SAPPHO by Nancy Freedman


The Tenth Muse
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From veteran writer Freedman (The Seventh Stone, 1992, etc.), a fictionalized life of the Greek poet, more pulpy than not. Plato called Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos, the “tenth Muse.” Her poetry has been celebrated in her time and ours for beauty of language and emotional expressiveness. The daughter of a noble family, she married the rich merchant Kerkolas, bore a daughter named Kleis, and founded a school for young women—done commonly enough on the island then—while writing poetry that, until recent discoveries, survived in fragments. Freedman, helped by the poems and quoting frequently from them, expands on these facts in her lush and graphic prose, giving an account that has the Greeks turning nearly every feast and festival into an orgy. The author also indulges in some fairly breathless psychoanalyzing. Sappho, in her view, was a divided soul sexually, intellectually, morally. And maybe so. For the poet advised freedom for women and slaves, yet she nevertheless arranged for a slave to drown in the course of a funeral entertainment. Moreover, she connived marriage for one of her pupils so that Sappho could seduce her friend Atthis. She also disowned her brother for marrying a former prostitute, but herself seduced young women and a handsome sailor without apparent regrets. With much literary winking, Freedman takes note of Sappho’s fear that she would be remembered for “ill and not for good,” that her name and her island home would ultimately be abominated and her poetry dismissed. The psychodrama adds a flavor of prurience to the story. But Freedman never really explains, despite all the lip-smacking, how or why Sappho, who committed suicide when her muses faltered and her lovers and family abandoned her, became such an eminent figure in the first place. A lubricious celebrity bio, fun if not earnest.

Pub Date: June 18th, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18660-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1998


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