Monday 9 January 2012

My First History Teacher by Caroline Lawrence

The Last of the Wine
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.
So begins Mary Renault’s superb historical novel, The Last of the Wine, the book that changed my life. 

Until I read it, history had never captured my imagination the way some other subjects had, and certainly not the ancient history of the Greeks and Romans. 

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, I had brushes with the world of Classics: illustrated collections of the Greek Myths, my mother's glossy art books and the 1966 movie musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Aged 18 I even spent a few days in Rome and one magical afternoon in Ostia Antica.  

But none of those experiences ever tempted me away from the other worlds I longed to inhabit: the beatniky cool East Africa of Hatari!, the icy beauty of Dr Zhivago's Russia, the exciting universe of Star Trek. Because of those stories I threw myself into the study of animal behaviour, Russian and astronomy. But none of those disciplines took, and so the desire to inhabit those worlds gradually faded. 

Then, when I was 18 years old, on my gap year in Switzerland with a bad case of cabin fever, my parents sent two books as a kind of intellectual CARE package. Those two books that would alter the course of my life. 

The first book was The Iliad: the Penguin translation of E.V. Rieu. 

I had never read it before, and I loved it. What struck me most was that when the characters weren't battling or pillaging, they seemed quite modern. I remember being struck by one scene in particular, in which Hera and Athena have a chat on Mount Olympus. In E.V. Rieu’s wonderful translation, they seemed like women gossiping at the hairdresser's. I wondered how something composed so long ago could feel so relevant. 

The Iliad teased my brain, but the second book, The Last of the Wine, captured my heart. 

The story follows a young Athenian named Alexias as he grows up in Athens in the late fifth century BC. The book is mainly a love story, but during its course great events occur. Alexias meets Socrates, Plato and Xenophon. He campaigns against the Spartans, endures a siege, survives a famine, poses for a famous sculptor, runs the long race at Olympia and pursues a religious quest to Delphi. But he also engages in more mundane activities: like exercising at the palaestra, hunting boar, drinking at a symposium, going for walks with friends. 

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. 

tombs of the Kerameikos in Athens
It was compelling world and I longed to visit it. 

Katherine Langrish recently blogged about the amount of research Renault did in order to transport her reader to Classical Athens. The passage Kath quotes to illustrate her point is one of my favourites:
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 Last of the Wine p 4

Here is another one of my favourite passages: 

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.
The Last of the Wine p 269

Caroline & "research assistant" in 2004
Not only does Mary Renault capture the smells, sights, tastes and sounds of fifth century BC Greece, she also gets into the mindset. She vividly paints a world where very few women have their own identity so a love affair has to be between men. A world where abstract ideas are as real as pebbles, or swords. A world where the Greek myths are intensely relevant because the gods are still worshipped.

Every sentence in The Last of the Wine is a gem. You can open the book at any point and find a wonderful expression, description or turn of phrase. Here is another one of my favourites:

My garland slipped back on my hair as I ran; he put up his hand to it, and it fell behind me. I could hear the vine shedding its last heavy drops upon the terrace; the croak of a frog at the cistern beyond; and my own heart beating. 

When I got back to California after my gap year, I signed up to study Classics at U.C. Berkeley. I started learning Greek at the advanced age of 19 and Latin at 20. Learning these "dead languages" was both terrifying and fun. It was like breaking a giant code. And I discovered that the languages weren't dead. As I decoded the passages they revealed real flesh and blood people who had lived two thousand years ago. I found poets who made me blink back tears, young fogeys who made me snort, philosophers who confused me, historians who made me chuckle and gossip-mongers who had me running to my friends with details of a two thousand year old scandal. And it seemed inexhaustible. The deeper I delved, the more I loved it. 

Roman Mystery #10, set in Greece
Mary Renault had introduced me to a world I wanted to spend my life exploring. Since the moment I discovered her books, I have had part of my existence in the ancient world. After studying Classics at Berkeley and Cambridge, I taught Latin at a London primary school. And for nearly fifteen years I have been writing an ongoing series of Roman Mysteries books for kids. 

But I have also discovered other historical periods I love: Israel of the Old and New Testaments, the Napoleonic period as described in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series and the Wild West of Charles Portis's True Grit, which has sparked my second series of historical novels for kids. 

And this life-long love of other places in other periods all started with a novel written by an Englishwoman born in 1905, a woman I never met and of whose personal life I knew next to nothing: Mary Renault, my first real history teacher. 


Katherine Langrish said...

Oh what a marvellous post, Caroline! You're so right, one can open her books anywhere and find something amazing. I've never learned Latin or Greek, but because of Mary Renault I began reading Plato in translation, years ago in my teens, in those wonderful black-spined Penguin editions, It all goes to show how true it is that books can change lives!

adele said...

I quite agree Caroline! Marvellous post altogether. Iliad being so modern is what struck my daughter when she first read it. Couldn't believe that Homer was writing about stuff that she herself experienced.

