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BOOK REVIEW : Sappho's Life Makes Poetry of Fragments : THE LAUGHTER OF APHRODITE: A Novel About Sappho of Lesbos by Peter Green ; UC Press;$22 price, 274 pages

April 23, 1993|CONSTANCE CASEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Why is this goddess laughing? Aphrodite is laughing because she gets to make all the big decisions about who falls in love with whom, and tough luck for us mortals. As a contemporary satirical poet wrote back in the 6th Century BC, "By the wiles of Aphrodite came my ruin."

The Sappho in Peter Green's fictional version of her life, in contrast, would never be so fatalistic, even though the poet quoted above had been writing explicitly about her. This scrupulously researched novel imagines a woman who took full responsibility for every disaster, embarrassment and joy in her love-life.

Sappho's fame as a poet and a personality is entrenched in our language. The adjective sapphic can refer to a four-line stanza or to a woman who loves women. The word lesbian means a homosexual woman because Sappho came from the island of Lesbos.

Writers in classical Athens and Rome deemed her a great poet and called her the 10th muse. More recently, Cole Porter included her in the song, "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," with the line, "As Madame Sappho in some sonnet said, a slap and a tickle is all that the fickle male ever had in his head." Sappho didn't write sonnets (which hadn't been invented) any more than Strauss wrote symphonies, but Porter is allowed poetic license.

Although only about a twentieth of her poetry remains, and that literally in tatters, Sappho is considered one of the best.

What survives has been delivered to us in moth-eaten papyrus written on by Greek scribes and Roman imitators. In a book called "Greek Lyrics," translated by Richmond Lattimore, the sections on Sappho have a ribbon of words winding down the middle of the page. Many lines have their conclusion missing; some words lack endings.

Green's urge to complete the lines, to write the rest of Sappho's story, is easy to understand, especially given Sappho's stature as the first significant woman author in the West. Generally, give or take a couple of medieval French ladies, you have to wait until Jane Austen for another important woman writer.

A classics professor at the University of Texas, Green has written 14 books, including a history of ancient Greece and a biography of Alexander the Great. He may call this book fiction, but it didn't involve a lot of guesswork. As he writes in his afterword, "Hardly one statement fails to involve historical detective work."

Still, composing a life from fragments isn't easy. Imagine reading Shakespeare's sonnets--similarly erotic and enigmatic--and then trying to fill out the story.

Historians agree on only a handful of facts about Sappho. Born in 618 BC to a noble family, she was exiled by an anti-aristocratic government to Sicily. There she married, had a daughter and began her career writing epitaphs, wedding lyrics and offerings to the gods.

After her return to Lesbos, she ran a literary salon for young ladies known as the "House of the Muses." She died at 50--some say a suicide--en route to Sicily from Lesbos. In one of the few contemporary descriptions, her friend Alcaeus calls her "violet-tressed, holy, honey-smiling-Sappho."

Green's story of Sappho begins when she's 49, deciding whether to keep pursuing a handsome young boatman. She looks back on her family, her loves and her role in politics. She couldn't stand her mother, alienates her daughter by sleeping with the younger woman's fiance and despises her brother, a smug, pot-bellied embodiment of the merchant class.

As Green describes her, Sappho is self-centered, honest and, like most successful writers, ruthless. She's a strong character, but some of Green's writing about her is burdened by the "you're beautiful when you're angry" sort of dialogue. One male lover declares, "You're a ravening harpy, and I'm sorry for any man who's fool enough to marry you."

"The Laughter of Aphrodite"--published in 1965 and reissued presumably to catch a new wave of female poets and poets who are small-L lesbians--is not so much a successful novel as a fascinating and enjoyable curiosity.

The love affairs are--I hate to say it--repetitive. And the twisting politics, though dramatic, are hard to follow. There are, however, many delicious details about Mediterranean life 2,500 years ago--the scent of wild herbs, the sights and sounds of a busy harbor, the shape of perfume bottles on a table.

At times Green is inspired by his subject into lyric description, as in this scene from Sappho's adolescence. "Midwinter encircled us: snow powdered the carob-tree, darkness fell in the afternoon, ships lay harbor-bound, and we woke, late and drowsy, to the sound of last night's warm ashes being raked over in the braziers. We read Homer, and learnt to weave, and practiced an hour a day on the lyre."

Maybe some of that is still there. In a heartening note, the author writes that the best source for his research was the island of Lesbos itself. "Of all Aegean islands, this one has perhaps changed least since ancient times. . . ."

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