Alexias, a young Athenian of good family, grows up just as the Peloponnesian War is drawing to a close. The adult world he enters is one in which the power and influence of his class have been undermined by the forces of war, and more and more Alexias finds himself drawn to the controversial teachings of Sokrates.
Among the great thinker's followers, Alexias meets Lysis, and the two youths become inseparable, wrestling together in the palaestra, journeying to the Olympic Games, and fighting in the wars against Sparta. On the great historical canvas of famine, siege, and civil conflict, their relationship captures vividly the intricacies of classical Greek culture.
©1956 Mary Renault (P)2015 Audible, Ltd
This book sparked my interest in Classical Greek history. Since subsequently studying the period in some depth the novel's greatest use is that it fleshes-out the various important events and characters and helps establish a mental map of the period. While Renault uses artistic license the actual bits of history taken from primary texts remain untampered (at least to my basic understanding). The novel certainly brings to life this amazing period and helps colour the fragmentary texts time has left us.
I find many parts of the novel evocative, one example being the opening. Her imagery is powerful enough to engage all your senses so you can feel the morning air and smell the baking bread. Indeed, despite my numerous readings, the book still has the power to move me. For someone who had never visited Greece (so I believe), Renault does an amazing job taking the reader there. And as a bonus, all those terms you're never sure how to pronounce are rendered for you.
Undoubtedly, the fact he is so 'invisible.' He has the ability to give each character their own voice without putting himself between reader and character.
I remember exactly when and where I was when I first picked up this book - RAF Gatow junior ranks mess, 1983. And the edition I was reading was a yellow covered one. (I've since bought other copies.) I was playing at the Berlin Musical Pageant at the time but the book had such an impact on me that the following year I composed an orchestral suite based on it. It remains the only decent piece of music I composed.
As a young gay man in the military, the book probably had a greater appeal and fascination to me. The world of Alexis and Lysis was quite the opposite of the British military of the early 80's where we had to hide our sexuality and were subject to scrutiny if suspected. I like the fact Renault leaves the steamier side of physical relationships to your imagination and quite a few of my straight friends were able to enjoy the book without being put off by sexual details (gay or straight!) For me at least, Last of the Wine joins novels such as Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ode to Billy Joe and The Front Runner, all of which had a profound effect on me.
Beautifully read, with sympathy, colour and character.
An authentic account of this period, and frequently moving even in its understatement.
"Portrayal Unbridled Lust of a Bacchanalian? NOT!"
In the top five.
Philo a slave by war that after witnessing the deaths of his father and his lover and his mother being carried off as a victor’s prize, he is sold into slavery as a boy for hire. His salvation is his mind, who Socrates’ deems worthy, and entreats a wealthy acolyte to buy the youth and free him. Having done so, the wealthy benefactor employs him as a scribe; an occupation fitting for a foreign freeman. At the end of the book, he has a great speech in which he foreshadows Christ's rejection as the ultimate example of excellence and good being pulled down and killed by the masses so that we are all level and equal. Edwards portrays this soul with great sensitivity.
I am an unrepentant fan of Mary Renault when she writes in the historical first person prospective. I have read all her historical based books in my youth. Now that Audible is slowly making her historical works available in audio format I am thrilled to rediscover these literary treasures. In this work she has not disappointed me.
This book invites you into a first person view of what it was like to be born into, grow up, find love, participate in cities life in war and peace, and in victory and defeat. In this view the best ideals of the philosopher Socrates are modeled in the fully developed characters. Our heroes Alexias and Lysis model idealized male love in a pre-Christian era. They also model being able to love women, marriage, and rear children. All of this is set in the cultural morals, superstitions, beliefs, practices, and customs of classical Greek pre-Christian culture. As to her portrayals of war, nothing is more up close and personal then taking a human life with a sharp weapon. The wounds and death throws are described in the clinical detail of a medical professional. The author was, at one point, a nurse by profession. So she brings a gritty sense of reality to death by war and violence or death by starvation and privation.
This book is one of Ms. Renault best textured and multi layered books. The main characters are well fleshed out. You can read/listen to it to compare and contrast different political models and provide a critique of the best and worst features of democracy. It offers a Socrates inspired course in how to assess the character of men using politicians for fodder examples of bad character. Darn, if I can’t see the points when I apply these standards to today’s crop of village idiots seeking to lead us, or talking head commentators who stir up the public passions of the political mob for gain, while clouding or extinguishing the light of reason and compromise. The book provides excellent examples of the philosopher’s use of the socratic method of questioning and defining our terms in their never ending quest to find truth, beauty, love or “the good”. Philosophically truth, beauty, and love are all various aspects of “the good”.
