Peggy Ullman Bell
Sappho Sings. And so does Peggy Ullman Bell in her lyrical, painstakingly researched, emotionally involving novel about the Poetess of Lesbos.
Will Durant in his “Life of Greece” is quoted as saying that Sappho “called herself Psappha, in her soft Aeolian accent” and Psappha is the name by which she is known through this wondrous novel. Because the title uses the more familiar name “Sappho”, that is the name I shall use.
Many people have heard the name of Sappho but not many know who she was, what she did, or what she was famous for. There is, however, a sadly amusing idea in certain quarters that Sappho was “the founder of Lesbians,” to quote someone of my acquaintance. (I didn’t know Lesbians were “founded” but I guess that’s a different issue.) At any rate, she is associated in modern thought with Lesbians (in the sexual sense, that is, not as in “citizens of Lesbos”) and nothing else. Many people don’t even know that the Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, actually exists and is not some mythic legend like Atlantis. I did actually know it existed, but that’s the extent of what I knew until I read Sappho Sings.
Though Sappho was a prolific writer of poetry only a few original fragments of her work remain in existence, and it is with these fragments that Bell weaves the mesmerizing tale of an accomplished, passionate woman as real and flawed as any woman alive today.
Bell’s vision of Sappho begins with her as a fatherless, feisty teenage girl, small in stature but a lion in spirit, who defies a tyrant and pays for it by being banished from her beloved island home and the adored little brother whose birth took her mother’s life. On the miserable journey from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sappho loses her lifelong friend and betrothed, Alkaios, in a storm. She is rescued and “captured”—at least that’s her view of it—by Kerkolos, a sea-going, wealthy merchant, who takes her to his home in Syracuse.
He treats her with utmost respect that eventually calms her fears of becoming a slave or concubine, and his gentle ways, so at odds with his appearance, win her over to friendship. They wed, and Sappho gives birth to his daughter. She feels great fondness for him, if not passion, and is grief-stricken and frightened when she finds herself suddenly widowed and at the mercy of her truly horrible mother-in-law.
Eventually Sappho initiated in the rites of the Sisterhood of Iphis and discovers that, though she is capable of physical passion with men, her heart is taken by women. The cast is large; some of the names are vaguely familiar from Ancient History in High School many years ago. I didn’t find them very interesting back then. Now they certainly are!
The characters are unforgettable, especially Praxinoa, the nurse and lifelong friend; Lycos, the elegant and somewhat effeminate man whose loving friendship also lasts throughout the book, and the tall, Nubian queen, Gongyla, the love of Sappho’s life, a woman who sold herself into slavery to save her people from a similar fate. I will never forget these people who have been my companions for many days.
Bell’s knowledge of society and of place seems encyclopedic and yet not overwhelming. The language is just archaic enough in structure that it keeps you grounded in the ancient world but not enough so that it seems overdone. Names are pronounced in footnotes, which is very helpful. Sappho Sings is also the most sensuous book I have ever read: the lush descriptions of place, the elegantly expressed passion of depicted intimacy are poetic without crossing the line into the ludicrous, as sometimes happens when less gifted authors attempt it.
It is simply a wonderful book. It is not a quick and easy read, and it’s certainly not a genre romance although love of many kinds permeates the pages. Part of that is the author’s love of her subject.
This book should be winning awards. I can’t recommend it highly enough.