Mary Renault,
The Last of the Wine
(Pantheon, 1956;
Vintage, 2001)

Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine is about honor, duty, the horrors of war and its human cost, and the smallness and greatness of men. It is the memoir of Alexias, son of Myron, through his childhood and youth during the Peloponnesian War. He is a young aristocrat from a fairly conservative family at a time of great social and political change: Athens is falling from empire into ruin while democrats and oligarchs struggle for control of the city and many enemies circle for the kill. It is the time of Sokrates, Alkibiades, Euripides, the infamous Kritias, all of whom appear as characters. It is also an amazingly clear-eyed and tender love story.

The events are unexceptional, and in broad terms can be found in any history book. What brings this novel to the height it occupies is Renault's ability to breathe life into her characters and her love of the ideas that these characters represent. Even Renault's diction is Attic: Alexias, while a lively commentator, is also rather austere in his outlook, given on occasion to reflection in due measure, and dedicated to becoming the best man he can possibly be, partly because he would rather die than appear small in Lysis's eyes (his lover, of whom more is said later), and partly because that is the standard by which he has been raised.

The first part of the book, detailing Alexias' childhood and early youth, is full of fascinating detail on the daily life of a young man of good family in ancient Athens. The story of Alexias' courtship by his many suitors -- by the time he has finished his formal schooling and can be considered of appropriate age for such things, he has become a real beauty, and wine cups with the salutation "Alexias the Beautiful" are starting to make their appearance -- is tied intimately to the story of his association with Sokrates and the beginning of his search for the true and the beautiful -- in the Greek mind of Alexias's day, equivalents. And yet, Renault, in a very subtle way, forces us to re-examine the Sokratic ideal against the old ways, the worship of the gods as a matter of intuition, reason and its ideals against our primal instincts and their necessities. It is worth remembering that Apollo, the god of music and the clear light of reason, was also the patron of the oracle at Delphi, with its smokes and snakes and cryptic utterances. In this regard, Alexias' affair with Lysis, a man seven years older who is also part of Sokrates' circle, is a beautifully rendered example. They are, in a sense, blessed because the love they share is genuine and deep, but in trying to live up to Sokrates' ideal of a love from the soul, they forget that Eros will have his due, and he is a much older, darker god than Reason. They must, somehow, make accommodation between their ideals and their natures and, when they have done that, their love becomes truly an ideal: a love founded on trust and generosity, engaging them on a mutual search for the best in each other and in themselves, to find the seeds of honesty and integrity that we all have and to make them flower. Renault has drawn this in such a way as to say, "Yes, we must have our ideals, for, being human, we must strive for perfection; and, being human, we will fail. That does not mean we are any less worthy."

The central portion of the book is concerned with politics and war: the loss of the army in Sicily, the loss of the fleet at Goat's Creek through the incompetence of the generals, strife in the City between democrats and oligarchs, the rebellion in Samos that thwarts the oligarchs, the final siege of Athens, in all of which Lysis and Alexias are intimately involved. Renault is, in her own understated way and through the commentary provided by Alexias, scathing on the excesses of both factions.

The latter part of the book is, ultimately, truly tragic in character. Athens' defeat by the Spartans, the return of the oligarchs to power, the City's revolt against Spartan rule, the death of Lysis in the fighting, are rendered as intimate stories, from the viewpoint of one man, but achieve grandeur because we begin to understand the depth of the fall and the true cost of the loss of balance in the world. Alexias does reach a kind of peace, eventually, in the final pages of the book, remembering Lysis and seeing that, no matter the smallness of men in groups, what he and his lover fought to build can last, even if it is only there in one man at a time. He is someone who is eminently worthy of our respect and admiration, the more so because we know the price he has paid.

In large, this book is about the loss of the moral compass in a time of shifting standards, a time when gaining and holding power take precedence over morality -- one of Renault's perennial themes, which appears over and over in her works. In this aspect, it is frighteningly topical: who would have guessed that a book published in 1956 could so completely and accurately reflect the state of our world in 2004? Neither side is held up as the "good" side in the struggle between oligarchs and democrats -- ultimately, they are too much alike for either to be desirable, and Renault was too much the true humanist to think that anything as ephemeral as a political philosophy deserved primacy in her work. The contrast is between the factions on one side and Lysis and Alexias on the other, between the extremism of the politicians and the balance of the lovers. We begin to understand, I think, that "honor" is not an outmoded concept, a high-sounding word for historical romances or fantasy adventures, but something that we have lost and desperately need to regain. (A small irony for the present day: at one point, Alexias considers consoling his friend Xenophon for his apparent inability to love another man, the highest form of love, but leaves off: it is not really his business, and would be impolite.) We see it in bold relief when Lysis and Alexias compete in the Isthmian Games, Alexias as a runner, Lysis in the pankration (a kind of mixed boxing and wrestling). Bribes are offered to the runners, and although Alexias refuses, his pride in his victory is poisoned. Lysis is defeated and almost killed by an opponent who has no grace of form nor, apparently, any honor -- he has allowed himself to be shaped into a man with one purpose only, to win, and his concern for Lysis after their bout is only that if Lysis dies, he will be disqualified as victor. Alexias remembers his own work with throwing the lance and discus to balance his upper body with his legs, Plato running in armor to keep his proportions in balance, the men of Athens exercising in the gymnasium in order to keep themselves pleasing to the gods, and the result at the Games, where victory goes, not to the best man, but to the specialist, regardless of virtue.

Mary Renault was a fine writer, noted for her historical novels set in the ancient Mediterranean world. In this complex weave of ideas, personalities and events, she achieved a work that not only partakes of timelessness, but has startling relevance to our own time. That is, I believe, generally considered one of the hallmarks of a masterpiece.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 11 December 2004

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