The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A brilliant novel about the dreams and desires of queer women

In ‘After Sappho,’ Selby Wynn Schwartz weaves together fragments of poetry and biography to dazzling effect

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
5 min

After Sappho” accomplishes what only the most generous art can: It makes a more perfect world out of the imperfections of our own. Selby Wynn Schwartz’s first novel follows a meandering course through the late 19th century into the early 20th, focusing on the lives and overlapping connections of an array of real women. Many of them are boldface names from the queer and feminist cultural past — Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhardt and Colette, to name just a few — while others are less famous. 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.

Each chapter is composed of brief vignettes primarily about a single woman or couple, while also touching on other women they loved, longed for, slept with, inspired and took inspiration from. Throughout, Schwartz moves backward and forward in time, zeroing in on pivotal moments of creation, tracing the interweavings of mutual self-discovery. The result might best be described as an exercise in collective portraiture of the sort promised (not entirely accurately) by the title of Gertrude Stein’s rollicking and gossipy 1937 “Everybody’s Autobiography.” Schwartz narrates in the first-person plural, a rarely used strategy that proves warm and welcoming here. “We wavered between invoking our desires aloud and shyly hoping that they would simply happen to us, like weather,” she writes.

For generations of queer writers, including many of the women who appear in “After Sappho,” deliberately composing in fragmentary styles — breaking their work into discrete, discontinuous chunks through grammatical, visual or narrative eccentricities — became a way to build new, more welcoming forms of community. Shut out of the social whole, they often had to make do with less, and in their works, they turned that limitation into a resource. “We dreamed of islands where we could write poems that kept our lovers up all night,” Schwartz writes. “In our letters, we murmured the fragments of our desires to each other, breaking the lines in our impatience.” Schwartz herself accomplishes something similar across the short subsections of each chapter, slowly and elegantly assembling a sprawling boardinghouse out of the twigs and branches of sometimes little-studied lives.

Visiting a place and time where queer love blossomed

Throughout, Schwartz pauses occasionally to meditate on the few extant fragments of Sappho’s poetry, texts that give voice to her characters’ desires while also opening them to their shared histories. Sappho is an apt avatar for Schwartz’s project: The totalizing excess of queer art can overwhelm you with laughter or longing, blotting out the painful experiences it sometimes describes. But queer thought has most often thrived in fragments, its practitioners taking the world to pieces, the better to re-center those who’ve been pushed to the margins.

In this sense, Sappho, whose legendarily perfect verse was preserved only in scattered quotations and on desiccated wisps of papyrus, began as the first great queer artist and became, by history’s cruel accidents, one of the first great queer thinkers. Sappho’s poetry, what’s left of it, teaches us that we have only ever lived or loved in pieces and parts. “Our lives are the lines missing from the fragments,” Schwartz writes. “The future of Sappho shall be us.” The poet offers a model of what women might be and how they might be with one another. But in her incompleteness, she also lets her descendants project new possibilities for themselves, whole orientations unfolding from a few shattered words.

“After Sappho” is fragmentary in part because it mostly eschews the sections of its protagonists’ lives in which they were denied agency, whether because of their gender or their sexual orientation. The moments when they were free to act may have been scarcer, but in this book, at least, they are far more vital. This is not one of those books in which queer people suffer constantly for the mere fact of their desire, even though some of these real women did — and though they still sometimes do. Here, instead, if women are in pain, it is mostly because those they love have left them.

An erotic novel in verse that explores the ferocity of desire

Most of Schwartz’s protagonists are artists — poets, painters, novelists, actresses — and, fittingly then, many of the novel’s most elegant moments consist of ekphrasis, the representation of a work of art within another artwork. Schwartz is attentive not just to how these works appear but also to how they might have felt to women studying them for the first time. “We had not seen this before: a portrait that looked back. Una seemed to be eyeing us and every other painting in the room at the same time,” Schwartz writes of Romaine Brooks’s whimsically imperious portrait of Una Troubridge, best known as the wife of the novelist Radclyffe Hall. “She squinted; one eyebrow arched quizzically; her thin mouth twisted at the edge.”

Much of what matters most in “After Sappho” resides in the interplay of glances, the drama of seeing and being seen. When someone breaks your mirror to keep you from surveying your face, you can still admire your eyelashes or consider the bridge of your nose in the slivers of glass that fall to the floor. New configurations emerge from those partial images, new forms that bodies might take or new ways that they might come together. 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. To read “After Sappho” is to be blissfully adrift in a sea of love that could be contained in a single tear.

After Sappho

By Selby Wynn Schwartz

Liveright. 272 pp. $28.95

More from Book World

Join Book Club: Delivered to your inbox on Fridays, a selection of book reviews and recommendations from Book World editor Ron Charles. Sign up for the newsletter.

Best books of 2022: See our picks for the 10 best books of 2022 or dive into your favorite genre. Look to the best thrillers and mysteries to keep you on the edge of your seat, get lost in the possibilities of the best sci-fi and fantasy, and spark some joy with these 14 feel-good reads.

There’s more: Those looking for love stories should check out the best romance novels of 2022. And for the young (and young at heart) in your life, see the best children’s and YA books and top graphic novels. Plus, six BookTok stars share their favorite reads of the year. Audiobooks more your thing? We’ve got you covered there, too.

Still need more reading inspiration? Check out reviews for the latest in fiction and nonfiction.

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.