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Book Title: The Last of the Wine|
The author of the book: Mary Renault
Date of issue: August 12th 1975
ISBN 13: 9780394716534
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 36.92 MB
Read full description of the books The Last of the Wine:I cannot remember how I discovered Mary Renault’s novels, but most likely at my local library which I haunted. Although I read them all as a teenager, many years ago, their beauty and humanity are still a strong influence. While The King Must Die and the Alexandrian books may have had a stronger impact, it is the delicacy of the relationship between the young lovers portrayed in The Last of the Wine that remains with me.
Because of her empathetic portrayal of love between men, many of Mary Renault’s fans, including myself, suspected the author was actually a man. But her empathy goes even further. Even classicists have found her depiction of the physical and spiritual ambiance of Ancient Greece so accurate as to be uncanny.
It says a lot about a book that you feel a terrible sadness as you approach the final pages. It was a sense of loss not only of the characters but for the characters, for The Last of the Wine is a novel about loss, not only of youth and love, but of something much more profound, of honour.
The story is narrated by Alexias and tells of his growth into manhood in Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. As a boy he meets Sokrates (Renault’s preferred spelling) whose disciple he later becomes, grows up with Plato and Xenophon and, together with his lover, Lysis, serves under Alkibiades. Through the novel we learn about the ins and outs of the wars, but, more importantly, we learn about the lives and beliefs of the Athenians. Speaking through her narrator, Renault enters deep into their world view, taking for granted, as her narrator does, their spiritual beliefs, their lore and their laws.
From the very first chapter we are thrust into a world totally foreign to our own, but portrayed entirely on its own terms. Alexias is born, small and puny, during a disastrous plague. His father, known as Myron the Beautiful, is on the verge of exposing him when he learns that his younger brother has died. Alexias’ uncle, on hearing that the boy he was in love with was ill, has gone to him, and seeing that the boy was dying, has taken hemlock so that they can make the journey together. Myron is distressed that he is not able to retrieve their bodies so as to bury them together. On returning home he sees that his wife has taken to the baby and does not have the heart to take it from her.
A whole world is displayed in this story – a father’s right to condemn a child to death, his relationship with a wife he considers as little more than a child, an acceptance, nay a celebration, of love between men, and in particular an older man for a younger, and the narrator’s respect for his father despite knowing that his father does not value him.
Renault was often criticised for her portrayal of women in her Greek novels, but she is only showing their actual position in Athenian society. Women are bound to the house and the household. Their honour resides in remaining invisible and nameless. Indeed, it is considered disrespectful of a woman even to talk about her. If a woman is seen in public, she is either a slave or a courtesan. Men in their thirties marry teenage girls, girls that they think of as children, and that they expect to train as their ideal housekeeper.
It is no wonder that in such a world, men would look to other men for their emotional and sexual relationships. It is such an accepted and normalised part of life that Alexias pities his friend Xenophon because he seems incapable of loving a man. But these relationships are heavily circumscribed. Boys are expected to be courted by older suitors from an early age, but their honour resides in choosing a friend who is honourable and will be a fitting mentor, for this relationship is meant to prepare the boy for manhood. The beautiful, thoughtful and brave Lysis is just such an ideal suitor.
However, their sexual relationship is portrayed in coy, elliptical terms, reflecting, I assume, the narrator’s reticence on these matters, (or is it Renault’s own reticence? After all she was writing in the 1950s), that verge on the frustrating. I was also interested to note that although Alexias and Lysis become friends when Alexias is sixteen, they do not become lovers until he is eighteen. According to Alexias, this restraint is due to Sokrates’ influence, but I wonder how much it was due to Renault’s own twentieth-century sensibilities.
Yet, at the same time, I cannot remember being so frustrated when I first read this so many years ago. Perhaps to a sheltered girl, these hints were enough, for I have a clear memory of the moment they become lovers. And as a romantic teenager, I probably saw that preliminary time of passion and restraint as an expected prelude to a sexual relationship. What is it saying about me, my age and my times that, on this reading, I kept wondering what was taking them so long?
But this story is not only about sexual politics. Mary Renault was writing in a time of political turmoil and this is reflected in The Last of the Wine.
The Athens Alexias is born into is a city of high ideals – a city of beauty, honour, the search for truth and democracy. But through the course of the war, all of these ideals are slowly lost or corrupted. Respect for the law and the person are eroded. The democracy Alexias values is undermined and overturned. The victorious Spartans establish an oligarchic government which turns into a ruthless tyranny. Alexias feels this decay deeply as his own honour is bound up in his city. Disillusioned, he and Lysis leave Athens to join a rebellion against its rulers. The oligarchy is defeated, but the democracy that replaces it sadly promises to become a tyranny of the banal. The novel ends with a foreshadowing of Sokrates’ fate.
The Last of the Wine was Mary Renault’s first novel of Ancient Greece and it established her as one of the greatest historical novelists of all time. Her empathy for the times and people she portrays, her poetic use of language and her vision can only be emulated by other writers, but, I fear, rarely equalled.
Read information about the authorMary Renault was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.
Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns, while examining the nature of love and leadership. The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.
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