at all. There was one paragraph that really encapsulated this book for me. . . .we might open a seemingly ordinary biography, its chapters neatly partitioned, and find that it was webbed throughout with the most extraordinary filaments of a life. A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units. Thus this biography would be bound together with all of our lives, twined through from preface to index: curling, animate, verdant. I think this is what the author was trying to do, intertwine the biographies of these women, and I love the concept of that! But the reality just didn't live up to the promise.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    Schwartz is certainly innovating here, and I am always interested to read stories about womanhood. But unfortunately I loved the concept but I did not really like the execution. Structurally I never really got “into” the story that Schwartz is constructing here, and voices that I’d expected to move me kept me at a distance.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Paul Fulcher

    The manuscript of Una donna had initially been rejected by a set of editors in Milano because it was too boring. It was only the story of a woman, they said. It was a story that they already knew, there was only one story. It had no dramatic tension. A fascinating novel in “cascading vignettes” and a welcome diversion from the character and plot driven novels that tend to feature on the Booker. A novel I finished, appropriately, on the day that England’s Women’s team, one where players are open The manuscript of Una donna had initially been rejected by a set of editors in Milano because it was too boring. It was only the story of a woman, they said. It was a story that they already knew, there was only one story. It had no dramatic tension. A fascinating novel in “cascading vignettes” and a welcome diversion from the character and plot driven novels that tend to feature on the Booker. A novel I finished, appropriately, on the day that England’s Women’s team, one where players are open about their diverse sexuality, erased 56 years of hurt caused by the men (men’s football still chronically inflicted by homophobia). And yet the big question hanging over the representative nature of the England women’s team is the lack of racial diversity, a fact often attributed to the lack of ground-level opportunities for women to access football. And another brilliant discovery by the UK’s finest publisher of Anglophone literature, Galley Beggar Press, twice winner of the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction. It is always wonderful to have a book featured on a prize like the Booker when one’s name is in the back of the book as one of the Galley Buddies who helped fund it. The novel intersperses snippets of lightly fictionalised biographies with a narration driven by a Greek chorus of women’s voices. It focuses largely on women (men are largely and consciously written out) from the first three decades of the 20th century, notably Lina Poletti and Sibilla Aleramo, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and the Paris salon gathered around Natalie Barnay, with Sappho’s inspiration a key link, alongside (as the years are marked by both WW1 and the rise of fascism in Italy) Cassandra (whose inclusion is also a nod to Christa Wolf’s work). Some quotes from the book and related works: But which books should we read? asked one girl very seriously, twisting the ends of her plaits. Virginia Woolf replied, If a novel bores you, leave it. Try something else. Poetry is too like fiction to be a change. But biography is a very different thing. Go to the bookcase & take out a life of anybody. From the author’s afterword: Moreover, men like Gabriele d'Annunzio — who swaggers pre-potently through every account ever written of Eleonora Duse and Romaine Brooks — do not merit here even a footnote about who they married or how they died. It has been surprisingly easy to leave out these sorts of men: a simple swift cut, and history is sutured without them. I think of Vita Sackville-West, who said in a letter in 1919 that the only revenge one could take on certain men was to brazenly rewrite them. At that time, all she had at hand was an unfinished chapter of her novel Challenge. Therefore, Vita recounted, 'last night I went to Aphros and imprisoned all the Greek officials, which gave me a certain ferocious satisfaction'. The fact that my claim here about gender and fiction rests upon a quote from a real letter -which I have gleaned from a reputable scholarly source, Georgia Johnston's The Formation of 20th-Century Queer Autobiography: Reading Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf; Hilda Doolittle, and Gertrude Stein — in which the author explains that she has, in some fictional yet satisfying sense, gone to Greece for a night, in order to exact narrative retribution for the wrongs done to her protagonist (under whose name she sometimes went around in the world): this, I think, illustrates the genre of the present work. Review by Virginia Woolf of The Feminine Note in Fiction by W.L. Courtney (Chapman & Hall, 1904), from the Guardian, Jan 25th 1905 Women, we gather, are seldom artists, because they have a passion for detail which conflicts with the proper artistic proportion of their work. We would cite Sappho and Jane Austen as examples of two great women who combine exquisite detail with a supreme sense of artistic proportion. Quote from Lote by Shola von Reinhold, winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2020 ‘Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,’ Virginia Woolf said. ‘And/or Black,’ Malachi said. This last highlights one obvious criticism of the book - that the women featured are almost exclusively white and privileged. The author has acknowledged this in an interview: DO YOU SEE THIS – THE KIND OF QUEST AND RIGHT TO ONE’S OWN IDENTITY AND LIFE – AS ONE OF THE CENTRAL THEMES OF THE NOVEL?) Yes! And I believe that this should also hold true for people who are not mostly well-educated white women with comfortable incomes in Western European cities. 4.5 stars

