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.
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An Unforgetable Novel
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.
Superb rendition of a brilliant book
- DJP OKeeffe