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The Last of the Wine
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Fantasy > The Last of the Wine - Mary Renault

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message 1: by Yoly (last edited Jul 26, 2020 05:49PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments I started reading this one last week. I think I'm only like 8% into the book but I already love it.

This is my first Mary Renault book, and while I've never been very good with history, the greeks, the romans and egyptians (but mostly the greeks really) were my favorites in history class. I want this book to be the first of many about Greece.

I am doing very heavy use of the dictionary/wikipedia feature of the Kindle, this is making my reading experience so much richer. I'm really enjoying it.

Is there anything I should be looking up on the internet to make my reading experience even richer?

Gary | 1472 comments I'll probably pick this one up sometime this week, but just by way of starting off, I'd like to note how extraordinarily strong the opening lines are:
When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

You will say there is nothing out of the way in this. Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose; for as a rule, when a father decides to expose an infant, it is done and there the matter ends. And it is seldom a man can say, either of the Spartans or the plague, that he owes them life instead of death.
Man, that's a powerful start, and I'd argue the chapter starts strong and stays strong. We've read a few books with really great starts (Shirley Jackson leaps to mind...) but that's still up there.

It could, arguably, be a bit shorter and pithier. Ex: "Call me Ishmael." "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." Still, I rank that on in my personal Top 10, probably Top 5 most powerful openings to a novel.

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments Yes, that first paragraph grabbed my attention immediately.

Gary | 1472 comments Yoly wrote: "Yes, that first paragraph grabbed my attention immediately."

It always blows me away.

Yoly wrote: "Is there anything I should be looking up on the internet to make my reading experience even richer?"

Off the cuff, I think a general knowledge of Socrates would be good. Renault was herself an accomplished historian, and her novels weave into the history neatly, so it's interesting to see how she goes about that. I'd stay away from anything too in-depth, just because it might conflate strangely with the text. Some basic info on Athens' political system would probably be good too with the same proviso. The war itself might not be necessary to get into outside her text. She goes into it pretty extensively--if from a persona/historical fiction level rather than from a more academic history sense.

Gary | 1472 comments OK, I picked this one up again last night, and other than reiterating that the intro is so strong, I have to note how immersive it is. Renault was a scholar of the period, so it tracks as well researched and accurate, but she manages to put the reader into the mindset and culture in a way that more exclusively dedicated historical fiction authors aspire to but fail.

I like Phillipa Gregory's work, for example. I think she does an interesting job portraying the centuries on either side of the Tudors, and she's a good storyteller. Maybe it's the liberties she takes with some of her material, or maybe there's something about the narrative voice/dialogue, but her work doesn't quite get there the way Renault's does. That's not really a bash, mind you. Renault is kind of the gold standard here, and Gregory has a somewhat contemporary sensibility in her audience that she's writing to. It's not apples and oranges, but it might be apples and apple pie, if you will. Same basic ingredient, different prep and outcome.

Point being, when I read Gregory it tracks like someone telling a story, but when I read Renault it tracks more like the characters telling their story.

message 6: by Gary (last edited Aug 10, 2020 01:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments Some Wikipedia references for this book. I'll add them as I go through it:

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments I'm around chapter 8 I think.

So, for more context, I ended up watching this video on the Peloponnesian War and listening to this episode on Socrates both were very useful.

Renault was a scholar of the period, so it tracks as well researched and accurate, but she manages to put the reader into the mindset and culture in a way that more exclusively dedicated historical fiction authors aspire to but fail.

Yes! It's amazing how everything feels so real on the page. I feel like I'm there. Not many authors are able to do this for me, not even with fantasy or sci-fi. I also love the narration, because it doesn't feel as contemporary, which I will confess, I was a bit worried at first because I thought it would make the book hard to follow, but I was very surprised to find out that I am able to follow the story somewhat easily. Using the dictionary and searching on Wikipedia/Google has helped a lot.

Gary | 1472 comments There's a really great example of the kind of immersion she engages in when she introduces Autolykos:
Someone had said that Autolykos the athlete was wrestling in Taureas' palaestra, so we asked our tutors if we could watch. They agreed to pass through but not to stop. We found that Autolykos had finished his bout and was taking a rest; the place was full of people admiring his looks and waiting for him to wrestle again. A statuary, or a painter, was sitting and making a sketch of him. He was used to all this and took no notice of it.
She'll revisit that whole sequence neatly later, but note how recognizable it would be today. Fans standing around gawking, a "paparazzi" doing his thing, while the star is blase. The tutors hedge their permission to stop and see the famous athlete, but then there's whole scene, so they clearly stopped to watch themselves. It's a neatly done sequence.