  16. 5 out of 5

    Neil

    I am fully aware that what I am about to say is really about my limitations as a reader rather than about this book, but I’m afraid I have to assign this one to the “admire but not love” pile (there’s a few books there, some by some of my favourite authors). Anyway, I’ve said it now. There really is a lot to admire here, though. Working from the 1870s to the 1920s (ish) and concentrating on European women, this is a book of fragments that work by accretion to give us a picture of the lives of a fa I am fully aware that what I am about to say is really about my limitations as a reader rather than about this book, but I’m afraid I have to assign this one to the “admire but not love” pile (there’s a few books there, some by some of my favourite authors). Anyway, I’ve said it now. There really is a lot to admire here, though. Working from the 1870s to the 1920s (ish) and concentrating on European women, this is a book of fragments that work by accretion to give us a picture of the lives of a fairly large number of women all of whom pushed against the boundaries imposed on them by the male-dominated culture they lived in. At the heart of the book is Sappho and the narrative returns again and again to the Sapphic tradition and to excerpts from Sappho’s poetry. For me, a lot of the names of the women here were unfamiliar (again, another element of my failing as I read the book!). So, I think I learned a lot as I read (I used Google quite a bit, too, to fill in some context). I am not sure what it would be like to read this book if you were already aware of these women and the context in which they were working. You might appreciate the book a lot more than I could. You might, of course, think it is too limited in its scope. For someone with such limited knowledge as me, there were just enough times when a familiar name cropped up to keep me alert. That said, I did find the fragmentary nature of the book made it difficult for me to engage. Books written in a fragmentary style seem to be very popular at the moment and I’ve read several this year already. What I haven’t been able to put my finger on is why some of them work better than others. I think that this is a completely personal reaction and the books that work will be different for different individuals. I found that with this one I had to take breaks, read something else for a while and then come back to it. It’s impressive and I admire it. I learned a lot from it and I’m glad I read it. But I didn’t really enjoy the actual reading of it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    We had begun so long ago with our poems after Sappho, carefully styled in fragments, our paintings and blushes all done in likeness. Perhaps at last the future of Sappho would be delivered into our hands like a packet of books knotted up with string. For example we might open a seemingly ordinary biography, its chapters neatly partitioned, and find that it was webbed throughout with the most extraordinary filaments of a life. A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units. Thus We had begun so long ago with our poems after Sappho, carefully styled in fragments, our paintings and blushes all done in likeness. Perhaps at last the future of Sappho would be delivered into our hands like a packet of books knotted up with string. For example we might open a seemingly ordinary biography, its chapters neatly partitioned, and find that it was webbed throughout with the most extraordinary filaments of a life. A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units. Thus this biography would be bound together with all of our lives, twined through from preface to index: curling, animate, verdant. In the end we might become the readers of our own afterwords. When I started After Sappho I got that same kind of breathless feeling that I had when I read Naomi Alderman’s The Power or Emma Cline’s The Girls — that deep-gut reaction to having feminist truths named that had formerly only been experienced — and I luxuriated in author Selby Wynn Schwartz’s lyrical prose; was intrigued by her episodic biographies of women who dared to break the patriarchal molds they had been born into. But as the book proceeded, it began to feel less like a novel and more like a textbook or a series of Wikipedia entries: it read as all surface, no depth; all sizzle, no steak. It became a bit of a slog — despite frequent yummy prose — and while I admire the effort, and appreciate what I learned, this, unfortunately, did not satisfy me novelistically. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final form.) We longed for writing tables that were not in the kitchen, stained with onions; we wanted to read the novels kept from us because they were decadent and suggestive; we wanted to exchange the finger-pricked linens of our trousseaus for travel guides and foreign grammars; we wanted to meet each other in rooms and discuss the rights of women, we wanted to close the doors to the rooms and lie in each other’s arms, the light pouring in the window, the curtains drawn back, the view over the bay running in cerulean and azure swaths into the open sea. We dreamed of islands where we could write poems that kept our lovers up all night. In our letters, we murmured the fragments of our desires to each other, breaking the lines in our impatience. We were going to be Sappho, but how did Sappho begin to become herself? Covering a period between the 1880s and the 1920s (and mostly centering on queer white women from Western Europe), Schwartz sketches the lives of women artists familiar to me (Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, or Virginia Woolf among others), and many more names unfamiliar. And while I was moved by Sibilla Aleramo’s early experiences of watching her mother dive out the window, and being married off to her rapist (as per Italian law at the time), or learning of Radclyffe Hall and her efforts to convince the British House of Lords that she was as fine a gentleman as any of them, there were so many unfamiliar names, criss-crossing each others’ paths over the years, that the storyline became both confusing and tedious to me. And because these lives are treated at a surface-level, with no effort made at exploring these women’s interiority, the lyrical Greek chorus/fragments from Sappho bits just added to the confusion instead of elevating the material. Readers according to Colette were like lovers. The best were attentive, intelligent, exigent, and promiscuous. She urged us to read widely and well, to seek out precisely the novels prohibited to us and lie down for hours in bed with them. We should read to gorge and sate ourselves, Colette enjoined us; after a good book we should lick our fingers. I wish that this book had impelled me to lick my fingers in its aftermath, but despite its initial promise, I lost engagement with this material pretty quickly. Certainly not a waste of my time, but simply not to my taste.

