Reading a Mary Renault historical book is like sipping tea on a cozy afternoon in your favorite chair. The prose is so technically superb, the plotline so well-crafted, the characters so vivid that you feel like you’re talking to them in your living room. It felt, well, very British, in a sense (fitting considering the time they were written and she was a British lady). Nothing seems to be actively happening but so much is going on that they all roil under the surface like a boiling pot. It is more in what is not said, or said so subtly that it’s missed, that drives the stories.
The Last of the Wine is all of those and more. At certain points I had to put the book away because it went from 0 to 60 in a few pages flat. I was not expecting reading a brutal description of javelin someone in the neck and then excruciatingly killing them out of mercy so soon after the narrator barely put on arms in the same chapter. I literally went “Okay time to go do something else” in the middle of the paragraph and took a cooking break. For a book filled with men discussing philosophy and the virtue of love and justice it also gets ridiculously violent. Alexias (narrator) has been through so much crap that it sometimes feels a little too artificial. But that’s my only critique – a Greek narrator in a historical fiction got a little bit larger than life. It worked very well for Alexander the Great in the Alexander novels; in this particular book sometimes it takes one out of the immersion.
There are so many other reviews of this book that touches on how immersive, how rich, how vivid all the setting and characters are, that I’m not going to discuss it here. (I think the fact I feel like I’m physically sitting down with Alexias and listening to him recount his life story is proof enough.) I, however, am going to talk about an aspect that is very much true to ancient Greek culture that kind of baffles me, and that is the relationship of lovers. I’ve read Plato’s Republic and know the bones of Symposium, so the concept that the highest form of love is between a youth and a more mature man is not foreign to me. But Renault took it one step further and explored how it is actually applied in real life, and it just warps my mind how the two people involved navigate the concept of women and marriage. True to the time, women and slaves are in completely separate categories from “men.” But Alexias speaks of his love for Lysis as fundamentally not in conflict with his desire to marry and have children, or have a female prostitute or two, and neither does Lysis. It’s just bizarre to me that they can take their respective women to supper together, or remain in love (in the philosophical and physical sense) after Lysis has gotten a wife, or that Alexias get to sit on the chariot with the bride and groom as a wedding send-off and everyone sees it as the norm! I mean, I do understand it in a theoretical sense, but in practice with a real-world situation (figuratively) makes it harder to grok than what I’ve read in sci-fi alien societies.
On a less academic note, I did get a kick out of how furtively she portrayed when the characters, shall we say, shared a night together. There are times I didn’t even realize what had happened until way later, and went ‘Oh of course!’ and then had to flip back to double check. I can see how my much younger self had missed quite a lot of conflicts due to simply not understanding the implications, which also explained why I was baffled by the progress of events and remembered nearly nothing about the book. Every sentence actually means something broader, so if you skim a word you might miss out the point of the entire paragraph. But don’t fret; this isn’t Finnegan’s Wake. It’s not written dense just for the sake of being dense. I am far from an academic intellectual, and the book works for me just fine.
And that line that Socrates threw to Kritias – savage in its simplicity and made me rethink Socrates as a real o.g. Yep, gangsta philosophers – that’s what The Last of the Wine truly distills to. It’s definitely one of those books I’ll re-read in the future. Now to move on to a new adventure – something sci-fi to balance it out, perhaps?