The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   5

The Songs of Bilitis

by Pierre Louys

translated by Alvah C. Bessie, illustrated by Will Pognay

Dover Books reproduction of a 1926 edition, printed privately in New York for subscribers, by Macy-Masius
Louys was a fin de siècle author, who took great delight in using classical subjects to shock the bourgeoisie; his most famous essay in this direction was the novel Aphrodite. Mary McCarthy called him a ``male sapphic,'' and the book under review shows just how literally true that was. Bilitis purports to be the poems, written in Greek, by a Greek-Phoenician ``half-breed'' named Bilitis, first as a lover of Sappho and other (in both senses) Lesbians, then as a courtesan, finally as an old woman. They are quite explicit, and the illustrations are --- down to the furniture --- pornographic. (To be fair, Louys neither drew nor commissioned the pictures.) The poems are fair to good: the best are quotations of Sappho. There are, however, many translations of Sappho, which are more complete, not translated from French, and altogether less embarrassing to buy and be seen reading (Barnard's is particularly good).

The real merit to this book lies in the introduction, which is a gem of mock scholarship. There Louys gives the life of Bilitis, the story of the discovery of the poems, and a summary of various scholarly squabbles about them, complete with ponderous Teutonic titles and Archiv f. X citations. This has deceived even the elect: the local university catalog lists The Songs of Bilitis with the notes ``translated from the Greek; bibliographical references'' and I think I recall seeing the book listed as a work of ``classical feminism'', along with Sappho. (This would be a remarkably strange judgement in any case, since the extent fragments of the Poetess indicate no politics at all, beyond a dislike for democrats who exiled her from Lesbos. Plato, on the other hand, was a very complete feminist.)

Whether this is worth something under $10 and a dubious look from the bookstore clerk, is not for me to say: philological practical jokes are altogether an acquired taste.

xii + 180 pp.
Ancient History / Poetry
My copy was used, but fairly new, so it may well be still in print.
July 1994, last changed 18 August 1995