  18. 4 out of 5

    But_i_thought_

    “After Sappho” combines everything I love in fiction: seductive prose, fictionalized history, experimentation in form, and the invitation to go on a parallel multimedia adventure. The book focuses on female trailblazers around the turn of the 20th century, from Virginia Woolf, to Romaine Brooks, to Natalie Barney, Sarah Bernhardt, Lina Poletti and many others. These are all women who don’t belong. They are deemed too interior, too volatile, too alchemical for their times. They defy their circumsta “After Sappho” combines everything I love in fiction: seductive prose, fictionalized history, experimentation in form, and the invitation to go on a parallel multimedia adventure. The book focuses on female trailblazers around the turn of the 20th century, from Virginia Woolf, to Romaine Brooks, to Natalie Barney, Sarah Bernhardt, Lina Poletti and many others. These are all women who don’t belong. They are deemed too interior, too volatile, too alchemical for their times. They defy their circumstances, take on new identities, find comfort in the arms of one another. They burn with a dry rage against the long tyranny of men, then transmute that rage into art. They are writers, actresses, poets, painters, dancers, prophetesses. Guilty of the crimes of sapphism, of insubordination, of harbouring outlandish desires. Schwartz tells their stories in glimpses and in shards. Reading “After Sappho” requires the reader to suspend expectations of plot, of narrative, of dramatic tension. Instead, it invites the reader to kick off her shoes, to venture out barefoot, to find refuge in the work of those who have come before, to reclaim literature, to reclaim language, even if only one word at a time. For women cannot create art by relying on the tools and frameworks designed to oppress them. Or, as Cusk asserts in Coventry, “The women writer might have to break everything — the sentence, the sequence, the novel itself — to create her own literature.” Yes. “After Sappho” is fragmentary in nature, but intentionally so. It is abrupt and full of interruptions, for “interruptions there will always be” (Virginia Woolf). It invites the reader to fill in the gaps, to consult historical texts for missing context. To read Orlando, to connect the dots of Romaine Brooks’ paintings, to pick up The Well of Loneliness, to consult the fragments of Sappho’s surviving poetry. To me, reading “After Sappho” is like the striking of a match. It sparks in me some distant memory, some primal notion of how things could be, even though I don’t quite have the language to explain exactly what, or how, or why. Mood: Defiant, experimental, alchemical Rating: 9/10 Also on Instagram.

