The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault, was hard work to read, although not without some reward. The writing style brought to mind the classics, the ancient texts of Homer, of Plato and his contemporaries, several of whom are name checked within these pages. Although I noted certain wisdoms it was not on a par with these venerated teachers. This was a story, but not one that held my attention sufficiently to enjoy.
The protagonist is Alexias, a young Athenian of good family whose fortunes are undermined by the ongoing Peloponnesian War. The causes of this conflict, along with many of the day to day customs and activities of the time, are not explained. The reader is expected to understand, or perhaps research, what many of the words and references mean. I found this frustrating. In my view, historical fiction works best when the reader is transported back to a place and time where they may experience the life lived for themselves. I did not feel this immersion as, too often, I could not picture what was going on due to the unfamiliar terminology.
Alexias is raised by his father, young stepmother, and slaves. Due to his standing in society he has time to listen to philosophers who oversee discussions in public places. News and views are shared orally with weighty debates encouraged, although the older generation are as wary as now of anyone promoting change or views which differ from their own.
Alexias also trains with athletes, representing Athens in prestigious games. It was interesting to note the celebrity status granted successful sportmen and artists. The ruling class were landowners, with tradesmen considered below them in status. Alongside the veneration of beauty and youth this all seemed depressingly familiar.
One custom which differed was the expectation that young men would take lovers of the same sex. Wives were considered possessions, required for housekeeping and procreation. Many girl babies were taken to the wilderness and left to die within hours of their birth as they were regarded as a burden to the family.
Alexias spurns the older men who approach him, choosing instead a lover, just a few years his senior, named Lysis. Together these handsome, privileged young men go into battle, first defending their home town from Spartan raiders and then later sailing to nearby islands to fight on land and at sea. When the war does not turn in their favour they must survive a lengthy siege. Much of the book describes these conflicts.
More of interest to me were the descriptions of home life and relationships, although the large cast and unfamiliar naming conventions made these difficult to follow over time. Women were ancillary, of use only as required by men. Animals were disposable and cruelty rife.
Alexias and Lysis support the Demokrats over the Oligarchs. After years of conflict they noted that amongst their compatriots were:
“men who had wanted, not freedom and justice, but only what some other man had”
“Democracy is only as good as the people, or as bad”
Describing a leader they could have been talking of today’s politicians:
“lives by denouncing and exposing while he is in credit, and, when he is out, by sycophancy and informations, with a little perjury thrown in.”
Alexias is advised to swallow lies if they are expedient. Despite the differences in customs, it seems little has been learned in two millennium.
Perhaps this is a book that will appeal more to those with a prior knowledge of Ancient Greece. I struggled on to the end and then wondered why I had granted it so much time. I did acquire some new knowledge, but it was hard won.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.