Entertainment | Books
|Mary Renault's 'The Last of the Wine' Reviewed|
Alex Gomez - PVNN
July 10, 2010
The first novel I ever read by this amazing author was Fire from Heaven, the first installment in her Alexandriad, (which went on to include The Persian Boy and Funeral Games). I found it in my high school library and was blown away by it, not only because it brought Ancient Greece to life for me but also because for the first time I read of the love story between Alexander the Great and his life-long companion and lover Hephastion.
Amazingly, the next book I read by Mary Renault was The Charioteer, which I also found in the high school library. It felt illicit to read these two books because they portrayed, unjudgmentally, love between men.
I was sixteen and in desperate need of some kind of counseling for my homosexuality, because at this point I still hadn't accepted the fact that I was gay. I was still trying my best to be straight, I'd already had a girlfriend at 15, had rudimentary sex with her, and found that it had not fulfilled me the way it should have. I was so confused and stunned by my own gayness and couldn't imagine anyone accepting it of me.
But reading Mary Renault (eventually I would read every book she wrote, including The Friendly Young Ladies, about lesbians, which kept me up all night because of its sheer brilliance) and realizing that one of the greatest heroes of all time was homosexual fortified me and gave the self confidence I needed to come out (which I didn't actually do until I was nineteen and had been dating a beautiful girl for more than a year.)
I came out as bisexual, which a number of fellow students were doing and being regarded as 'progressive' and 'cool' for it. Regardless, I still felt a phony, and after I met my first boyfriend and moved with him to Vancouver, I broke my girlfriend's heart.
I will never forget my mother's reaction after finding me in bed with my first boyfriend, who up to that point had been someone she respected and regarded as a good friend for me. I went up for breakfast and she said, "So, you're gay too." (My brother had already beaten me to the punch by coming out two weeks before and leaving home.)
I replied that I hadn't liked the way she'd phrased the question. Then she said, "So, you're gay ALSO." I laughed. She then went on to tell me that she was afraid I would never be happy, being gay. I told her that it wasn't the fact that someone was gay that made that person unhappy, but society's reaction to it.
I've always seen The Last of the Wine as the natural sequel to Renault's The Charioteer, because of the three male protagonists and would-be lovers in the first, two of them trying to live their lives according to Plato's (by means of Socrates) treatise on love, The Phaedrus.
Being set in modern times, near the end of WWII in Dunkirk, against the backdrop of a very 'relaxed' morality (to say the least) in the gay set in London makes a Hellenic love seem absurd and ultimately renders it impossible. The Charioteer was the last book that Renault wrote set in modern times; henceforth, all of her writing was set in Ancient Greece.
The Last of the Wine is narrated by Alexias of Athens and tells of his and others' quest for truth and beauty (the principal aims of most of the philosophers in Athens, particularly Socrates, and those who chose to study with him, before the beginning of the Peloponnesian wars, between Athens, a democracy, and Sparta, an oligarchy (in which homosexual love was virtually mandatory, at least among soldiers); which was to bring an end to what is commonly referred to as 'the Golden Age' of Greece.
We follow Alexias as he matures and grows more physically beautiful and the ways in which several of his male admirers court him, many of them in ways that end by shaming him, until he meets Lysis, seven years older, whom he commits to till the end of the latter's life. Lysis, as the elder lover, is compelled to teach Alexias honor, duty, warfare, hunting and general comportment; in short, how to be a man.
While one historian insisted that pederasty wasn't as influential in ancient Greece as Renault would have it, she defended and supported her views at the end of every single one of her historical novels by revealing her research and citing her sources.
Another critic accused her of writing gay sex too liberally, but the first time I read The Charioteer I would have completely missed the sexual union between Ralph Lanyon and Laurie Odell had it not been for their messing of the sheets on the second bed, and in The Last of the Wine, which she wrote so poetically and subtly that only a reference to Alexias' fleeting pain revealed he'd been made love to by Lysis.
While she wasn't trained as a classical historian, she ended by having a huge influence on the terrain and making it once again a worthy field of study, after it had all but been relegated to the past as an anachronism.
The effect that both The Charioteer and The Last of the Wine had on me was to give an unique ideal of homosexual love, and (I presume, through my own experiences) higher standards for it than the vast majority of other gay men that I've known and been involved with throughout my life, to the extent that I've been known to opt out of being gay, or become celibate for extended periods of time, or stating that I will only accept a Theban partner in war (someone who I would rather die than shame, and someone who would show me the same respect.)
I wholeheartedly agree with Renault (and this is a stance that served to alienate many of her gay readers, who originally mistook her for a man for her astonishing insight into their lives), that one ought to strive to be human first rather than gay, because what this world needs more than anything else is responsible citizens and not subgroups that cling to particular social traits they happen to share. It needs the common cause of humanity in order to put a stop to inhumanity.
For this and other reasons, I've always felt like an outsider to the 'gay scene,' with its principal focus on sex and sexual affairs, fashion, 'gay humour' and other superfluous, and mostly incidental, themes. I also believe that queer people, as much as they owe it to their heterosexual families and to their future selves, should strive for human rights rather than 'queer,' lest the current governments and other influential sociopolitical organizations institutionalize a certain way of being queer that will end in atrophy and the negation of a freedom to evolve for the coming generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual people.
To be human, at least to me, means to be flexible, evolutionary, revolutionary, accepting and respectful of difference, and capable of creating change.
Alex Gomez is an award-winning writer. he's written numerous short stories, hundreds of non-fiction articles and two serious novels. Writing makes him happy and nothing can kill him now.
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