  19. 5 out of 5

    David

    This book makes evident the fact that it takes more than great writing to make a great novel (or whatever other genre of literature this is). Among the 13 Booker longlist contenders this year, this one contains the most gorgeous, elegant language. From that perspective it was a delight to read. And points, too, for the homage to great lesbian artists and political activists of days gone by. It's like Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For as applied to historical Sapphists and given a more eleva This book makes evident the fact that it takes more than great writing to make a great novel (or whatever other genre of literature this is). Among the 13 Booker longlist contenders this year, this one contains the most gorgeous, elegant language. From that perspective it was a delight to read. And points, too, for the homage to great lesbian artists and political activists of days gone by. It's like Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For as applied to historical Sapphists and given a more elevated, classical treatment. But did I love it? No. And was it better than melatonin at inducing delta waves? Yes.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Doug

    I screwed up and inadvertently erased my original review, and I don't think I actually remember a lot of what I said in it, but here's the gist... Basically, while I have some grudging admiration for the author/compendiumatrix (to coin a phrase) of this, I found it hard to follow and the short pithy chapters all too often seemed like the driest of Wikipedia entries. When literally 10% of a book is detailed endnotes showing where all the minutiae originated from, I knew I'd be in trouble. I found I screwed up and inadvertently erased my original review, and I don't think I actually remember a lot of what I said in it, but here's the gist... Basically, while I have some grudging admiration for the author/compendiumatrix (to coin a phrase) of this, I found it hard to follow and the short pithy chapters all too often seemed like the driest of Wikipedia entries. When literally 10% of a book is detailed endnotes showing where all the minutiae originated from, I knew I'd be in trouble. I found the sections detailing the lives and loves of the more (in)famous of the 'characters': Isadora D., Duse, Bernhardt, Stein & Toklas, V. Woolf and Vita S-W, Colette, R. Hall, etc. to be somewhat interesting - but most of that I already knew from previous readings. While the myriad other characters: Lina, Eve, Sibella, Berthe, Natalie, Eileen, Violet, Rina, Anna, Romaine, Penelope, etc. etc., all blended together and even using the search feature on the Kindle, I ultimately gave up trying to distinguish them - not that it really mattered, especially when they adopted pseudonyms or alternate personas so frequently. Everyone eventually wound up screwing each other anyway! Although I appreciate the sentiment that women, especially queer ones, have been neglected and ignored throughout history, that wasn't really much of a revelation, and the book's only real saving grace was that it was short enough to get through rather quickly. Due to its sui generis qualities, I fully expect to see it make the short list, however, given the fact it ticks off all the usual boxes for Booker judges, but it's going to the bottom of my rankings.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Martin Koerner

    After Sappho is many things. It is the story feminism, sapphism and the artistic (and otherwise) emancipation of women, it is the story of Modernism as seen through the lens of myriad (female)artists, it is the story of how language can help define relationships, it is the story of the rise fascism and how the background informs the foreground; It is a history of great women producing great works of art; it is, itself, a Great Work of Art. Written in sharp, vivid and often sumptuous poetic prose After Sappho is many things. It is the story feminism, sapphism and the artistic (and otherwise) emancipation of women, it is the story of Modernism as seen through the lens of myriad (female)artists, it is the story of how language can help define relationships, it is the story of the rise fascism and how the background informs the foreground; It is a history of great women producing great works of art; it is, itself, a Great Work of Art. Written in sharp, vivid and often sumptuous poetic prose (birds are everywhere), After Sappho plots the lives of multiple women (Amongst whom; Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Colette), each inspired by Sappho (or inspired by people inspired by the words of Sappho) to be the writer of their own lives. The lives interweave -in a way most redolent of Sebald- over a period of thirty or so years, ending with the publication of what one must assume is the biggest inspiration behind After Sappho itself. I found myself regularly looking into the lives of the artists referred to, not because I required context, but because there was so much I didn’t know, and wanted to. Its confidence in itself is astonishing- I didn’t know I wanted to know so much about these people (hadn’t heard of plenty) and now I want nothing more than to read everything by them all. A fantastic, educational and often very funny debut novel by a staggeringly talented writer.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lou

    ‘Virginia Woolf replied, If a novel bores you, leave it. Try something else’ If this was earlier in the book I might have taken Virginia’s advice but then it all came together during WWI and I’m so glad I finished. Women are still fighting the fight, we’ve come a long way but not as far as we should. 4⭐️ book