The device the author uses to bring you through the womb of time into the third century BCE is the birth of our point of view storyteller Alexias. She sets about this much like a skillful bird builds a nest. She does not announce that this is a book set in at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars (about 429 to 404 BC) although it is clear that this is the framework that underpins it and upon which the nest will rest. However, it is not identified any more than a bird would say “In this oak tree and upon that branch I will build my nest”; if birds could speak. No she starts out adding little bits of domestic daub and wattle sticking together the bits and pieces of historical detail building a mosaic picture into the nest. In the first chapter we learn we are in Athens in springtime and the Spartans descend on the Athenian plain chasing farmers into the city polis of the walls of protection while the annual siege lasts. We learn that the Spartans a ruthless foe, burning the countryside farms with the exception of sacred places, like an olive grove or taking care not to deface an image of the gods. We learn that during this period, while the city groans under the weight of the increased population a plague breaks out killing our storytellers name sake uncle and his natural mother shortly after his birth. We learn that his father, Myron, a knight of the equestrian class, briefly considers having this weak premature child done away with through exposure but relents when he returns and finds his wife dead and the child suckling and thriving on a wet nurse. This daub is very clever as it immediately creates an empathetic bond between the audience and the protagonist first person viewpoint of Alexias, or your heart is stone. I could go on illustrating this daub and wattle mosaic nest metaphor approach but to do so would belabor what is the obvious about her style. It is painless history that carries you away into another time, place, and culture that is vaguely familiar yet strange, all at the same time. The domestic approach is familial, comforting, and form a portal through which we can view the cultural and historic oddities; embracing them as part of our modern identity. And that dear audience of this review is the genius of Mary Renault and why you should spend 16 hours and 35 minutes or 400 pages of your life getting to know her work through this audio book. The only thing the audio book missed was the glossary of terms the book version has.
A caution to modern day viewpoints: The classical Greek culture is very tolerant of sexuality in general. Although this book does present that aspect clearly and honestly in the two M/M pair bond heroes, it is done with taste and moderation to the sensibilities of its1956 copywriter audience. If you are seeking the unbridled lust of a bacchanalian portrayal this is not the audio book for you.
Barnaby Edwards is a British actor, writer, director and artist. He is known as a performer for the British science-fiction television series Doctor Who. He has also written, directed, produced or performed in over 80 Big Finish Production Company, “Doctor Who” audio stories. Alongside frequent radio and voice over work, Edwards has narrated over 40 unabridged audiobooks for Audible and others. His voice begins sounding old and solemn, perhaps even a bit stuffy, but can quickly morph into that of an excited youth, a pompous politician, or take on the hiss of evil incarnate. One can always rely on him for a good show.
"The Peloponnesian War at its finest"
An amazing story similar to gone with the wind in ancient Greece. definitely one of my favorite books.
"Beautifully written, beautifully read"
For lovers of Greek history, this book is pure joy tempered by sorrow. The writing is intelligent and poetic, the reader does the poetic prose justice. Mary Renault makes the Athens of the late 5th century BCE come alive through the story of Alexias and Lysis, two young Athenians who come of age during this turbulent period. The story begins with the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian led invasion of Syracuse and ends with the overthrow of the Spartan imposed oligarchy in Athens. I had previously listened to the abridged version of "The Tides of War" by Steven Pressfield, read by Derek Jacobi which covers roughly the same historical period but focuses more on the life of Alcibaides, the original leader of the Syracusan expedition. I found that what I had learned from "The Tides of War" was very helpful in following the "Last of the Wine", but of the two, this book by Mary Renault is the more poignant and thought provoking. There is so much here that is relevant today. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
"A worthwhile and thought-provoking read"
This book takes an historical plot line and peoples it with characters true to their time. There are no time-traveled sensibilities here, but an excellent portrayal of the challenges of a time of upheaval and change in ancient Athens. In the midst of this story the characters wrestle with questions of honor, faithfulness, political loyalties and consequences -- guided in their discussions by Socrates and other notables of the time. It's not only an historical novel, it's a study in character and the struggles all men face in choosing their path in difficult times. This makes it timeless and inspires the reader to study their own assumptions and reflect where their personal true path lies in our own challenging times.
"Standing the test of time"
With thanks to Audible Studios for recording Mary Renault's stories.
Unlike many authors read avidly in youth, this book still holds the enjoyment and the motivation to learn more of the time in which it is set.
Again, I did enjoy the various discussions and thoughts on democracy and a clear demonstration in 'conversation' of the narrow thinking expressed in regard to Alcibiades and Socrates. Tall Poppy Syndrome is not new either. The argument for developing the young mind and the need for a questioning mind is certainly well presented. Being placed in a time of war, with the focus on our young hero's coming into manhood, beset with the usual rites of passage allows us as the reader to experience the influence of culture and mores of the time.
Ihave often wondered at the breadth of understanding and compassion for a bygone time that is revealed about Mary Renault herself.
And a great story so well told.
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