Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last of the Wine

Title: The Last of the Wine
Author: Mary Renault
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1956
Rating: 8/10

Review: Chad suggested that we read The Last of the Wine as a group read. He learned of the book from Jo Walton's Among Others. After I finished reading the novel, I went back and took a look at what the protagonist in Among Others says about the book and honestly there's very little beyond the mentioning of Plato. So while I am completely mystified as to why this book stood out next to the million books mentioned in Among Others, I am really glad it did since I definitely enjoyed it.

There's a huge contrast to The Game of Kings, which I just finished reading. On one hand, the author manages to convey the feel of Ancient Greece perfectly well without using any sort of convoluted language and gets deep into the psyche of her characters who are the focus of the story. On the other hand, the contents of the plot are extremely linear and simple compared to The Game of Kings. It's funny how these two books are so similar at a glance -- they both have a fictional protagonist surrounded by historical figures, war, relationships, intrigue -- and yet, the two books couldn't be any more different in writing style, plotting, and the message they convey.

The Last of the Wine is written in the form of a memoir by a well-born Athenian named Alexias. He tells of his birth and boyhood, his friendship with Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, his relationships familial and sexual, and finally his fight against the oligarchs, Spartans, and others. The outcomes of many such stories could be easily predicted by someone who has studied the Peloponnesian War, but I am not one of these folks, so there was a sense of suspense for what will happen.

One difference from The Game of Kings is the way the history was presented; I didn't feel overwhelmed by facts and figures and factions. I have actually managed to get a feel for what happened in the conflict between Athens and Sparta and a general feel for the politics of the time. I still had to flip back sometimes to remember who was who at times, but it was definitely much more manageable a book.

I was really interested in the portrayal of the famous Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and I liked the way Renault imbued them with a sense of humanity despite the fact that Socrates seemed to be impossibly insightful all the time. It kindled my interest enough to spend a few hours on the Wikipedia today reading about the facts of these historical figures and it was surprising how much of this knowledge I already got from the novel.

Another unusual detail in The Last of the Wine is the focus on homosexual relationships between men. The book postulates that relationships between men were commonplace and encouraged and even codified by the Greek society. I don't know how historically accurate this portrayal is, but the relationship between Alexias and Lysis feels natural and genuine. This doesn't prevent them from having sex with women and marrying and the way the two are combined is internally consistent. Women get treated pretty much like property, rather than partners in the book, and the men lovers are the actual confidants.

All in all, I enjoyed The Last of the Wine despite the fact that the story didn't have a strong plot. The characters and the surroundings more than made up for it and I even checked whether there was a sequel to the story, but alas.


  1. You crack me up, in so many (and the absolute best of) ways! I'm really glad you liked it. I was worried that you're previously reading about historical fiction may have turned you off to this.

    Furthermore, I'll have you know that I have a copy of Lord of Light--which also came to me via Walton and yourself--waiting to be read!

    1. Awesome! Once again probably not the simplest book to read, but really cool. I love Roger Zelazny.

  2. I'm curious about the lacking a strong plot comment. For me, Alexias recounted an epic story that certainly kept moving and had me engaged continually. There were undeniable strong themes in her book. Of war. Of noble nature and loyalty vs. greed. Free speech. Philosophy. Downfall of Democracy. Possibility of love and attachment between men. Treatment of women. Personal sacrifice for others was there, again and again right through to Lysis trading sandals with Alexias before the fateful battle. How she revealed these details in subtle ways, Alexias' mended sandal revealed as the body was carried away, or when Lysis severely scolded him while washing the blood from Alexias' hair with Alexias not saying a word, or how they eventually made love by the sea. Her writing is such a gift.

    Renault's The King Must Die gives Woman and Man a somewhat different look. I recommend it. Startling and brilliant.

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    3. well as The Bull From the Sea, continuation of Theseus' story from The King Must Die