  23. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    2022 BOOKER PRIZE LONGLIST CHALLENGE AFTER SAPPHO by Selby Wynn Schwartz *** After the surprise hit DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago, Galley Beggar Press wrote a long essay about how difficult the process was for tiny presses (required to provide tons of free copies, being able to keep up with the demand shortlisting involves). It was nice to see Galley Beggar keep its foot in the water though, submitting the experimental, blazing, feminist AFTER SAPPHO for co 2022 BOOKER PRIZE LONGLIST CHALLENGE AFTER SAPPHO by Selby Wynn Schwartz *** After the surprise hit DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago, Galley Beggar Press wrote a long essay about how difficult the process was for tiny presses (required to provide tons of free copies, being able to keep up with the demand shortlisting involves). It was nice to see Galley Beggar keep its foot in the water though, submitting the experimental, blazing, feminist AFTER SAPPHO for consideration. Told through short vignettes, Schwartz delves into the lives of several women artists at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Novelists, poets, painters, performers, all inspired in some way by the radical and separatist traditions of the Greek poet Sappho, we get into their minds, hear their artistic justifications, all eager to create space for art focused on women, outside the male gaze, even when that gaze insists on scrutinizing and vilifying. It is filled with intellect and history, Schwartz placing the art into the middle of women’s political struggles for autonomy and citizenship. At times AFTER SAPPHO is riveting, especially when the women’s art begins to intertwine with tumultuous and revolutionary era that was throwing into question institutions that once felt indominable, including the most patriarchal ones. But there wasn’t enough of this and it felt like Schwartz skirted and avoided some of the more interesting developments in women’s struggle in the period after the First World War because her interest felt more situated in a space devoid of men, even when those spaces were occupied with common struggle of women and men. That’s a fair artistic and thematic choice but it also felt something was lost. It didn’t help that the feminism of AFTER SAPPHO felt narrow, especially for something written in 2022. It felt white, Western and very privileged and again this takes away from the punch the novel could have had. AFTER SAPPHO is ambitious in form and style, the most so of the ones I have read, but the structure (quickly changing perspectives, the very short vignettes) brings with it a loss of momentum for a reader and unfortunately for me that only furthered my issues with the themes and how they were explored. I wouldn’t be shocked if this was shortlisted but I doubt it at this time.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joy D

    This book is a collection of vignettes about women who lived in Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s. These women are tied together by common elements – rebellion against a patriarchic society and the influence of the sapphic tradition. I liken it to assembling a collage. Take segments of the lives of notable artistic women, keep adding other fragments to it, and gradually a larger picture emerges. The poetry of Sappho lies at its heart, and it includes quotes from the (very few) surviving li This book is a collection of vignettes about women who lived in Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s. These women are tied together by common elements – rebellion against a patriarchic society and the influence of the sapphic tradition. I liken it to assembling a collage. Take segments of the lives of notable artistic women, keep adding other fragments to it, and gradually a larger picture emerges. The poetry of Sappho lies at its heart, and it includes quotes from the (very few) surviving lines. Many of the referenced women were familiar to me and several were not. I started out looking them up as I went along, but found this too distracting, so decided to read it in full and then look up the women I did not know. It is intentionally written in a fragmented manner. The upside of this structure is that it is easy to read a few portions at a time, set it aside, and come back to it later. The downside is that there is no unified storyline to follow. I think readers will vary widely in their response to this approach. It is a melding of non-fiction and fiction, and I do not think this blend worked very well. It felt rather disjointed, and I found it challenging to connect emotionally. I tend to like immersive reading, and I just did not find that here. I appreciated the intent. I found it artistic. But cannot say I enjoyed reading it. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it were solely non-fiction.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Text Publishing

