‘To the consternation of her mother …. the tastes of Elisabeth de Gramont ran less to claret than to communism, feminism, and sapphism,’ writes Selby Wynn Schwartz in her bold debut novel, After Sappho. Such an (un)holy trinity permeates a book that begins with the sixth-century-BC songs of the famous Greek poet who lived on the isle of Lesbos, winds its way through newly unified 19th-century Italy and concludes with the early 20th-century lives and letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Schwartz forgoes a traditional plot in favour of tracking the interconnected stories of ‘difficult women’ across Paris, Greece, London and Rome at the turn of the 19th century, but the development of feminism and the coming of modernity provide an arc to what could have otherwise been a fractured tale.
Radical and experimental in her style, with blocks of text emulating the extant fragments of Sappho’s poetry, Schwartz artfully finds parallels between the lives of her subjects, who include the Italian writer and feminist Lina Poletti, the novelist and poet Rina Faccio and the activist and