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments I had to pause my reading for a couple of weeks, hoping to pick it back up again this weekend.

I do remember that part you mentioned, and compared Autolykos to a modern day celebrity. And then I also remembered Autolykos from Xena and Hercules who was a master thief 😁

message 10: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments I'm taking my time with this re-read, so there's no hurry.

I just got to the introduction of "Aristokles son of Ariston" (nickname: Plato) and it's one of those moments I love about her work. I remember the first time I read it and thinking how interesting it was to "encounter" Plato as a young man. It's been a few years since I read any Plato, but you don't really get a sense of him as someone who had a childhood.... He's a statue in some museum somewhere from which ideas sprung.

Interesting to read about him as an actual character. Dare I say, person?

message 11: by Gary (last edited Aug 27, 2020 08:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments I'm finding the military sections of this book much shorter (in terms of word count) than I recall them being. Maybe that's because of the drama of some of those sequences, but it surprised me how much shorter they actually were than in my memory. They're on patrol fighting Spartans for some time, and that remains in the text, but in my memory that was a few chapters of action. She gets them back to the city and starts in the rest of her narrative quickly. I think I may be conflating the first with the second war/battle sequence in my memory. Interesting.

Unpopular Ancient Historian Opinion: the Spartans were over-rated.

I don't just think that because of this book, of course. Aside from Alcibiades and the occasional "anti-Spartan" rhetoric/comment, which we must take as the narrator's POV, she doesn't really give the Spartans that much attention. I'd argue that if you actually look at what the Spartans did/were able to do versus the legends/myths, they don't really impress all that much. They certainly have their place in the Greek polity/culture, but fairly often they're the great warriors who show up late, or don't show up at all. They're the supposedly great military thinkers who wind up outmaneuvered or otherwise tactically defeated. They never retreat or surrender... except when they do. Etc.

I suspect a lot of the rhetoric about the Agoge, while certainly based on kernels of truth, also had an awful lot of PR associated with it. For instance, I'd suggest that the food the boys "stole" was likely as not often "left out" by helots who were well aware of the violence involved in their social system, and would--not being idiots--realize that it would be simpler and easier to "accidentally" leave out some food to be "stolen" by Spartan boys. There are any number of ways that system could have been subverted easily. That's not to say it was ALL a fabrication, of course. I'm sure they got the crap beat out of them. But it almost certainly was not the vicious 24/7 pit fight that it's often made out to be. It was a difficult way to grow up, but I'm not as sold that the process was as dire and dreadful as it's often presented. Even the already shrinking numbers of Spartans would have hardly lasted a generation or two had they really subjected 7-year-olds to a decade of treatment as harsh as is often presented.

My point being, I'm glad Renault doesn't amplify that myth.

message 12: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments Quick note: I'm finding this re-read very relevant to current politics.

message 13: by Yoly (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments I'm now on chapter 10. I'm at the part where you can see that Lysis is obviously into Alexias.

It's been a very slow read for me, but I'm getting there!

message 14: by Yoly (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments Gary wrote: "I'm taking my time with this re-read, so there's no hurry.

I just got to the introduction of "Aristokles son of Ariston" (nickname: Plato) and it's one of those moments I love about her work. I re..."

I just read this part. And thank you for mentioning this, I wouldn't have figured it out. I didn't know that was his name, and for some reason, looking it up on Wikipedia from the Kindle didn't give me any information either. I was able to get to it when I searched only for Ariston.

I agree, who would've thought of Plato as some "youth". That was certainly very cool to read.

With the character Phaedo I kept thinking about Plato's dialog of the same name, but I couldn't figure it if there's any relation, or is Phaedo a name like modern day "Robert" and it's just a coincidence? From what I read on Wikipedia, it seems to be the same person. Is this correct? I don't remember what that dialog is about, but I remember it from my Intro to Philosophy days in college.

Similarly, I noticed this morning that one of Plato's dialogues is titled Lysis. Any relation there?

message 15: by Yoly (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments Gary wrote: "Quick note: I'm finding this re-read very relevant to current politics."

I'm guessing you're referring to chapter 20 and Hyperbolos?

This part reminded me of a certain orange someone...

