The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

The Charioteer

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The Charioteer
by Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Though she’s better know for her rigorously historical fiction about Alexander the Great, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer was a very significant novel for the 1950’s. Historical fiction affords the author plausible deniability for their support of homosexuality, but The Charioteer was contemporary fiction, and one of a very, very small handful at the time positively depicting homosexual love.

Laurie Odell is a patient at an English veterans hospital recovering from an injury sustained at Dunkirk during WWII. He shortly becomes fast friends with Andrew, one of the orderlies and a conscientious objector, and soon their friendship evolves into something more. But Ralph, an old friend of Laurie’s from school, reappears and introduces him to a community of established, jaded gay men, and Laurie must choose between the physical and practical pleasures of Ralph’s world and the innocent and idyllic love of Andrew’s.

I’ve come to think of Renault’s The Charioteer as the gay Pride and Prejudice, not because the plots are particularly similar, but because she and Austen both approach romance with an earnest, honest, and literary pen. There is no love at first sight or perfect partner because loving another person is very difficult, and Renault is dedicated to exploring that process. It’s a slow burn, both for the plot and their relationships. A modern American reader might find some of the language or dialogue to be a little perplexing, though an English one will likely feel more comfortable.

Fun fact: Renault takes her title from Plato’s famous Chariot Allegory presented in the Phaedrus (which will someday appear on this blog). In it, Plato imagines a charioteer whose vehicle is drawn by two winged horses, one of which is noble and beautiful while the other is the opposite in every way, and their competing personalities make piloting the chariot very challenging. The first horse represents rational, positive passions such as morality, whereas the second symbolizes irrational ones like appetite or lust, and the charioteer must control both in order to guide the soul to truth.