Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.28

Peter Green, The Laughter of Aphrodite: A Novel About Sappho of Lesbos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. 274. ISBN 0520079663.

Reviewed by Joan DeJean, University of Pennsylvania.

Peter Green's novel belongs to a long tradition. Virtually from the time of her rediscovery by Renaissance Hellenists, Sappho has awakened in impressive numbers of European writers -- scholars and novelists alike -- the desire to create a novel from her life story. Or rather, since so little is known for certain about her, Sappho has inspired these writers to create a story for her. For three centuries, novelists have been doing just what Peter Green does here, taking all the shreds of information that have come down to us from antiquity about Sappho and weaving them into a narrative, thereby making a complete life story for the enigmatic Sappho of Lesbos.

For the most part, novels about Sappho have been pure hack fiction, works intended above all to exploit the sensationalism surrounding Sappho, and especially the subject of lesbianism. Green's novel, on the other hand, is a serious work of fiction, an evocative and often moving vision of Sappho and her world. Green recreates, generally in great detail, life on Sappho's Lesbos, in particular the highly charged contemporary political context. He also devotes considerable attention to the island of Lesbos itself -- its landscapes, its sights, its smells. For all these reasons, this is a highly readable novel. I strongly disagree with Gore Vidal's opinion, quoted on the jacket, that it is "far superior" to Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadian, but the novel did consistently hold my attention. This is a real novel, and not a mere scholarly curiosity.

However, I was not reading The Laughter of Aphrodite primarily with its literary merits in mind. I evaluated it above all as I have previous fictions of Sappho, that is, for the interpretation of Sappho and her sexuality that it promotes. From this perspective, this is a most surprising book, not at all a vision that could have been predicted either from recent speculation about Sappho or from the English tradition of Sappho scholarship in which Green was trained. Green states in an afterword, "On Sappho," that "for centuries, it has been favorite pastime, among scholars and others, to prove ... that Sappho could not have been a Lesbian, in the modern sense of that word." However, at least in the case of novels about Sappho, this has actually not been the recent trend. On the contrary -- whether from a desire to promote lesbianism, moral outrage at what is presented as its depravity, or simple prurient fascination -- from the late 19th century on, novels about Sappho have tended to focus on Sappho as lesbian -- very much in the modern sense of the term.

From the perspective of the tradition of fictions about Sappho, Green's novel is a throwback to an earlier age. (It is in fact literally something of a throwback, since it was first published in 1965 and is being reedited today.) It most resembles the 18th-century French novels in which seemingly every available male candidate for Sappho's affections -- whether men mentioned in her poetry or men believed to have been her contemporaries -- is made in some way a part of Sappho's affective life. Thus, in his most innovative suggestion, Green intimates that Sappho may have turned to women after Pittacus attempted to rape her. Green's version of Sappho inevitably builds up to a rather sleazy affair with Phaon the boatman, after whose betrayal she is about to commit suicide at the novel's end.

This is not to say that Green's Sappho in any way rejects lesbianism. Atthis is portrayed as the great love of her young life; several other affairs with women are described, generally with considerable erotic relish.

What is perhaps most surprising about Green's strategy is his insistence on the accuracy of his recreation of Sappho's life. True, this claim is justified to a certain extent: as Sappho's modern biographers have often done since the 17th century, Green weaves her fragments into her life, presenting them as her actual thoughts. However, despite the warnings of Hellenists such as Mary Lefkowitz, he revives the age-old dream that it is really possible to achieve something close to an absolute recreation of the life of an ancient poet. Witness this affirmation in his afterword: "I have done my best to put Sappho's life together in accordance with the evidence.... Only when historical evidence fails have I invented incidents or characters" (276). However, the chronology of Sappho's life that follows contains such dubious entries as the year 569, identified as the date of Sappho's affair with Phaon of Mytilene. The year 594, identified as the date of Sappho's marriage to Cercylas of Andros, is marked only with a question mark, the sign Green uses for what he terms a "reasoned guess."

I have nothing against fictions of Sappho -- on the contrary, I delight in the ability of those who imagine them constantly to reshuffle the small store of ancient rumors and the far smaller number of actual facts and to create new visions of Sappho in the image of the fantasies and the phobias of different periods and different national traditions. However, I am still waiting for a fiction tailored to our postmodern age -- a fiction more playfully indeterminate, more truly Sapphic in spirit.