Mary Hoffman said...

I came very late to Mary Renault and read The King Must Die and the Bll from the Sea with great enjoyment. Some marvellous stuff in there. But I found The Last of the Wine very hard to get into after those two. At last it began to work its magic but it took a while.

It was very elegaic, I thought.

Now I want to read the Alexander trilogy.

I did Classics A level (Latin and Greek - this was long before you could do "Classiv" without knowing the languages) and am so happy that I did.

Wonderful that Mary Renault (who always sounds to me like me and my car) changed your life so radically, Caroline!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, The Last of the Wine is a bit intense at times, but I think that can make it all the more appealing to teenagers. And the things that capture our hearts at that age will always remain dear.

I re-read it every few years, but mostly just do random dips, to get a taste and remind myself of its flavour.

parlance said...

Oh, I'd forgotten how I loved her books. There was a period in my life where I devoured one after another. I must go back and re-read some of them. I travelled to Greece quite a few times in my younger years and the places came alive for me because of Mary Renault's novels.

I've just read Pompeii, by Harris (forget his first name) and now I'm in love with water engineering - and I want to go to the Bay of Naples.

Linda B-A said...

I have not read THE LAST OF THE WINE by the wonderful Mary Renault so can now look forward to losing myself in an inspiring work of fiction. What a dramatic opening paragraph! Thank you for sharing this with us.

Leslie Wilson said...

I do so adore her work - and yet sometimes I do long for a woman.Of course there is Hippolyta in THE BULL FROM THE SEA - but what about some of the famous courtesans, like Aspasia, was it? They must have had a life, and it must have been documented a bit? She is quite dismissive of women, in a way - or am I wrong? I read The Friendly Young Ladies, but that was such an unrealistic portrait of lesbianism. However, I suppose nobody can totally transcend the time they were born into...

Mary Harrsch said...

Caroline, it has been years since I read "Last of the Wine" and your post makes me want to revisit it. I read it after finding Renault's "The Persian Boy" at a dusty little antique shop out in the wilds of eastern Oregon of all places. "The Persian Boy" was so compelling that I read the other two novels in the Alexander trilogy then discovered the entrancing "Last of the Wine". Since then I have also read most of Renault's other novels and her nonfiction work "The Nature of Alexander". I credit Mary Renault with my fascination for Alexander the Great and the ancient Greeks which I have since assuaged by reading Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire", "Tides of War", "Virtues of War" and the "Afghan Campaign" since Renault is no longer with us.
But I must credit Colleen McCullough's "First Man in Rome" as the novel that first ignited my passion for the ancient world and the Romans and Julius Caesar in particular. It set me on my current course of learning all that I can about the ancient world. It is McCullough's characters I imagined the first time I explored the Colosseum and the Forum Romanum. My first visit to Pompeii was another time travel experience I will never forget. I, too, have explored Ostia Antica and Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli brought the enormity of power exercised by the Caesars into clear focus. Sadly I have never had the opportunity to visit Greece and with the economy there in such upheaval it will probably be some time before I attempt it. I just hope I will be able to visit it and Crete (I've been fascinated by the Minoans since I was a little girl) before my life slips away as I am now retired with health issues creeping up on me as the years pass. Next year I hope to explore the Roman ruins of southern France then perhaps the Greek financial crisis will have resolved itself and I can finally visit some of the settings for Mary Renault's books by 2014 or so.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I hope you get a chance to visit Greece, Mary! It is a marvellous country. My three favourite places would probably be Athens in the spring or winter, Olympia in the summer, Rhodes Old Town in the autumn, and some nearby islands if you can fit them in...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Mary Renault was my "gateway drug" to falling in love with ancient history as well! After reading this post, it may be time to pull them out and re-read them.

Leslie Wilson said...

I am actually reading The Last of the Wine, having bought it second hand before Christmas. It has me riveted as always. And yet - there are some fascinating vignettes of women - she did have a woman philosopher, who actually lived (I mean there was such a person among Plato's pupils.) I feel as if she regarded herself as a man. Very glad to read your post, Caroline!

fionadunbar said...

Wonderful post, Caroline. I'm curious about The Last Of The Wine now; The Alexander Trilogy made a huge impression on me, and has stayed with me ever since.

Ali said...

Great post, Caroline. I first read The Mask of Apollo when I was about 11, after a reference to it in one of Antonia Forrest's Kingscote School books. I couldn't really make head or tale of it! I read it again aged about 20 and loved it.

Chimney Sweep Portland said...

I love your blog. Happy New Year!

Caroline Lawrence said...

I've just glimpsed a proof copy of "Gods & Warriors", Michelle Paver's new Bronze Age series, published by Puffin August 2012. If anyone could shoulder the Mary Renault mantle for the YA market of the 21st century, it could be her!

A great writer and kindred spirit! :-)