He was the vilest speaker I ever heard: vulgar, ignorant, not seeking to teach his hearers, but rather to stir in men as vulgar as himself the irrational excesses to which such people are prone; a whore among orators.

message 16: by Gary (last edited Sep 18, 2020 08:02PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments That one was was particularly apt for 2020. In general, though, I'm finding little things like the mob mentality that later appears in the book, the oligarchs who control Athens, and the anti-intellectualism that takes hold all have a lot of relevance to the current political climate.

America likes to think it's Athens (look at our capitol's early architecture) but it really tries to be Rome, but then it winds up being Athens again. Just not the period of Athens it was shooting for....

EDIT: Of course, also, later there's a (view spoiler) that hits the city.

message 17: by Yoly (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments I finished this last night. Wow, this book was an amazing experience!

I don't remember ever having learned so much from reading fiction. The las historical fiction I read was The Shadow of the Wind and while I learned a lot about Spain during Franco's dictatorship, that was nothing compared to what I learned reading this one.

I did tons of Wikipedia searches, and watched some related videos online, and while I still have a few articles on bookmark to read later, I learned more about Ancient Greece than what I learned in school.

The last few chapters were intense, some very very sad, like you said, other things felt so familiar that it was kind of scary. It's like humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes, or maybe it's just human nature and this is who we are.

I'm so glad I read this, thank you for suggesting it, I needed something to get me out of a long reading slump. My reading challenge now feels like an actual challenge with me being now 4 books behind, hahaha. I blame this pandemic. It took me close to two months to finish this one, but it was soo worth it!

It's amazing the power a good book has on a reader. This is one of those books that serves as a reminder of why we read.

After the book is completed, there's a section about the cast of characters that I wish I had read first, but maybe it was a bit spoilery to read before the book. That section answered some of the questions including one I had shared here before about Phaedo being the same one mentioned in Plato's work.

What other books have you read from her? I have the Alexander novels in one collection and I think the one about Theseus as well. I will continue with her work probably later this year or early next one, but definitely soon.

Here's a link to my full review

message 18: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments I still haven't finished this re-read. Someone threw a Star Trek novel at me (not literally) and I swerved to get through that.

Glad to year you had a good experience with this one. As authors go, Renault is pretty amazingly consistent. In part, I'm sure that's because she stays within a pretty narrow range of topics, and does the nose to the grindstone work it takes to turn out something worthwhile. In that sphere, she's damn near untouchable. I can't think of anyone who surpasses her in other genres. She probably has rivals in other genres. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series is pretty immersive too, for example, but

A. That much more recent history, and more comprehensible to the modern mind.

B. A whole series focusing on particular characters rather than ranging within the genre like Renault did.

Point being, if you're in the mood for a Star Trek novel, Renault probably wouldn't be a great, but if you want to experience "history as another country" then her work is a good place to go.

message 19: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments I finished up last night. I can really only gush about how much I like Renault's work. It's so absolutely chock full of historical references and inclusions that it would take at least two more books of similar length to annotate it properly, and that "world-building" (it's an historical novel, so re-world-building maybe?) drips off every page.

Other than that, the only thing I can say is that in my first reading of this book I didn't notice—or didn't get the significance of—the ending from Alexias' grandson (also named Alexias, son of Myron... because the generational naming scheme goes Myron/Alexias/Myron/Elexias/Myron... etc.) which mentions that he's the "Phylarch of the Athenian horse to the divine Alexander, King of Macedon, Leader Supreme of all the Hellenes."

Cheeky little bit there, when you consider the rest of her oeuvre....

message 20: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments This gal has an interesting overview of Mary Renault's life/work. Short bio, but she covers the broad strokes neatly:

message 21: by Yoly (new) - rated it 5 stars

Yoly (macaruchi) | 795 comments Yes! I smiled when I read the part about the "Phylarch of the Athenian horse to the divine Alexander, King of Macedon, Leader Supreme of all the Hellenes" part.

For me, this book was amazing, she was able to show me so much of Ancient Greece, that it felt like I time travelled and spent some time there.

I also watched this video last week after I finished the book. It's a panel of some people discussing her work, mostly focused on The Last of the Wine.

message 22: by Gary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gary | 1472 comments I hadn't updated my GR "currently reading" list for a couple of days, and I just got to that. It occurred to me when looking through my list of categories that I have a "history" category for straight academic books, and "historical-fiction" for more literary books. I checked both boxes for The Last of the Wine. I suppose strictly speaking, it's really an historical fiction, but it's the only book I can think of that I'm comfortable calling either or both....

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