After Sappho: A Novel
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 BOOKER PRIZE
A Guardian Best Book of the Year
A New York Times Editors' Choice Selection
“A work of stirring genius, a catalogue of intimacies and inventions, desires and dreams."
—Jacob Brogan, Washington Post
An exhilarating debut from a radiant new voice, After Sappho reimagines the intertwined lives of feminists at the turn of the twentieth century.
“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.
“This book is splendid: Impish, irate, deep, courageous. . . . Brava!”—Lucy Ellmann, author of Ducks, Newburyport
Praise for After Sappho: A Novel
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 . . . 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.
— Jacob Brogan - Washington Post
After Sappho considers the intimate moments beyond historical record, shifting our gaze and questioning the discipline of history itself. Schwartz builds a novel around women’s struggles for self-determination, excising the men who were in their way. For the most part, these men simply do not appear in the book at all. The novel is erudite and chatty, grounded in scholarship yet freed from any masculinist impulse for certainty or linear cohesion. She draws from history in order to reimagine it. 'Have you forgotten that a poet lies down in the shade of the future?' Schwartz asks. 'She is calling out, she is waiting. Our lives are the lines missing from the fragments.'
— Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore - New York Times
A brilliant debut . . . In passages often recalling the sensuous prose of Ali Smith, After Sappho tracks not just outer movement, but psychological ambulation, picking up on the subtlest shifts in mood with the delicacy of a weathervane . . . a ravishing mosaic of creative subjectivity and self-fashioning.
— Rhoda Feng - NPR
[After Sappho’s] tone, despite its emotional restraint, is resolutely celebratory, focused on the steady advancement of women’s rights and sexual freedoms. In this interesting passion project, art is put forth as an unambiguous force of beauty and inspiration.
— Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal
Words can be an incantation; the right verse can summon desire and a depth of feeling that can seem at odds with the quiet act of reading. Heart rates can rise as readers quietly turn the page, changing even as they remain still. A good phrase can unleash something inside a person; it can unearth and provoke. In Selby Wynn Schwartz’s novel 'After Sappho', long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize in fiction, the verses of the sixth-century BCE Greek poet do all this and so much more.... Selby Wynn Schwartz writes beautiful prose, with a keen eye toward the playfulness of grammar and the joy of language. This is a book to be consumed slowly, to be savored like a glorious sunset even as it screams the inevitability of night. 'After Sappho' is an incantation against the darkness and a call to the light, however fragmented it may be.
— Adriana E. Ramírez - Boston Globe
Long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize, this time-leaping novel connects a pantheon of queer literary titans — Sappho! Oscar Wilde! Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West! — with one muse. This book reads as if it’s skipping: full of movement, lightness, and whimsical defiance.
— Maggie Lange - Bustle
Desire, art and politics lead the dance in After Sappho . . . a mesmerising, uplifting and most inspiring novel. It’s a great literary achievement. As we tangle across time with the dazzling female artists who are its reimagined historical subjects (from Sappho to Virginia Woolf), we understand that we are connected in our transhistoric longings to live more audaciously, more fully, closer to ourselves.
— Deborah Levy, New Statesman, "Best Books of 2022"
This one-of-a-kind book channels a spirit of righteous anger as well as lyrical freedom and joy.
— Justine Jordan - Guardian
She is excellent at threading her stories together, collecting people, dispersing them across the world, drawing lovers and friends under one roof to explore an alternative, sororal history. Schwartz’s voice is one of dry wit and cocked eyebrow, mocking the man-made record. In one particularly fantastic sequence, she sends up Noel Pemberton Billing, the British Member of Parliament famous for fabricating 'The Black Book', which he never bothered to write, supposedly containing the name of every lesbian in Britain.
— Connor Harrison - Chicago Review of Books
After Sappho is a project of both imagination and intimacy, but also of significant research. Schwartz’s protagonists are all real people, but she has captured the essence of their lives and identities by means of what she describes as 'speculative biographies'. One of the beauties of this strange, spellbinding novel – other, that is, than the dreamlike, pellucid writing – is this merging of fact and fiction, historical record and artistic vision.
— Lucy Scholes - The Telegraph
A highly original, practically uncategorisable novel... Sarah Bernhardt, Virginia Woolf, the Italian writer and lesbian Lina Poletti, plus a host of other lesser-known women who pushed against the conventions of the time — all are given fresh life in this 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
Lambda finalist Schwartz’s first novel forms a triptych of women who refuse to be stifled by societal expectations of femininity. The story unfolds as a series of sensuous fragments that would make the titular Greek poet proud.
— Michelle Hart, Electric Literature, "Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books of 2023"
In her debut novel, Schwartz presents a lavish, vibrant, kaleidoscopic re-imagining of the lives of early twentieth-century Sapphic feminists . . . Blending history and fiction in a lush, sensual style reminiscent of lyric poetry, the novel follows each woman carving out a new life for herself and taking up Sappho's legacy to create art and blaze trails for future generations . . . In an era in which feminism's gains appear to be on shaky ground, this book reminds us of women's interconnectedness across generations, and how those who came before can inspire us to keep going, keep fighting, and keep creating.
— Jo-Anne Blanco - BookBrowse
A call to action for present-day readers not to forget the incredible stories of these 20th-century trailblazers—and to continue to find creative ways forward.
— Norah Piehl - Bookreporter
[A] brilliant debut novel... 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.... 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.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
This book dares to invent a new form, one that embraces the maddening fragmentation of so many important women in history and reclaims it as a kind of revolutionary beauty. An exciting, luxurious work of speculative biography.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Inexplicably mesmerizing, After Sappho is a sui generis work of scholarly fiction written in truly poetic and evocative prose . . . Difficult to fully explain, it is best experienced.
— June Sawyers - Booklist
Readers interested in a dramatically fleshed-out account of the history of women’s liberation, as well as the arts and literature generally, will find much to appreciate in this book.
— Joanna M. Burkhardt - Library Journal