Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Following in the footsteps of Odysseus


"An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic" author Daniel Mendelsohn. Photo: Matt Mendelsohn
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Don't mistake Daniel Mendelsohn's "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic" (Knopf) for a mere memoir. It's that, too, as anyone who read the "New Yorker" excerpts knows. In its motivating story, gay classics professor Mendelsohn – who, with a friend Lily, has had two sons of his own – takes his elderly father on a package cruise of the Mediterranean Sea sites that figure in Homer's "Odyssey."

It's a story that could easily suffer death by a thousand cutes, but Mendelsohn's keen observations plumb the micro-emotions of the several stories interwoven here. The resulting book shares the spellbinding qualities of the Homeric original. With a bardic capacity for storytelling all his own, Mendelsohn succeeds by investing himself fully in the story rather than by telling it at even a degree of remove. "An Odyssey" is heroic in scope yet distinctly humble in manner, rescuing itself from self-parody by linguistic wiles worthy of its classical model.

Like Homer's, Mendelsohn's "Odyssey" is multi-layered. While it does start "in medias res," it's as inclusive – devouring might be a better word – as its many subjects allow. In brief, there are also the stories of the author's previous "life with father," an intricate dance one of whose tidier episodes is the son's coming out, to a father who could, least of all, appear or admit to have been uncomprehending.

Let me pause to say that it could very well be that the only things some readers may like about Jay Mendelsohn, who has since died, are Daniel Mendelsohn's durable affection for him and Daddy's (the author's usage, not mine) self-awareness, not to say pride, about his prickly personality.

As in the Greek original, there are pauses and gaps in that story – years of disengagement – that the author lets be in their own wordless eloquence. What slowly, painstakingly and with abiding, warm humor closes the gap are the son's pursuit of reconciliation and his comparably wily father's willingness to be pursued.

The story toggles between two cliches, both explicitly evoked. There's "like father, like son" and its near opposite, "Few sons are the equals of their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them." Over the course of the book they cease to be contradictory, becoming instead a creative, binding tension.

The one thing Jay Mendelsohn is willing to concede he left unfinished was a high school education in Latin that stopped just short of Virgil's "Aeneid." As if to make amends to himself and his son, he "volunteers" to attend the seminar Daniel – "Dan" as the old man calls him, the grating expressed in italics – teaches at Bard College. Jay, who promises just to listen, becomes, of course, a cantankerous – arguably the most obstreperous – classmate.

It is perhaps here, in the most contained of the book's settings, that Professor Mendelsohn's minute observations become both the most penetrating and the most astute. A witness of and a reactor to his father's provocative interjections, the designated prof seizes the opportunity to share all around – critically, with the reader, too – the echoes of the epic's themes across the centuries. Against all odds, these classroom scenes are some of the book's most charged, as the author rides the choppy waves of his students' responses to his testy father – bemused, amused, then attentive and ultimately appreciative.

“An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic” author Daniel Mendelsohn

But it is in those passages that the professor interjects his rich, thoughtful insights into Homer, while remaining both receptive and genuinely responsive to every one of his students' observations about the text. It's learning of a very high order, and, true seminar-style, Mendelsohn teaches rather than lectures. I assure you, no one, least of all the reader, nods.

Like Homer's "Odyssey," Mendelsohn's book has chapters, and sections within them. In true homage to the original, its magic is in moving from topic to topic, setting to setting, insight to insight, ancient to modern over what is sometimes no more than a paragraph break, and with no creaking of the narrative machinery. Few readers will have turned to this book for a deeper understanding of Homer, but fewer still will be able to resist the pull of the bookshelf or bookstore.

Mendelsohn, who keeps his technique largely invisible, points out similar authorial wiles in "Homer," now thought to be a succession of bards transmitting the story orally before it was assembled and recorded. One pattern he uncovers is that of the "ring narrative," which allows the storyteller to go back and forth in time, weaving a unified saga out of past, present and future strands bound by threads invisible to the listener/reader. It's precisely what Mendelsohn does, as stealthily, throughout his book.

The translations from the Greek are his own, but they do not slavishly adhere to the meter of the original. But the author's own style is no less remarkable, and flexible, than the amalgamated styles of the original. Mendelsohn's sentences are, by and large, Proustian in complexity yet as lucid and balanced as you would expect from someone intoxicated by language and languages, grammar and its deep contents. It's both dense and fleet, and wholly captivating.

As a meditation on filial love as candid, tender and in its own way ruthless as its counterparts in the Bible, Shakespeare and, you guessed it, Homer, Mendelsohn's book strives mightily and, like Odysseus, eventually makes it home. If you've ever had a parent, much that is written here will resonate deeply.


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