For someone will remember us / I say / even in another time
After Sappho tells the stories of a group of women artists, feminists, writers, actors, most of them lesbians, networked across Europe and the US but centered mainly on Italy and Paris from the late 19th century up to 1928 (when Orlando by Virginia Woolf was published). Orlando is significant as in many ways this book riffs on the structure of Orlando. Each ‘chapter’ is headed by a fragment of Sappho’s poetry and that too is significant in how the book is written.
Many of the women in the book are wealthy women, but not exclusively and Schwartz tells their stories, parts of their stories, interweaving the characters in both time and space in small chunks. Little sketches. Almost threads. She structures it around fragments of Sappho’s poems… and riffs on those themes. So there is much to discuss about the structure of the book but there is also the history, the rich history.
For me, this was a page turner. Yes, there is some exasperation at the entitlement and wealth of some of the characters. And some of them frankly behaved badly. Our characters were often privileged but almost all of them had escaped abusive fathers, husbands and/or rapists. They found ways to escape and ways to be with each other. To find a way of being lesbian. Some had no resources and were supported by those that did. Throughout the book Schwartz uses an authorial voice that includes us in the ‘us’, like a chorus, I thought. The lesbians in particular, were trying to ‘make us’, make a way of being. They were all brave and I found this very moving.
Interwoven with the stories of the women are snippets about the latest theories on lesbians and legislative attempts to outlaw and silence them. The Italian codes of law affecting women (as property) were an eye opener, but shouldn’t have been surprising. As a reader you get a full sense of the rising feminism, especially in Italy, and the very real dangers to women.
As we get towards the end of the book, we hear the drumbeat of fascism. Some of these women became involved in that and some were annihilated by it. The many different stories here and the times they lived in led me to want to know more and to look things up. In particular I was lead to read a book I should have read long ago, No Modernism Without Lesbians by Diana Souhami.
Fiction or not? It is an alternative way of writing history. Schwartz riffs on facts, on Sappho, on Greek nouns and, I think, on the structure of Orlando. I’ll leave you with this. She refers to the ‘kletic’ in Greek. The kletic poem is one that calls or summons assistance. This book is maybe that. An invocation. A conjuring. I do think this book is about remembering. A colossal sweep that invites us to remember these women. And I’m thankful to the author and to the wonderful Galley Beggar Press for bringing it in to being.
Illustration: Romaine Brooks called Peter, A Young English Girl – a portrait of the artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)
After Sappho is available here: https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/after-sappho/