In the Shadow of Sappho

In the Shadow of Sappho

Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho is a unique work of fiction that resembles a group biography on the travails of 20th-century queer feminist artists. 

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Until it was repealed in 1981, Article 544 of the Italian Penal Code defined rape as a crime, not against an individual, but against public morality. Under its authority, a man accused of rape could absolve himself with a matrimonio riparatore, or a marriage of reparation. If he simply agreed to marry his victim, he would be absolved of his crime in the eyes of the law. The ramifications of Article 544 were disquieting, its victims countless. Take, for instance, Rina Faccio, who, in the early 1890s, was raped in an empty office in the factory where she worked. She was only 15. Her family, when they learned what had happened, persuaded her to marry her attacker. Together, they had a son.

It’s a horrible story, but it ends on a hopeful note: About a decade later, Rina escaped that marriage and changed her name; she would go on to become the influential Italian writer and poet Sibilla Aleramo. In her first novel, Una Donna, she thinly fictionalized her ordeal, making what she called her “horrible secret” a matter of public record. In doing so, she reclaimed an act of violence and transformed the details of her life into art.

Aleramo’s story is retold in Selby Wynn Schwartz’s After Sappho, as one of a series of vignettes documenting the lives of women—writers, artists, dancers, actors, activists—who lived and worked around the turn of the 20th century: Lina Poletti, Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Radclyffe Hall, among others. And while Aleramo’s marriage is a particularly dark episode, all of the women Schwartz imaginatively profiles lived artistically productive lives that were underpinned by an understanding of their fundamental vulnerability, circumscribed by decades-old laws and customs that categorized them as lesser. “The rights we didn’t have in Italy were the same rights we hadn’t had for centuries, and thus not worth enumerating,” Schwartz writes early on, setting a tone of quiet irreverence that persists throughout the novel.

Technically, After Sappho is a work of fiction, though its attention to historical and memoiristic detail is more suggestive of biography. Schwartz structures each chapter as a series of titled fragments, eschewing transitions so that the reader can glide, dreamlike, from biographical sketch to biographical sketch. Interspersed throughout are historical asides—a war breaks out here, a law changes there, now and again an influential book hits the market—along with extended meditations on Sappho, whose verse also exists almost entirely in fragments, and whose name Schwartz’s narrators claim as their own. “The first thing we did was change our names,” the novel begins. “We were going to be Sappho.” From there, we watch these artists grow up, become immersed in their Greek studies, discover their sapphic impulses, write love letters, become politically active, experience tragedies, fall in love. Together, the fragments form an unusual, impressionistic kind of group biography, one that works against the boundaries imposed by certain literary conventions of genre and form.

After Sappho is lyrical and ruminative as it catalogs the personal and professional trajectories of its subjects, but there is also levity, even in the darkest moments. Often, the butt of the joke is someone who, in their distress at the rebelliousness of these women, almost compulsively tries to categorize and define them. “What is a clitoris? the papers wished to know.” One politician provides an answer: “A clitoris was a kind of lesbian, he maintained.” And what is a lesbian? “A Lesbian,” the narrator notes, in a separate chapter, “according to one entry in Delvau’s modern erotic dictionary, is a woman who prefers Sappho to Phaon. At first we were amused by this epithet…who would not prefer Sappho over Phaon?” But Schwartz’s humor has an edge to it; she laughs at these attempts at taxonomizing, but recognizes an inherent danger. Article 544, for example, is—in essence—an attempt at definition, a legal and criminal category that came with untold human cost.

In Schwartz’s first book, The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives, she examined the tradition of drag performance working “against tropes of the ‘wrong’ body—of not having the right to inhabit a space or claim a name because of the body you bring.” A neater, more conventional story of the body—one that distinguishes and delineates it—may put some at ease, she concedes. But demanding a one-size-fits-all narrative of bodies and gender roles can have dangerous implications.

These two works—After Sappho and The Bodies of Others—often seem to be in conversation with each other. Like the drag performances she studied, Schwartz’s debut novel is an exercise in rejecting and embracing definitions, shedding one identity while exuberantly inhabiting another. She hints at this plurality in her extensive bibliographic note, wondering if her “hybrid of imaginaries and intimate non-fictions, of speculative biographies and ‘suggestions for short pieces’ [might] have no recourse to a category at all.” By stitching these fragments together under the banner of the novel, After Sappho finds its energy in the surprise of subverting our generic expectations.

These kinds of subversions occur frequently in the novel, starting with Schwartz’s striking choice of narrator(s). Instead of the singular, authoritative voice, this collection of voices functions more like a Greek chorus, diffusing itself into a collective—much in the way each figure becomes diffused into a larger impression of a historical moment. In this way, the novel never becomes about one person, one thing. From the moment it begins, the boundaries between subject and narrator are blurred. Even the decision to declare a name for the narrator will mirror that made by many of the novel’s subjects—just as Rina Faccio becomes Sibilla Aleramo, Pauline Tarn will become Renée Vivien, and Cordula Poletti will become Lina Poletti. When the identity prescribed to you is used as a justification to strip you of rights, changing your name can be an act of political defiance.

These little subversions in turn coalesce into a larger argument on the nature of biography. “A life after all did not happen by itself, in discrete units,” Schwartz writes, bringing us into the mind of Virginia Woolf, whose act of writing her 1927 essay “The New Biography” is a pivotal scene in the novel and serves as a kind of artist’s statement for Schwartz: “This biography would be bound together with all of our lives, twined through from preface to index: curling, animate, verdant.” Genre is not prescriptive or even definitely understood, she suggests; nor are lives, or laws, or womanhood. Narrative can render a life coherent, but coherence at the expense of lived truth carries its own perils.

Before Rina becomes Sibilla and escapes her violent and abusive home, Schwartz follows her to a theater at the dawn of the new century. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is playing. “In the last act,” Schwartz writes, “Nora leaves her house, her husband, and her children, clicking the latch of the door behind her with a sound like a century snapping shut.” The next time we see Rina, she will have left that home for good. It was in witnessing an artist’s dissidence that she learned she might not be acting in a tragedy, the victim of a predetermined fate, but could instead be the author of her own destiny.

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