Caroline Lawrence is a Californian who came to England to study Classics and never left. While teaching Latin and art at an independent London primary school she began to write The Roman Mysteries, historical fiction for children. There are now over 20 books in the series, which has been adapted as a CBBC TV show. Caroline is married to writer and graphic designer Richard (who does the maps and diagrams for her books) and they live in a riverside flat in Battersea. In this post she writes about Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine.
Caroline Lawrence on The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
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.
I love first lines, and that is one of the best. It is the opening line of Mary Renault's superb historical novel, The Last of the Wine. It is a book which did not merely change my life, but has kept it on a specific course for over 30 years.
I grew up in Bakersfield, California: an unsexy part of a sexy state. In a part of the world known for orange groves, mountains and beaches, Bakersfield is hot, dry and flat. But my childhood was happy. My younger brother and sister and I played in the scrubby fields behind our house, read books, and climbed trees. In the long summer holidays we swam during the daytime and were taken to drive-in movies at night.
I was good at school and enjoyed most subjects apart from mathematics, because I wasn't good at it, and history, which bored me. On my gap year, aged 19, I went to Switzerland to work in a ski chalet for three months. The plan was to ski by day, speak French by night, then use my savings to travel around Europe and Greece on a student rail-pass. The flaws in the plan soon became evident: my employer didn't pay enough for me to buy a lift pass, much less rental of skis and boots, so skiing was out of the question. Worst of all, I was in the part of Switzerland where they speak a dialect useless to anyone who does not live there: Switzerdeutsch.
Stuck in a snowbound chalet with no money, no recreation and no understanding of my fellow workers (or even of the TV), I resorted to reading two books my parents had sent me. These were to change the course of my life. Both were linked to Greece, where I planned to travel after my time in Switzerland.
Who knows if I would have read the entire Iliad if I hadn't had cabin fever? But I did. And I loved it. I remember being struck by one scene in particular, where Hera and Athena are gossiping on Mount Olympus. In E.V. Rieu's wonderful translation, those two goddesses seemed as modern as women chatting in a hairdresser's. I couldn't believe something composed so long ago could sound so contemporary. I determined to take a class in Classical Greek when I went to university to see if the Iliad really was that relevant. (It was.)
The other book my parents sent me was The Last of the Wine. From its gripping first sentence to its last, it held me. The storytelling was so vivid and sensory, it transported me to another world. It was like going back in time. For the first time in my life, history came alive.
The story follows a young Athenian named Alexias as he grows up in Athens. The book is mainly a love story, a very Greek love story. But around that love story great events are happening. Alexias meets Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. He exercises at the palaestra, discusses philosophy in the groves and colonnades, hunts boar, drinks at symposia. He runs a foot-race at Olympia, campaigns against the Spartans, sails on triremes and goes on a spiritual quest to Delphi.
It's all here, the total richness of Ancient Greece, a banquet of smells and tastes.
Our house stood in the Inner Kerameikos, not far from the Dipylon Gate. The courtyard had a little colonnade of painted columns, a fig tree and a vine... The roof had a border of acanthus tiles, and was not very steep. If one straddled the ridge, one could see right over the City wall, past the gate-towers of the Dipylon to the Sacred Way, where it curves towards Eleusis between its gardens and its tombs. In summer-time, I could pick out the funeral stele of my uncle Alexias and his friend, by a white oleander that grew there. (Page 10)
We sat on the slab of the public rostrum, and looked across to the High City. The columns looked black against a thin green sky, and the lamps shone yellow in the shrines. There was a smell of dew on dust and on crushed leaves; the bats came out, and the grasshoppers. (Page 197)
There had been snow in the night. It lay on the roof-tops, under a bright pure sky, thin, hard and glistening; whiter than the marble of Paros, whiter than our wedding robes. The lion-head rain-spouts on the temple roofs had beards of crystal a cubit long; the red of baked clay looked dark and warm, and white plaster like curdled cream. Helios shone far off and high, giving no heat from the pale heaven, only the flash of his silver hair. When we led the bridegroom to the house of the bride, the lyre-strings snapped with the cold, and the flutes went flat; but we covered it with our singing. (Page 254)
There are also wonderful moments of seasoning: seemingly casual, throwaway lines which paint a whole scene or character. Open the book up at any point and you will find the page crowded with such moments.
Mary Renault does not just capture the smells, sights, tastes and sounds of Classical Greece, she also gets into the mindset. She vividly paints a world where women live such cloistered, restricted lives that a true love affair has to be between men. This is a world where abstract ideas are as real as pebbles, or swords. A world where the Greek myths are intensely relevant and almost real. A world where famous names from history become living, breathing men.
Every sentence is a gem. You can open the book at any point and find a wonderful expression or turn of phrase. More than any other writer of historical fiction, I could believe that Renault had travelled back in time and lived in fifth century Athens for a year. The extraordinary thing is that Renault had never been to Greece when she wrote this. She did not visit until the final stages of writing The Last of the Wine. When she finally arrived in Athens, in the mid-1950s, she found that she had got almost every detail right.
It is now 35 years since I first read The Last of the Wine. Many of my opinions and attitudes have changed over that time but it is still my comfort book, a book I re-read every few years. It is so dense and detailed that I always find something new, and I am still in awe of Renault's ability to transport me to another era. My husband and I read in bed every night, usually in companionable silence. But whenever I read The Last of the Wine I always feel compelled to read passages out loud to him, marvelling as I do so. Luckily my husband is also a fan.