    The following book reviews have been shared by Text Publishing – publisher of After Sappho 'Glorious, magnificent, truly liberating…After Sappho is a testimony to those on the margins, the outsiders; to those women who don’t fit in and don’t want to. It is about anyone who has fought, and continues to do so. As a gay man I found myself in its pages. I was another Sappho, too.’ Vivek Tejuja, reviewer and culture editor, Verve Magazine 'An absolute marvel.’ Stephen Sparks, bookseller and editor, l The following book reviews have been shared by Text Publishing – publisher of After Sappho 'Glorious, magnificent, truly liberating…After Sappho is a testimony to those on the margins, the outsiders; to those women who don’t fit in and don’t want to. It is about anyone who has fought, and continues to do so. As a gay man I found myself in its pages. I was another Sappho, too.’ Vivek Tejuja, reviewer and culture editor, Verve Magazine 'An absolute marvel.’ Stephen Sparks, bookseller and editor, lithub.com ‘Entrancing...Not just a feminist manifesto, After Sappho is also a testimony to the beauty of women – not in a material sense, but rather in celebration of their intelligence, their strength and their endurance to keep fighting for a better future.’ Aurelia Orr, Readings ‘Bold...radical...artful...Less fiction than vitally fictionalised fact, this fine novel is an inspiring and witty ode to sisterhood and sapphism.’ Literary Review ‘A glorious, genre-expanding work of fiction... Spell-binding.’ Telegraph ‘Enthralling…A gorgeous celebration of pioneering thinkers who rejected docility and self-abnegation in favour of finding their true selves…[A] sparkling, imaginative gem.’ Independent ‘After Sappho is superb. Mesmerising. Such incredible writing. And thinking. Selby Wynn Schwartz tips everyone out of the water.’ Deborah Levy ‘Highly original…[An] entrancing choric collage of a novel which seems to speak both in one voice and in multitudes all at the same time…I loved it.’ Claire Allfree, Daily Mail ‘Drifting and dreamy...I really enjoyed it.’ Quentin Johnson, RNZ Nine to Noon ‘A bold original, story of creativity and freedom...The sentences, crisply flat yet billowing easily into gorgeous lyricism, feel so easily, casually of our time.’ Lara Feigel, Guardian ‘Fierce and succinct yet rippling with beautifully observed detail...A book unlike any I have previously read.’ Bookmunch ‘Lyrical, scholarly, passionate and entirely unique.’ Justine Jordan, Guardian ‘A triumph.’ Fairfax ‘An ecstatic read…Selby Wynn Schwartz gives us a dark herstory; one that is hysterically funny, poetic and maddeningly tender. It is skin and sinew and breath and longing. And becoming.’ Francesca Rendle-Short, Conversation ‘I have a feeling that as good as this book is on first reading, it will be even better on subsequent readings, such is the density, scope and research that has gone into its making.’ Barry Reynolds, Herald Sun ‘Rousing, provocative and elegant…there is inspiration to be found in these spirited reflections…so many of the issues these women faced, fought and sacrificed so much for are still so prevalent now. After Sappho is an ambitious literary project that delivers on its own promise with great stylistic power and verve.’ Irish Times ‘Fascinating and luminously depicted…Schwartz encapsulates a beautiful, longing poesis.’ Leila Lois, ArtsHub ‘Themes of feminine creativity constantly circle fluid identity…Although the fragments are set a century ago, the novel feels modern and contemporary.’ Marcus Hobson, New Zealand Listener ‘Compelling and engrossing.’ Emily Watkins, iNews ‘Extraordinarily confident and inventive…An urgent manifesto for female emancipation and for the broad church of womanhood.’ New Statesman ‘Enchanting...Unique...Awe-inspiring...In this Greek chorus of a novel, After Sappho joins the ranks of delectable, Woolf-inspired works.’ Aditya Mani Jha, Firstpost ‘Daring…Revisionary…[After Sappho] takes a lesson from its subjects, women who passed across identities, who defied convention.’ TLS ‘Stopped me in my tracks…A very beautiful way to honour these creative people…Radical.’ Isobel Beech, ABC RN Bookshelf ‘Inventive and elegiac…[Schwartz] opens a wide door to the twentieth-century queer women who dared to think, write, and act according to their own will.’ Karthik Keramalu, Firstpost

  26. 4 out of 5

    Thushara

    I thought this would be a 5 star read. It's good but disjointed. A little bit disappointed in how it turned out. 3.75 🌟s A Book A Week Challenge, Week 32, 2022. I thought this would be a 5 star read. It's good but disjointed. A little bit disappointed in how it turned out. 3.75 🌟s A Book A Week Challenge, Week 32, 2022.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Pool

