Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Just finished reading...

...Mary Renault's THE LAST OF THE WINE.

After I read Mary Renault's THE MASK OF APOLLO last year (reviewed here), I was eager to start this novel by Renault, her first one set in ancient Greece.

In THE LAST OF THE WINE, written in 1956, we follow our narrator, Alexias, from early childhood to adulthood. And I must say, it was a rather dry start. I just don't recall MASK being dry but perhaps the fact that she wrote it in 1966 gave her a good ten years to adjust and refine her story telling technique for her ancient Greek timeline.

As I made my way through the book, each chapter struck me not so much as literature, but a list of facts: this happened, then this happened, then that happened. Renault was not an indulgent writer. She clearly did not believe in taking time to truly develop characters in a spiritual or psychological way (I wonder what she thought of Virginia Woolf?). Events and action. That was her modus operandi for this book. And to my surprise, her method does have a kind of cumulative effect. Reading accounts of our narrator's life--his participation in the Olympic games, his friendship and love affair with Lysis, his studies with Socrates, his military service, all against the back drop of instability and war between the Greek city-states--actually does build a character. She has a way of getting it all to accrue and to matter so I ended up caring about our narrator and his life when I thought I did not! Whether that is an accidental by-product of Renault's writing or whether it was carefully planned by the author is still a question I have.

I am torn between the idea that, at least in light of this novel, Renault is a kind of surface-y storyteller skimming along the top, and the idea that she knew what she was doing and measured out a careful and effective pace of action and time. I can't tell...and maybe that is not such a good reaction to have. Maybe it shows a flaw in the writing.

Aside from the mechanism of her writing itself, the book, like MASK, is impeccably researched. Renault was a true scholar and she spent a lifetime studying ancient Greece so she knew what she was presenting. The structure of life in ancient Greece--or contemporary Greece to our narrator--feels true and fleshed out. My reaction to her portrayal of ancient Greece in this novel is a little paradoxical (and has nothing to do with the story itself): it seems so different, a universe away from our own daily existence, with slaves and temples and women treated as property and hand-to-hand combat, and all the details specific to ancient Greece--and then as I was reading, I continually realized nothing has changed. Women are still treated poorly and in parts of the world, still considered to be property. We are all still at war--not with city-states obviously (although some backward states here in the United States are having a very hard time joining the culture of the 21st century, and make occasional noises about seceding), but with other countries, and with differing religions. How tiresome; when will we ever, as an entire species, get rid of this specter of "God?" "God bless America?" How about "God bless the world." Don't people want the whole planet to succeed? They live on the planet with everyone else after all; or better yet, how about "We bless ourselves"...how about people find the value in themselves that they want their god to find? Alexias and many other characters made offerings at the temples of different gods to ask a favorable outcome of something or other. And we, as a culture, tend to do the same. Instead of relying upon help from a supernatural force, it might behoove us to help ourselves.

I guess that is the universality at the core of the story, but there is something about it that feels different from the usual "universality" of something like Shakespeare: oh, jealousy or love is the same through the ages, yes yes yes, but when I live in Renault's ancient Greece, there are differences. The whole hand to hand combat thing is pretty horrific and immediate, and so reminds me of some of the harrowing battle passages in WAR AND PEACE. There are in that novel, and here too, depictions of a kind of war we as a species have not known for several hundred years, since the invention of the cannon and gun. These depictions are disappointing though, because I end up at the same place: it might not be hand to hand, but here we are, STILL at it, hacking away at one another. And another difference: the sexual logic is interesting as well. We know that it was common for younger men and older men to have mentor and sexual relationships. But what confuses me is how, at least as Renault shows it, a deep relationship can grow between two men, but then there comes a time when they both must abandon that for the younger man--or both men, soldiers for instance--to marry a woman. Maybe it is that I am looking through the eyes of someone who has fought for gay rights, and in this day and age when gay men (and women) are more and more accepted, I find it disquieting that these men, in a culture that did not frown upon homosexuality, were both somehow by turns encouraged to have and discouraged from having gay relationships. But perhaps that is the issue: for them, that is how it was structured and for me in 2015, I get to make up my own mind. I don't have to choose one thing or another because an arbitrary societal or cultural construct simply says I have to. But having said that, one of the biggest and most valuable pieces of the story is the enduring relationship between Alexias and Lysis. They start their relationship as a younger/older mentor-friend-lover structure, but as they pass the years, fight side by side in battle after battle, and after Lysis takes a wife, they remain entwined, head and heart. And that is a lovely thing.

Recommend? Hmmm. I'm not sure. If you are interested in ancient Greece, this would be a good way to learn about life in that time period...and as I have previously hashed out, it does manage to take hold of one. But if you are looking for literature and not just historical fiction, no, skip it.

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