A Father, a Son and an Epic
In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.
Mendelsohn is slightly concerned when his father asks to join his seminar. They have an uneasy relationship: Mendelsohn senior is an uncompromising autodidact, a kid from the Bronx who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a successful research scientist. He admires precision and absolutes, while Daniel distrusts numbers and has devoted his life to critiquing texts both ancient and modern – a ‘soft’ task in which there are no firm answers. Yet he knows how much his father loves to learn, and his grief at having given up Latin as a boy at high school, and so Mendelsohn allows him to join the discussion, wondering how this crabby old man will interact with his young students.
As they embark on their seminar, Mendelsohn finds that passages of the Odyssey spark off memories about his childhood and adolescence. Like a weaver at a loom (Penelope, perhaps), he twines these threads together, adding in a future storyline too – the tale of how he and his father, at the end of the term, embarked on an Aegean cruise to retrace Odysseus’ journey for themselves. As he and his students parse Homer’s text, Mendelsohn probes ever deeper into his feelings about his father, implicitly becoming by turn both Telemachus – trying to understand the father he never knew – and Odysseus – facing the passage of time in the form of his own aged father Laertes.
But, as I said, this book goes beyond the seminar, using moments of the poem as leaping-off points. One of the themes that had particular resonance for me was Mendelsohn’s celebration of good teachers. He recalls a series of inspiring mentors who introduced him to opera, to the joy of classics, to music and wine and philosophy. His memories made me think of the handful of teachers who did so much for me at school, especially Jan and Moira, who pushed me to think and explore far beyond the bounds of the curriculum. As Mendelsohn says:
The best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him.
Fittingly, his book puts this into practice. There are wonderful digressions into Classical culture and etymology which, being a complete geek, I thoroughly enjoyed. In one section, Mendelsohn distinguishes between the different words we can use for moving from one place to another, probing their histories in a way which reveals tiny shifts of meaning. He notes that ‘voyage’ comes ultimately from the Latin ‘viaticum‘, meaning ‘provisions for a journey’, hence, the things that happen while travelling. ‘Journey’ comes from the French ‘jornée’, meaning ‘a day’s travel’ and thus refers more precisely to the time spent moving. And ‘travel’ itself, of course, is kin to ‘travail’, alluding to the struggle and effort of crossing a distance. And then there are the Greek words, which thrill me even more because they’re so exotic and unfamiliar to me. It was from Mendelsohn that I grasped the original meaning of ‘nostalgia’, which I wrote about the other day.
And what of names? This is equally revelatory. I’d always just assumed that ‘Odysseus’ was a name, like ‘Bob’ or ‘Fred’; that it had no deeper meaning; but of course I was wrong. It comes, Mendelsohn points out, from the Greek ‘odynê‘: ‘pain’. Odysseus means ‘the man of pain’, literally a ‘man of sorrows’, a hero who becomes weighed down by his quest to find his way home. Then there are questions about the structure of the poem. Mendelsohn makes fascinating points about the Odyssey being almost a mirror image of the Iliad: rather than blood, and gore and combat, it explores ‘what a hero might look like once there are no more wars to fight‘. He lingers on the quality of homophrosynê or ‘likemindedness’, which Odysseus recommends as the most important attribute of a marriage, which is so evident in his own bond with Penelope, and which Mendelsohn searches for in the match between his own parents.
There are echoes of the Odyssey within Mendelsohn’s own story. For example, a bed with a secret lies at the heart of Penelope’s reconciliation with her absent husband. In a curious echo of this, Mendelsohn still has the bed which his father made for him when he was a little boy, cunningly adapted from an old door: a secret which only the two of them share. In a relationship where so much lies under the surface, rather than being articulated, this bed becomes a potent symbol. And there are many questions which Mendelsohn asks of Odysseus, which he finds himself also asking (inwardly) of his own father: ‘Which is the true self? … How many selves might a man have?‘
You don’t actually have to know the story of the Odyssey in order to enjoy this book: Mendelsohn writes for a general audience and is extremely good at explaining who all the characters are and what’s going on at any particular point. But he makes you want to read it. He conveys the thrill of passionately engaging with a text: the joy of sudden understanding; that elusive ‘eureka’ moment. He made me feel, as Donna Tartt did in The Secret History, the disappointment of not being able to engage with these works in their original languages – but he offers up his own lively translations to give us a taste. In the wake of this book, I’m already raring to get back to the Odyssey – though, fond as I am of my old Lattimore translation, I wonder whether Mendelsohn might ever be persuaded to publish a translation himself. It’d be great to have a more modern balance between grandeur and playfulness; and Mendelsohn’s notes would be fascinating.
In the meantime, I may have to seek out some of Mendelsohn’s other works. Fortunately, he has published quite a lot: more memoirs, some essays and a translation of collected works by the Greek poet Cavafy, whose Ithaca he discusses briefly here. I think I’d be quite happy to read pretty much anything he’s written about anything. But there is something very special about this particular book, both as quest and memorial. Mendelsohn speaks at the end of Greek tombs, which were furnished with inscriptions detailing the great deeds of the heroes who lay within. In a way, it seems that this personal and poignant Odyssey serves a similar function for his father.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.