    Selby Wynn Schwartz is a university academic and having read her book that figures. I feel like I have been given my reading list- centered around twenty groundbreaking women. I can now go to the worlwide library (the Web) and do my reserach and connect the dots. Does After Sappho add a whole lot in terms of themes, form, authorial innovativeness? I don’t think it does. Many of the anecdotes and life stories are repeated verbatim, and there‘s very little by way of beautiful prose as each chapter Selby Wynn Schwartz is a university academic and having read her book that figures. I feel like I have been given my reading list- centered around twenty groundbreaking women. I can now go to the worlwide library (the Web) and do my reserach and connect the dots. Does After Sappho add a whole lot in terms of themes, form, authorial innovativeness? I don’t think it does. Many of the anecdotes and life stories are repeated verbatim, and there‘s very little by way of beautiful prose as each chapter is divided up by numerous headings (in block capitals) so that there‘s virtually no flow to the book whatsoever. I ended the book wiser. Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker were certainly not the only women of this last one hundred years to break the moulds of their time. Is it Ok to have a favourite (of those that Schwartz highlights)? If so, mine is Sarah Bernhardt. A word on Galley Beggar. This is the second time in the last four years that they have had books selected by the Booker prize judges (the worlds most renowned prize). The authors in question, Schwartz and Lucy Ellman, are/were debut novelists. That's an incredible record and reflects Galley Beggar’s commissioning and selection skills. The books when they arrive (when ordered direct from the publisher) are beautifully packages (it really is a labour of love) and often come with accompanying bookmarks, postcards and handwritten notes. Bravo! The personal touch is wonderful. I heard Selby Wynn Schwartz at Foyles London. 11.08.2022, In conversation with Diana Souhami (her most recent book is No Modernism Without Lesbians. She is a Rainbow List National Treasure) • Lina Poletti: “ Favourite” character and the one Selby knew nothing about before researching and writing this book, despite having a degree in Italian art. Selby is aware of a researcher who is currently trying to find out more about Poletti, with deep research, but without much success. • Part of the research was learning who was inter connected. • Sappho snippets. Selected and positioned according to which character Shelby thought was closest to the words. • After Sappho is a clear double entendre: -those following Sappho. The chorus ‘we’ are the young looking backwards. Central figure is Natalie Barney- who tended to look back in time, after World War 1. Find new forms of expression: sexuality, modes of dress, choosing your own name. • 1928 where book ends. Significant year. Radclyffe Hall Well of Loneliness; Orlando; nature of biography; Vita (“life”) Sackville-West. • How did the women of such different backgrounds and origins know each other? The Salon. Networking. • Q: The Lord who walks into the club. Is the anecdote true? Yes, based on trusted scholarship. • Q. Importance of Cassandra? Remains a mystery to SWS too.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alan Teder

    Reading in Progress July 26, 2022 Update Now nominated on the 2022 Longlist for the Booker Prize. The Shortlist will be announced September 6, 2022 and the winner on October 17, 2022. Reading in Progress July 26, 2022 Update Now nominated on the 2022 Longlist for the Booker Prize. The Shortlist will be announced September 6, 2022 and the winner on October 17, 2022.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    2.5 rounded down

  30. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    One moving line stands out in this sparkling erudite propaganda: “There must be a verb in some language that means, to leave the lamps burning for someone who has not yet arrived.” Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Booker nominee is a thread of micro-biographies of notable women in history whom she unites in a voice that resembles – I must admit, appropriately – a Greek chorus, but eventually sounds like an ideological oratorio. These women were all artists or writers who fought for freedom from the bondage o One moving line stands out in this sparkling erudite propaganda: “There must be a verb in some language that means, to leave the lamps burning for someone who has not yet arrived.” Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Booker nominee is a thread of micro-biographies of notable women in history whom she unites in a voice that resembles – I must admit, appropriately – a Greek chorus, but eventually sounds like an ideological oratorio. These women were all artists or writers who fought for freedom from the bondage of preset roles. Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhardt, Vita Sackville-West, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein feature as star guests among a bunch of others unknown to me. These poets of female liberation (i.e. libertinage), like all poets who are "always living in kletic time", summon their deified patroness Sappho, whose fragmentary lines intersperse the mosaic of fictionalized life stories. Schwartz’s style, a playful and slightly arrogant demonstration of free indirect discourse, is surely an aesthetical feast. But the impressive research and spirited language sadly shipwrecked on the hard rock of ideology. Insinuating that lesbianism is the obligatory, or at least top, alternative to lifeless marriage and crippling social convention in fact degrades these characters, who are "the piercing fierce cry of all the women who no longer have voices". It offensively postulates the incompatibility of female intellectual achievement and family life. It also turns Sappho into an impersonal symbol and these fighters into cogwheels in the unstoppable mechanism of progress – but towards what, I ask, if all personhood – essential to creation – is diluted in "we"? These women’s accomplishments were praises of universal human creativity, not restrictive symbols of a movement. When they "hope that Virginia Woolf would be the first to write Sappho into becoming us", I can’t but associate this first-person plural with the narrator in Zamyatin’s dystopian We... It’s sad how voicelessness unchecked by selflessness transmutes into noisiness. "We were well acquainted with the optative mood" – well now they are surely well acquainted with the imperative mood.

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