Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Last of the Wine

Mounting the Acropolis for the first time last month, it occurred to me to reread Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine. I'd read all of her historical novels and this had always remained in my memory as her best. It was her first (historical novel), written in 1956, after her initial six lesbian/hospital series, and immediately after her unique contemporary gay novel, The Charioteer (which we read some years ago). It covers the last thirteen years of the Peloponnesian War and the full run of the pederastic relationship of the narrator Alexias, from boyhood to manhood. "Gay" characters (I of course use the term loosely) occur in all her historical novels but this is the only one that centers on a relationship of classical pederasty.

What I particularly like about Renault's historical novels is that they are not costume dramas. Her characters are not Englishmen traipsing about in sandals and chitons. Her historical novels read as though that bourgeois concoction was in use some 2200 years before its invention in the eighteenth-century. Her style can seem elusive, even cryptic, but that's usually because of her fidelity to her characters' mentality and times. Some things are glossed over because any contemporaneous reader would need no explanation; others are touched on only lighty because none would be wanted. Additionally, Renault herself often writes allusively and laconically. An incident briefly mentioned on one page can be significantly alluded to a hundred pages later. One has to be attentive.

Looming behind the historical events in Athens and the fictive stories of Alexias and his lover Lysis is the figure of Socrates and the themes of courage and virtue. It is no sin for Lysis and Alexias to have sex (and you might not even realize they have when you read about it) but it's a falling off from their ideal, like going on a bender when you only meant to go out for a drink.

Part of the pleasure of reading a historical novel is being put into the mindset of another age. Another part, if one knows the details of that age, is simply (simple-mindedly?) checking them off as one comes upon them, somewhat akin to one's experience in reading a novel that takes place in a city one knows well ("oh yes, there's such and such and a few blocks on they come to that infamous locale" etc). I'm sorry not to recommend The Last of the Wine for group discussion (we've already read two Renault's, The Charioteer, and the weak middle of the Alexander triology), for I would like to hear, among other things, how well others who are not so familiar with the period enjoyed reading it as a novel. Purists of the old school could get quite persnicketty about these extra-literary elements but like the paradox of the heap the line dividing the literary from the extra- can be arbitrary or vague. If you know the extra-literary elements, your enjoyment of the work may be enhanced, and if others know them and enjoy them as well, you have a community of readers.

For the record I might state that the one competitor for Renault's best historical novel might be Fire from Heaven ... but I'll have to wait till I've visited Pella to reread that.

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