cover image After Sappho

After Sappho

Selby Lynn Schwartz. Liveright, $28.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-324-09231-5

Schwartz’s brilliant debut novel (after the critical study The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives) recreates the lives of feminists in the early 20th century. The collective first-person “we” narrator—a Greek chorus devoted to the female poet Sappho—weaves the stories of writers, painters, and performers who, like Sappho, are attracted to women and are determined to become their authentic selves through art. Many of the threads revolve around Lina Poletti, who thrives in her classical studies in Bologna despite Italian laws restricting the rights of women. She writes poetry and plays about women, and has romances with another writer, Sibilla Aleramo, who’d been forced to marry the rapist who got her pregnant; and the stage actor Eleonora Duse, best known for her portrayal of Nora in A Doll’s House. They, along with expat American writer Natalie Barney, poet Renée Vivien, and painter Romaine Brooks, carve out a place in European society during a time when lesbianism is ignored, not criminalized. Then comes WWI: Brooks and others drive ambulances at the front, Virginia Woolf begins writing about Cassandra, and Poletti writes war poems. At the war’s end, a British parliamentarian accuses an actor of lesbianism in the press, thus placing women’s sexuality under intense public scrutiny. As the chorus narrates, “we were plunged back into a history we had barely survived the first time.” 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. (Jan.)